My Say: Are you a good leader?

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 11 - April 17, 2016. Leadership obviously matters. Its importance varies with the context. But how do you determine effective leadership and identify leaders to emulate? The answer matters a great deal. There are many views and competing theories, much of which are grounded in dubious research.

Simplification is the ultimate sophistication, said Leonardo da Vinci. The massive leadership industry is anything but simple. Part of the complexity is due to the thinly disguised self-interest of those in the leadership business. Every self-proclaimed guru or author typically, with no significant leadership experience, seek to define effective leadership in a manner that plays to their particular solution or orientation. An effective leader undoubtedly has to be able to create impact. But what type of impact? One simple way is to look at the two domains in which most leaders operate — external and internal to the organisation.

External impact relates to financial results, market share, customer experience, share price performance and the like. The standard modus operandi is to study these externals and to attribute the outcome to the leader under question.

It is generally observed that when things go well, leaders are quick to take credit. The favourable tail winds are conveniently ignored but they matter greatly. This ignores the myriad macro reasons that influence performance, which often makes most of the difference. Correlation gets confused for causality. This process of identifying effective leaders is riddled with flaws.

The next near-death leap of faith is to retrofit reasons for a leader’s success, which are opaque at best. A rosecoloured walk down memory lane by the leader or researcher often completes the backstory where a narrative is created to explain the underlying factors for success.

In all this supposedly rigorous research, vital question go unasked. Were there other leaders who had the same attributes and were not successful? This is never addressed, which is a big flaw. Can the so-called lessons gleaned from so-called effective leaders be replicated? The promise is that they can. But it is a promise that is impossible to verify.

Internal impact rarely gets much attention but is a much better reflection of effective leadership. And the impact that matters most is on people. For all the talk about leadership, the other side of coin is followership, which is rarely discussed.

What exactly is followership? It is whether people in the organisation want to willingly work for a leader. Will they follow the leader to another organisation, all things being the same? Gauging followership is relatively simple since you can ask some direct questions and get unambiguous answers. One organisation I know uses followership as a critical determinant for promotions. This organisation has motivated employees with little internal politics and is a consistent leader in its field. Another organisation I am very familiar with is dominated by politics and upward management and an excessive reliance on external impact to place individuals in leadership roles.

Leaders have mastered the art of taking credit for tail winds. Employees suffocate under the hypocrisy and double talk. More than half the executive leadership would fail the test of followership miserably.

What creates followership? It is more than just being popular or likeable. It is more than having motivated or engaged employees, which often depends upon wider company factors rather than the leader alone. People in an organisation will want to follow you if you combine smarts with fairness, trust, genuine caring and helping individuals succeed professionally, to name a few.

If a leader plays politics, treats people disrespectfully, is self- centred, hypocritical and the like, most employees will not want to work for such a leader. It is remarkable how many individuals who are in leadership positions do not meet the test of followership.

Another issue that is replete with fairy tales is how one ascends to a leadership role. When interviewed or asked to share their experiences, many leaders either suffer from self-delusion or amnesia regarding what got them to the top. Rewriting history is a common pastime. Forgotten is the mentor on the board, luck, connections, skill at internal politics and the like.

Recently, a CEO I know was giving career guidance to his employees and emphasised the need to be modest, to focus on their jobs and to let their good work speak for itself. Remarkably, he seemed to have forgotten the selfpromotion he engaged in over a long period of time. Researchers, authors and leadership gurus never uncover these inconvenient facts since it interferes with the predetermined narrative. Since skill is generally a given, selection often depends upon superficial factors of perception. But if you asked followers, the real story would be easily revealed.

As a US politician once said, “Every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin that he built himself.” It is simply not true. All leaders have blemishes and often skeletons in their closet, which is a reality and should not be a surprise.

The real issue is the attempt to portray leaders as personifications of perfection. Looking primarily through the lens of external impact to identify effective leaders can be perilous. A far better way to identify leaders to promote and emulate is to check their followership score. This simple measure is the ultimate sophistication.


Sanjeev Nanavati is a senior adviser to the Asian banking practice of a leading global management consulting firm and a Big 4 accounting firm as well as an adviser to the chairman of a public listed company. Until recently, he was the longest-serving CEO of Citibank in Malaysia. This article was first published in Singapore’s The Business Times.