Leaders and Leader-ship

By Arjun Shekhar:

I have made this simple test which we adminster to half the participants at the start of their learning journeys with us. You should try it too.

(This is not a test of your values. Please answer yes/no reflecting on how you think you would really behave not how you think you should.)
You are at
 home about to leave for work. Your bags are packed for an evening flight, which you will catch straight from work. You will be back in a couple of days.
What would you do if-
1) You find the flush is leaking, you know the problem but it will take some time to repair. Will you try to repair it? Y / N
2) You have dropped a full cup of tea on the bed. Will you change the bedclothes? Y / N
3) The blind/ curtain is stuck and you know the steaming sun will heat up the room. Would you take the time to rectify it? Y / N
4) You come to the lift in the lobby and realize you have forgotten to switch the TV off. Would you go back? Y / N
5) While getting into the car you realize you have left behind your toilet kit. You know you can buy the necessary items from the market. Will you go back for it? Y / N

I bet, like most of our participants, you too answered Yes to the first four questions and No for the fifth. Now remember i said at the beginning of this post that we give this test to half our participants. The other half are given the same five questions but the word home in the description at the top is changed to hotel. You try the test with this alteration.
Don’t you want to flip the answers exactly opposite to what you’d replied earlier? For sure most of our participants do. We share this half’s answers with the other lot (who we’ve given the test on a different colored paper). They can’t believe that everybody on the yellow sheet (the one which has the word home in the stem) answer Y,Y,Y,Y,N while almost everyone with the blue sheet (the one which has the word hotel in the stem) reply N,N,N,N,Y to the same set of questions. Then we bring to their notice the one changed word which flipped totally different switches in the two sets of people.

After a pindrop silence of a few seconds, somebody who got the home paper invariably explains the behavior of the hotel group, “Ah! That explains it. If i had been in a hotel, i too wouldn’t bother with all that stuff…except my toilet kit, of course.”
To me that response sums up what distinguishes a high performing organization from an also ran. But i’ll come back to that later. Let me first complete the story of the participants on our learning journey. Processing their responses further we arrive at the fact that they shouldn’t cosider this journey as if they are in a luxury cruise. As if we, the facilitators, are the owners responsible for running/ repairing the ship while they as passengers would focus on bathing in the sun and the the new found sea of knowledge. We emphasize that it is their journey not ours, they are not participants but crew members and in fact they own not only the voyage but the ship itself. From this discussion emerges a common uderstanding of the magic word –‘ownership’.

Magic, because once you have it, a switch comes on inside you that changes your behaviors instantaneously. Behaviors that veteran trainers and wise coaches couldn’t budge with a team of horses. But unfortunately ownership is also a grossly misunderstood word. For example, if you ask the employees of a public limited company, who owns their organization? Unhesitatingly, everybody would answer,”The shareholders of course.”

“And you?” 

“Why only me? The CEO downwards are mere employees! We all work for improving shareholder value because they are our key staklehoders.”

So the owners of our organization are a amorphous bunch of shifting individuals who may never ever even set foot in the company! They are the absentee landlords whose lands we employees till to eke out a harvest for our masters.

Let’s flip a switch. We are at home, say a home bought from a loan given by an obliging bank. Do we “own” this home? Or is the banker deemed to be the owner? Technically it may be the latter but the way we tend the space we don’t seem to think so. Something leaks we repair it; something stinks we throw it out; something cries we soothe it. And we nurture the garden as if we’ll be living here forever.
Switch back to the organization. Here too, couldn’t we consider shareholders merely as “money bags”? People investing in our company’s share for their own speculative gain and whose money helps us buy more machines/ infrastructure. As against the example of the home loan earlier, why do we, in this case, bestow ownership status to the ‘banker’? How come the shareholder is the one stakeholder every CEO wants to please?

The ESOPs debacle is a case in point. People bought their company stocks not to gain a share in the owership of the company but for mere pecuniary (and thus short term speculative) gain. And when that did’nt fructify they bailed out real fast.

I believe the really high performing organizations are redefining ownership beyond mere shareholding (which is short term pecuniary speculation) as real investment – the investment of time, love, and effort. Much like the investment we make in our homes. No, i am not referrring to the “family” culture of the 80’s, nor the participative decision making of the noughties. Real ownership can be bought with one currency alone. And that currency is the freedom to create and to learn from mistakes while doing it.

Let me explain. Last month i shouted at my seven year old daughter for dirtying the house. She cooly responded, “This is my home too.” Her way of telling me to give her space to create a mess and to learn from it herself without me “training” her all the time. Maybe she gets her genes from my wife who the other day told me to move my stuff out of her cupboard because “you keep it too clean.”

Anyway, my point was that, as leaders, we usually don’t respond to this everyday plea for space from our employees forcing them to conform to the prevalant culture; every time we do that we lose a chance for investing real ownership into the person. And we lose a chance to achieve our common, shared goal. 
Last month when i was out on a longish work trip, the mother-daughter duo got their chance to reclaim the house. When i got back on a late night flight, i groaned as i opened the door. A tornado had hit the living room. Shreds of paper were strewn like confetti, streams of glue had made a delta under the table, a mountain of socks was topped with a barbie pointing upwards at a stuffed monkey hanging on the ceiling fan.

After i’d cooled down (and got them to clean the place up) and was getting ready for bed, the duo produced an odd looking gizmo with two paper loops at either end of a stick. I laughed aloud at its strange looks but it was they who were to have the last laugh. My daughter held up the contraption in front of my face and lauched it into the air. It was an airplane; and it flew more gracefully (and far longer) than any convetional paper airplane i might have ever made (i forgot to add: i consider myself a paper plane expert). I had started my daughter off on making her first one. And here she was teaching me my latest. A weird but completely fascinating design that worked better than the original. She’d also taught me another important lesson: that everyone needs a space to mess around, a space they can call their own.

Since then i’ve vowed to cede the home space to my daughter (after all she spends more time in it than i do) and receed to the bathroom which i promise to keep clean as a whistle.

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1 thought on “Leaders and Leader-ship

  1. I just need to push out for a meeting so answering in a hurry. I will put it this way!

    Ownership to family and home comes naturally else it would have been a disputed one again.

    When it comes to companies, we HR guys are too biased. Have you ever noticed that we always lecture the employees about the ownership as we can easily have access to them. What about a ownership lecture to the owners of the company? You are scared right? Ownership needs to be two sided and almost equally balanced.

    When there is a task company wants to lecture about ownership, perfect, people do take up ownership but when they make the company good progress and during appraisal you are treated as other employees, you too decide to behave like an employee.

    I haven’t seen any company that practices good ownership policies, so it will be better if we lecture the companies and come up with the right shareholder basis partnership for employees. Once I become a partner to the company, I will surely execute the ownership.

    Will write in detail sometimes 🙂 … Good post

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