On leadership

Leadership is something that I have thought about a lot. The sheer influence that a leader can have on the outcomes and on the lives of people around them is something that has always forced me to ponder about what it means to be a leader and how can I be a good one.

Most of my leadership lessons have come from sports and I feel that understanding, following and playing any team sport can enable you to pick up cues from the players who somewhat mirror your personality and that'll leave you better off as a leader in your own life.

My biggest takeaways from sports have been—

  1. High-performance and high integrity are the foundations of leadership. If you're not great at what you do and if you're not honest, it'll be very difficult for people to trust you.
  2. Leadership is not something that you exhibit only when you have been given the title, you can choose to be a leader even without holding a position.
  3. Most importantly, leadership doesn't require you to have a brazen extroverted personality. Nice, humble and soft-spoken people can lead as effectively as anyone else (case in point—MS Dhoni).

But these are high-level interpretations. A lot of people actually need specific action points on how to be a better leader. It seems fair because life might not have prepared us for the same.

The HBS professor Frances Frei is a thought leader whose work on leadership is something that I find really interesting. She was hired to take Uber through the culture crisis that they were facing in 2017. She proposes a framework that is highly exhaustive and easily implementable. I'll discuss the same here.

Building trust

She feels that everything related to leadership rests on the foundations of trust. Trust has three elements:


  1. Authenticity is simply about being you. Don't pretend and don't put up a show. It is also okay to be a bit vulnerable. Someone is more likely to confide in you and trust you with things close to them when they know that you're an authentic person. It helps you build a connection with the people around you and that is a critical part of leadership.
  2. Logic is about you holding strong and valid opinions on things that you know about. There needs to be a tight boundary of topics within which you operate and let go of your views and opinion on everything else. This will enable you to exhibit expertise and prevent you from stepping your bounds in areas where you don't have it. Your perception as someone who knows what they're talking about is solidified this way.
  3. Empathy is about trying to understand someone else’s situation and feelings. Usually leaders are chasing targets and metrics and that somehow leads to them turning a blind eye to their team’s emotional and well-being needs. Combining empathy with authenticity and logic will help you in becoming a well-rounded leader who puts the people first. In the long-term, nothing matters more than the people. Most problems can be solved by good teams. And empathy empowers people to put in their best work because they know that they are being cared for.

Building systems

While building trust will enable you to improve your interpersonal relationships and the connection that you have with the people you are leading, it is just a part of the process. As a leader, you won't always be available for advice and guidance. The team should be self-sufficient in making the right choices that align with whatever common goal and vision that you have. Systems help in doing that. There are two parts to it—

  1. Strategy – Everyone on the team should have a clear idea of the strategy and what it is trying to achieve. This might involve sharing the decision-making process and divulging information that might be above a lot of your team members' paygrade. But it will enable your team to be truly independent. When the strategy is internalised, choosing the right path in the face of uncertainty becomes a tad bit easier. A very good example of this Amazon's first shareholder letter where Bezos mentions his strategy—

    Because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh tradeoffs differently than some companies. Accordingly, we want to share with you our fundamental management and decision-making approach so that you, our shareholders, may confirm that it is consistent with your investment philosophy:
    • We will continue to focus relentlessly on our customers.
    • We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.
    • We will continue to measure our programs and the effectiveness of our investments analytically, to jettison those that do not provide acceptable returns, and to step up our investment in those that work best. We will continue to learn from both our successes and our failures.
    • We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages. Some of these investments will pay off, others will not, and we will have learned another valuable lesson in either case.
    • When forced to choose between optimizing the appearance of our GAAP accounting and maximizing the present value of future cash flows, we’ll take the cash flows.
    • We will share our strategic thought processes with you when we make bold choices (to the extent competitive pressures allow), so that you may evaluate for yourselves whether we are making rational long-term leadership investments.
    • We will work hard to spend wisely and maintain our lean culture. We understand the importance of continually reinforcing a cost-conscious culture, particularly in a business incurring net losses.
    • We will balance our focus on growth with emphasis on long-term profitability and capital management. At this stage, we choose to prioritize growth because we believe that scale is central to achieving the potential of our business model.
    • We will continue to focus on hiring and retaining versatile and talented employees, and continue to weight their compensation to stock options rather than cash. We know our success will be largely affected by our ability to attract and retain a motivated employee base, each of whom must think like, and therefore must actually be, an owner.

    Imagine being a senior executive at Amazon and facing confusion over some decision. This is a very clear blueprint that will help remove that confusion without consulting someone higher up.
  2. Culture - Culture ensures that there are certain habits and behaviours that everyone follows as a reflex. It is the code of conduct that gets ingrained over time and leaders have a key role in setting the standards. Often a neglected aspect of organisation building, I feel that it is the most important pillar on which teams stand. This needs to be thought about at a very early stage because changing cultures is a very difficult task. Leaders must consciously think and talk about it with others. Netflix offers a great example of how this can be done in their culture deck.

Building people

The final piece of the leadership puzzle is about building people. You are as good as your team and it will be your responsibility to help people achieve their true potentials. Frei believes that this can be done through two levers—

  1. Set high standards for the people around you. You'll need to push people to do more and do better. That's how they will be able to grow. But it is a necessary and not a sufficient condition.
  2. Showing your deep devotion to the other person’s success is something that is equally important. Just setting high standards won't produce the desired results. You'll need to set the right conditions for people around you to thrive. Frei believes that people are innately ambitious and helping them realise their ambition is your job. She talks about a caveat that I found to be very insightful. She says that you should be mindful of the fact that while setting high standards you don’t fall into the trap of becoming uncaring/cold when they aren't met and let your guilt then force you to lower them. This will ultimately lead to frustration because of a lack of progress. You need to be relentlessly supportive for a long enough period of time to see meaningful results from this devotion.


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