In recent times, the L-word has taken over the imagination of the world’s youth. “Leadership” is the mantra everyone is chanting. From business schools trying to attract students to fellowships worldwide giving young people the opportunity to expose themselves to new experience to companies recruiting graduates as management trainees, everyone seems to suddenly be in the business of creating “leaders”. And going by how many young people are flocking to such institutions, there is clearly a beeline to get enrolled to become leaders. An interesting phenomenon, I’d say!
As part of my work, I used to conduct presentations with young people across India. In those presentations, we used to do an exercise in which we asked the audience to name some leaders that came to mind. Most people would say Mahatma Gandhi, and the list would slowly expand to the likes of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Surprisingly, for all the “likes” anything about Steve Jobs gets on Facebook, the man never made it to this list. Neither did any of the “leaders” we celebrate today – be it political or social or otherwise. I always found myself asking why the highest echelon of leaders was such a closed set, and invariably sourced from great men of yore. Either our education system has trained us to think of only a few greats as leaders (which is not a sound argument given the extent of our exposure beyond textbooks), or we do not viscerally acknowledge any of the current crop of famous people as true leaders. In any case, it is antithetical to the modern phenomenon of wildly-mushrooming leaders.
Like anything else, this phenomenon has both sides to it. By “selling” the concept of leadership, by making it more accessible and realizable, by saying that such qualities as are needed in a leader can be imbued and are not inherent, we are either trivializing leadership, or granularizing it. In the former case, we are simply dismissing the immense amount of hard work and vision and bravado it takes to become a true leader. We are also discounting the fact that most people we think of as leaders were not trained – they did not go to business school or sign up for fellowships. On the other hand, in the latter case, we are stripping leadership of the halo it comes with, and showing people how leadership can play out in more local circumstances, with lesser number of people, in more believable situations. For the more optimistic, we are saying that all leaders started small, and here’s a guided opportunity for you to do so.
There is no harm in the granularization of leadership. In fact, if anything, it is pushing a lot of young people out of their couch potato lives and giving them a purpose. It is also doing social good by making them dream of things bigger than just personal affluence and wealth accumulation, giving them opportunities and pathways to fulfill latent aspirations of changing things that trouble them, or simply changing lives for the better.
In doing so, however, institutions should be aware of certain associated risks. The most obvious and the biggest casualty of this is the systemic breeding of inflated egos. You take a bunch of impressionable young people, tell them they have the “credentials” to be leaders (or already are leaders), get them to pay fat fees for courses or undergo your programs, and in the end, you let them out into the world feeling like they now wield power over others’ thoughts and lives. In a way, this is doing disservice to the youth themselves, who soon realize that the world is not really aware of their greatness, and it takes a lot more accomplishment than a resume to be respected and followed. It is also bad for the world in general that these airheads are roaming around in such huge numbers. It’s a lose-lose situation, the only “win” being reserved for the institution itself.
Leadership comes with a few caveats. First, it is a relative term – like “father” or “teacher”. One cannot be a “leader” of their own accord. They have to have a set of followers to be called a leader. Secondly, a leader is truly one when his/her followers unflinchingly believe in his/her abilities to change their lives, and unquestioningly vest in them the powers to make decisions that will lead to achieving a jointly-set common vision. Unfortunately, these followers cannot be a team of ten employees one is managing in a company. As much as your higher-ups want to sell you the idea of you being this leader of the team, your followers are simply doing their jobs, drawing their salaries and will eventually quit for greener pastures. That was just one example. There are several such instances in the world today of how people are being convinced that they are leaders. Sadly, I see many who are unsuspectingly falling for it, to justify their own decisions or to simply massage their own egos.
Thirdly, everyone doling out and lapping up the L-word should be aware that true leadership comes with immense responsibility, courage and sacrifice. Many people we look up to as true leaders lost their lives in the pursuit of their vision. And such greatness can only come from within. It cannot be cultured and then exercised in small amounts in the confines of safe spaces.
Lastly, leader or not, small or big, there is only one quality that each of us will be remembered fondly for – humility. And institutions that advertise the L-word should not forget to add this as a footnote on their billboards.