Archives For Leadership


Bloomberg published an article about why Indians in senior leadership positions are sought after and I found it particularly interesting that it was written by a non-Indian.  Leonid Bershidsky observed that Indians possess a mix of empathy, humility, patience and an ability to dream that make us good candidates for these positions.  Throughout the article, he provides a number of examples that make this case.

I felt a momentary privilege reading this, especially given I had never thought of this angle of analysis before – but, it strikes me that despite the huge amount of influence culture has on people, it’s not a single culture that leads to successful leaders.  For all the examples cited in that article, I can think of counter examples of Indian senior leaders that do not exactly fit that mold.

Indian culture inherently brings empathy to the forefront – it takes tremendous amount of effort for us Indians to get past the point of ‘feeling’ the pain of friends and family, and sometimes, even acquaintances.  There is too much emotion involved in just about everything.  This is what leads to large, joint families that quarrel and make up on a regular basis as if that was their main goal in life.

Humility and patience go hand-in-hand to some extent – in a country of a billion+ people, you often must earn your respect and it takes time. As to the ability to dream, I’ll get to it a little later.

What is intriguing about this article is that while it makes some valid points, Indians are not fundamentally born leaders.  Historically, India continuously submitted to external occupants and leaders and the war for independence was fought with tremendous patience and empathy – taking us back to reinforcements of those qualities.  Assertive leadership was never an option and there were instances where this was not quite desirable.  Whether the India-Pakistan divide was a result of this rather ‘soft leadership’ will be an inconclusive debate forever!

Coming back to corporate careers and particularly corporate America – an Indian without the impacts of western (particularly, American) education and work culture is more likely to be a misfit than a successful leader.  Of course, we can debate this and point out exceptions (there always are!).  But the real point is that it is worldly exposure and wisdom that ultimately brings out the best in people.  Cultures are also passed down very powerfully – just like traits that get passed on across generations, corporate cultures also flow down the chain.  A micro managing leader at the top is likely to create a ladder of micro managers under him/her.

For all the pluses that Indian culture brings to leadership, I can think of several cons as well that come with it – say, being a bit too passive or shy, dwelling on ideas for too long before making bets, etc.  It is the exposure to western cultures that teaches us how to balance these against aggressiveness and making calculated big bets.

All credit goes to the internationalization and a confluence of several cultures – the more exposed we are, the more rounded we get and better leaders we become.  So, never stop exploring – that’s the only path to being a great leader!

As to whether Satya Nadella would do great things for Microsoft – I have my biases and I’ll let them be for now!

boss vs leader

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to observe several mid, high and executive level leaders in action, in very close quarters.  I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with several of them as well as observe many more in their journey to deliver strategies and results. Those of us that have attempted leadership know that leadership is hard and involves much more beyond technical expertise. Every now and then, we run into leaders that are not great at what they do. After observing several managers and leaders, I’ve realized that there is one cardinal quality that makes or breaks a leader – and that is the ability to motivate people.

Especially for engineers, the ability to motivate is inherently hard.  This is because in order to motivate, they need to focus on the positives.  And as engineers, we’ve been trained to identify problems and continuously strive to optimize further.  A good engineer is able to identify problems, solve them and optimize the solutions until it is nearly perfect.  A less than perfect solution is not satisfactory. And this attitude poses a huge challenge as engineers grow to be leaders of other engineers.

Being an engineer as well as an Indian is a double whammy, speaking for myself. Indians are trained for competitive spirit with the mantra of being first and the best in everything we do. I am quite sure there are other cultures that fall into this category, but I cannot speak with confidence about that.

As I sat through all-hands meetings at various levels of leadership along the years, in successful companies nonetheless, I’ve seen some leaders that are able to instill an enthusiasm to deliver even more amazing things and some that are downright awful at inspiring.  For some, even as they talk about the wonderful accomplishments of teams, it is difficult not to follow that up with “but, we have big challenges ahead of us”.  This shows they never dwell in their glory and keep their eyes on the future (which is good for a leader), but, it also shows that they don’t quite understand what drives people.

This morning, as I fought one of my son’s worst tantrums as I got him ready to school, I gave in to my anger and frustration. Ultimately, I managed to get him in the car – but, it made me reflect on just how I failed on infusing the motivation of going to school (to be sure, I broke down after several attempts of motivation failed, but that is only incidental in the big picture). Engineering leadership is not unlike that.  We will run into people of varying capabilities and drives that makes motivating all of them a tough job.

Motivational ability is hardly a singleton quality in engineering leadership.  It is often the confluence of several other qualities.  Leaders that inspire must be capable enough in the eyes of the teams they lead or their words will not be construed as inspiration.  This does not mean that they know all the details of the team’s work, but it does mean that they can understand the details when they need to, connect the dots and provide guidance at just the right level.

Great leaders are those that junior members aspire to be someday.  They show by gestures that they care and want the best for their people.  Some of the qualities they possess are worth highlighting.

  • They take the time often to reflect on the team’s accomplishments and truly recognize them, in words and gestures.  Their voice shows they mean it when they publicly recognize the greatness of the team.  They say it multiple times to be sure beyond a doubt that the team understands how much their efforts are appreciated.
  • They take the time to learn how to say people’s names (they can never be caught pronouncing your name incorrectly).
  • They ask often how they can do better on ensuring a job match for you.
  • They don’t try to do your job for you. Engineers have a hard time with this, as they have this urge to do better and feel they can do better than others.  As they get less time for detailed analysis, this leads to frustrations on both sides.
  • They don’t wait to have tough conversations. They have it early so they can provide the opportunity to course correct where needed.

But, above everything, great leaders can motivate.  All else is secondary as they march their teams forward!