Position or perception?

Position or perception?

We admire leaders for their sterling qualities. With unshakeable virtuesas their constant guide, they elevate themselves to remarkableheights from where they singlehandedly become the movers and shakers ofhistory. However, theyalso intrigue us, leaving uswondering if they arespecial people with extraordinary powers,writes Dorothy Victor.

Decades ago, on a gloomy morning in one of the big cities of the United States of America, a negligent spark turned into a blazing fire in a small factory.

The lower floor was in ravaging flames and spreading rapidly, cutting off all avenues of escape.

Hundreds of young girls working on the upper floors found themselves trapped, facing imminent death.

A crowd soon gathered on the outside of the factory. Hopelessly and helplessly they watched the rising flames, desperately awaiting the arrival of the firemen, who they believed were the only hope to salvage the situation.

In that crowd, however, there was a young man who thought differently. He believed that there must be something that he could do.

So, while the others were engaged in futile shouting, his mind was busy envisioning a way to help. He surveyed the surrounding and hurriedly made a mental note of the distance between the burning building and the adjacent building in the alley.

Then, just as if he were in full charge, he gave orders to the bystanders and within a few minutes he had rustled a crew of six strong men. 

With a resolute spirit, he led the way and they followed him to the top of the adjoining building.

On his way up he had picked up a rope and his six followers had torn down a billboard and carried the planks to the top of the other building.

This self-appointed leader threw one end of the rope to a woman in the window of the burning storey and instructed her to fasten it.

He scaled the rope, carrying one end of a plank with him. His six helpers pushed out the boards they had carried up and soon they had completed a substantial bridge from one building to the other.

When the firemen arrived on the scene, nearly one-third of the occupants of the burning building were already out of danger!

Fast forward to a recent fateful day on April 16, 2014.

A ferry embarking from a pier in Incheon, west of Seoul, and heading toward the southern resort island of Jeju, with 476 passengers on board, capsized in the cold waters along a busy shipping lane down the west coast of South Korea.

With more than two-thirds of the passengers dead and missing, what made the disaster a most deplorable misfortune was the fact that its Captain, the appointed leader, escaped to safety, abandoning the people under his care to perish!

Who are leaders?

The above two calamities, though set in different time periods and with altered endings, have glaring similarities.

They were both man-made and were the result of a lapse or negligence.

Many precious lives were at stake and if not met with the urgency and grit that was required, would prove fatal for the good majority.

Both incidents called for a hero to emerge. While in the first instance a selfless champion aroused the leader in him to surface, in the second case, a self-serving coward ran away from the leadership role that was expected of him.

Who, then, are real leaders? Are they special people with extraordinary powers? Are leaders born or bred? Are leaders natural or nurtured? Are leaders talented or trained?

Are leaders those in a position or those with a passion? Are leaders pivotal or superfluous?

Seeking to answer the above questions, scores of management researchers and leadership gurus have studied the leadership styles and functioning of some of the world’s most revered leaders, all the way from Jesus Christ of Nazareth to Barack Obama of recent times.

The consensus of the findings point that no matter what the making of a man is, a leader is one who unleashes his power to awaken the exuberant human spirit resting deep within him to full consciousness.

This state of coming into consciousness drives him beyond himself towards a bigger cause in life until that cause suffuses into his being to bring forth concrete actions that guide and help others around him to forge ahead.

With unshakeable virtues as his constant guide, he is in short that ordinary man who elevates himself along with the human race to extraordinary heights from where he singlehandedly becomes the mover and shaker of history.

Leaders all

A peep into history confirms the thesis of ‘going beyond oneself’ that forms the nucleus of a leader.

Every past leader of repute exhibited this one desire to serve his fellow human being, in his sterling leadership journey.

Abraham Lincoln toiled with his belief that ‘All men are created equally’, until he emancipated every slave from the curse of slavery.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought tooth and nail to end the era-long segregation of people based on colour.

His ‘dream’ of judging men by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin eventually became a reality and the biggest victory in all civil right movements of history.

A kindly lady called Florence Nightingale who believed that ‘Mankind must make heaven in this world before we can go to heaven’, pioneered professional schools for nurses and hospital care worldwide.

Mahatma Gandhi took his vision of ‘Swaraj or self-rule’ to a whole nation to bring them freedom from colonial rule.

Nelson Mandela championed the noble cause of putting an end to apartheid from within the four walls of his prison cell for 27 long years.

Babe Amte was so moved by seeing a fellow-human being with ‘no limbs and only two holes in the face where once was a nose’, that he created with his bare hands a sanctuary for lepers.

Mother Theresa who saw God in ‘the dying, the crippled, the mentally ill, the unwanted and the unloved’, established a new congregation to work tirelessly for the sick and the destitute. 

Steve Jobs’s passion for excellence made him an all-time charismatic pioneer of the personal computer revolution.

A great leader is thus a person who ‘takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be’.

