Being a Complete Leader
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Being a Complete Leader

November 25, 2019

By Dr. R. Balasubramaniam

I was meeting up with an old friend after several years and we decided to catch up with each other over coffee.  This friend had worked as a Senior Adviser in his Government before moving on to work in the private sector.  He was narrating his experience of working with two very different bosses and how similar they were despite their working in different contexts. Both were driven, ambitious and demanding of their colleagues, and would settle for nothing less than perfection in what they did. 

The similarities did not end here. While both could be labelled as successful leaders in their own spheres, both were disasters in their personal lives. Both had a couple of messy divorces and seemed to have fared poorly in building and managing personal relationships.  My friend was amused on how people could do well in one dimension and be highly regarded but do so poorly in another dimension.  He was wrestling with how a person who was perfectly                                                                    capable and had the skills to do well in both the professional and personal settings could mess up in one while succeed in another. 

These examples are neither isolated nor rare and I am sure each of us can narrate many similar anecdotes that we would have come across in our own lives.  Many of us too are not immune from this and do well in some situations but not so well in another.  While leadership expressions are usually seen and assessed from professional spaces, we cannot think of it in terms of being exclusive to or restricted to the office that one holds. 

Over the last several years of coaching and training people from across the work spectrum, I have come across many people who feel incomplete, restless, overwhelmed or blanked out in one or more aspects of their lives. While they do well in one space, they feel inadequate in straddling other parts of the world that they occupy. It is quite evident that they aren’t bringing their leadership qualities to bear in all of life’s domains — their work, their home, their immediate community and their own self.

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 While we do play different roles in these domains and some tensions between these roles is expected, is it possible for a person to do well in all of these domains that affect their lives?  Can a person truly be a complete leader and exercise ‘complete leadership’?  If one can do so, how would it look? Will doing well in one domain demand time and energy that leaves one with little or no motivation or desire to do well in other domains?

The journey of exercising complete leadership begins with a person reflecting on how and why a person spends her time each day.  It would be a good to begin with a simple time log and keep tab of how much time we are actually giving to our work on a daily basis.  How much of quality time do we give to our immediate family and the people whom we love the most?  Are we quick in sacrificing their needs for our larger professional goals easily?  Do we place a premium on spending time with our friends who are neither our professional colleagues nor are they related to us?  And more importantly, do we spend much time on our own ‘self’? 

Leadership is not a zero-sum game and doing well professionally does not have to cost us our personal and family lives.  It is about seeking a balance and learning to prioritise what truly matters to us. It is about being authentic and telling ourselves that a meaningful life is about finding the balance that we are comfortable with.  It is not about giving all these dimensions equal amount of time but being rested in the choices we make. 

A good beginning would be to allocate our time driven by our personal comfort levels and discover new ways of blurring the lines between these domains. It is also about understanding that exercising leadership begins with how well we are able to manage ourselves in the dimensions that matter the most — our body, mind, heart and soul.  It is about learning to keep our focus on what we eat, the exercise we do, the regular practice of meditation, the hunger we cultivate for new knowledge and learning to love unconditionally.  It is about discovering the peace that spiritual qualities like happiness, contentment and universal love bestow on a person.  

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One needs to frame a clear view of what you want from and can contribute to each domain of your life, with thoughtful consideration of the people who matter most to you and the expectations you have for one another.  One will need to systematically design and implement carefully crafted experiments till we arrive at something that works for us.  One example of creating the balance would be to spend quality time with our spouse while taking a walk or practicing yoga with your family and close friends.  It is as much about socialising with your professional colleagues outside the office setting while having a breakfast or lunch with your close friends on a Sunday morning.  It may be about redesigning what you normally do alone to be more inclusive and have your family members or your friends join you too. Whether it is going to a movie or watching a game, or going on a picnic, even small events can be made into successful leadership experiments.  If something we try does not work out, you stop, recalibrate and adjust your experiment. If it does work out, it’s a step forward and will add up to making your life that much better.  And gradually, you learn more about how to lead in all parts of your life.

Complete leadership cannot happen by chance or by default.  It has to be driven by one with conviction and discipline.  Research shows that a person who begins exercising this kind of leadership ends up being more productive in his work life and enjoys the rewards of a happy and reinforcing family setting.  The more one begins to live a full and complete life, the more one understands what it is get the best overall return on our investment of time, energy and effort.  Exercising this kind of leadership, let us practice the leadership skills we most want to develop and moves us furthest towards our vision of how we want to lead our life.  And that alone will be worth the effort. 

[Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, Founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement & GRAAM, teaches leadership at Cornell University and IIT-Delhi.  He can be reached at: [email protected]]

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