His sensitivity towards anything that is not aligned to the basic rules of fairness in life is so intense that he culls out a leadership role for himself in order to straighten the misalignment.

Leadership, thus, does not boil down to those in power or positions.

Considering that the distinguished leaders mentioned above and hundreds of other leaders, both past and present, were mostly men of the common folk, leadership is something that is opened to anyone who can perceive his role in society as an ennobler, someone who can take the human race to a Utopian world. 

As Nepoleon Hill, the author of the runaway bestseller, Think and grow rich, put it, “Leadership is something which seldom comes by invitation.

It is something which you must invite yourself into. There is a fine opening for a first-class leader everywhere.

But he must be a man who is willing to do the thing that ought to be done without someone telling him to do.

” What he is suggesting is simply this — that leadership is something that is available to every man from every walk of life, only if he can think beyond himself. Thus, those who are absorbed in some cause, infinitively bigger than themselves, whether they are great or lowly, mighty or humble, scholarly or illiterate — are indeed, leaders all!

The evolved leader

The concept of leadership, as it stands today, has undergone three distinct stages.

In the first stage of the agrarian era, leadership was primarily influenced by family culture.

As work revolved around agricultural holdings of the family, the general outlook and values of the family formed the core of leadership style.

The industrial revolution that followed took a more objective view of leadership.

This was because maximisation and cut-throat competition were the founding doctrines of the industrial era.

Besides, the world-wars of this period left the masses demoralised to an extent that the common man looked up for direction and discipline. The ‘command and control’ style of leadership became more relevant.

Finally came the information and technology era where an avalanche of technology reduced the world to a global village.

The nuances of distance, time and place ceased to exit. Great energy and excitement began to build up around the whole leadership field and several philosophies of leadership have emerged.

No matter how they are worded, there is now a clear understanding on what makes an esteemed leader.

The real leader envisions the impossible. He charts a course of action to achieve the impossible. He gets others involved.

He influences them, empowers them, and with his own good example, leads them to action.

He considers the past, evaluates the present and creates a future where the full potential of his followers takes wings and soars.

He becomes an inspiration for others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more of themselves.

He takes his followers on an innovative journey to arrive at a place that was perceived to be infeasible.

He removes all barriers and road blocks along the journey. He is empathetic, supportive, encouraging and motivating.

He aids, assists, cajoles, guides and leads his followers to greener pastures.


He is sincere, selfless and serving. He is constantly looking for newer ways and alternative paths.

He is a visionary, an educator, an innovator, a communicator, a facilitator and an advisor, all rolled into one.

Leadership, thus, as Peter Drucker would say, “is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

Leadership, on closer examination, is really about how it is perceived.

Positions and power are irrelevant. As James Gregor Burns, the Pulitzer Prize winner and a Senior Scholar at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, Virginia, in his book Leaders who changed the world writes, “No leader can truly lead if he cannot respond to the wants of followers, if he fails to elevate and empower them... And leaders cannot be effective in the long run if they are simply power holders — rulers — and fail to see the moral and ethical implications of their work.”

The last attribute

Though leadership is a call meant for all, history and statistics tell a different tale.

True and genuine leaders who have changed the way men live and grow are but a countable few.

The fact that a leader must envision the impossible, believe what is right and lead others to action makes him a loner, an island.

He is there in the front line leading, believing, initiating, influencing and motivating unreceptive others to action and final victory.

It is very essential, therefore, that over and above the essential core that makes up a never-say-die-leader, he needs that one last attribute that will energise and sustain him.

In their book Leadership Challenge, authors Kouzes and Posner very convincingly single out that one final attribute that help men fight all odds and help them transcend obstacles and barriers that discourage an average man in his leadership journey. This is how they script their findings.

“When we began our study of leadership bests, we were fortunate to cross paths with US Army Major John S Stanford. He had survived military tours in Vietnam. He went to head up the Military Traffic Management Command for the US Army during the Persian Gulf War. When he retired from the Army, he was recruited to become superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools, where he sparked a revolution in public schools. All of his service was impressive, but it was his answer to one of our interview questions that most influenced our own understanding of leadership...

We asked how he would go about developing leaders whether at Santa Clara University, in the military, in government, in the non-profit sector or in private business, and his reply was, ‘The secret is to stay in love.  Staying in love gives you the fire to ignite other people, to see inside other people, to have a greater desire to get things done than other people. A person who is not in love doesn’t really feel the kind of excitement that helps him to lead others and to achieve. I don’t know any other fire, any other thing in life that is more exhilarating and more positive a feeling than love is!’”

Staying in love might seem like the last attribute that would be expected of a leader. Even so, again as Kouzes and Posner put it, “Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most lasting. It’s hard to imagine leaders getting up day after day, putting in the long hours and hard work it takes to get extraordinary things done, without having their hearts in. The best-kept secret of successful leaders is love: staying in love with leading, with the people who do the work, with what their organisations produce, and with those who honour the organisation by using its work. Leadership is not an affair of the head. Leadership is an affair of the heart!”

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