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What is leadership?

Sajid Amit | November 24, 2019 00:00:00

Leadership is not something Bangladeshi families talk much about to their children. Neither do schools or even universities. Therefore, a young person in Bangladesh tends not to bother about it much, unless he or she encounters the word in the vocabulary of a peer. And even then, the importance of leadership skills is not immediately obvious.

It is usually after a boy or a girl graduates from university, joins the workforce, starts engaging with formal authority, and finds good and bad bosses, that he or she starts to differentiate between a good or bad manager. Still then, it is rare that he or she would assess the boss’s performance through the prism of leadership qualities.

In society at large, it appears that there is still a certain timidity that inhabits us when we talk about leadership. Some don’t talk about it because leadership appears to be this amorphous, indefinite thing, that is difficult to measure. Others don’t talk about it lest they appear brash, overconfident, and proud. And many don’t talk about it because it is not clear that it even creates any value! A young professional once wondered out loud to me why his boss, the CEO of a multinational organisation, was making such a huge salary, when all he did was lead the organisation!

However, if one has led an organisation for a meaningful period of time, whether a student club or a large local conglomerate, one would know well the incredible value that good leadership creates, through revenue generation, talent development, or contribution to society, or all of the above.

While leadership is ultimately learned experientially – through emulation, trial, error, and careful self-assessment – it is possible to articulate what a good leader does or does not do. Below are specific suggestions that may help think through leadership.

A Leader provides a service. Service-orientation is essential in a leader. This is a state of mind when one wants to serve someone or something else, whether it is other people, an organisation, an aspiration or even an idea: when something larger than the leader drives him or her. Even a mother who provides a range of services to her family, is a leader.

A Leader provides safety. Since a leader has followers, whether by dint of organisational hierarchy or personal charisma –good leaders make his/her followers feel safe. This is safety from threats that could be physical, emotional, or even job-related. This is to be distinguished from pampering, however.

A Leader trusts. Trust is essential for and by leaders. However, this is sadly missing in several organisations in Bangladesh and even overseas. Leaders micro-manage to no end and consider this micromanagement to be their strength as a leader. However, it is essential that a leader trusts his or her followers to come up with the right answers, and do the right thing, if not the first or fourteenth time, but eventually. Trusting other people is a principle that has the backing of human evolution! Groups that cooperated and trusted each other survived conflicts, natural disasters, and wild animals, far more often, than groups in which betrayal persisted. Moreover, people who do not trust or are not trustworthy, usually get weeded out by a vigilant system. But trust starts with the leader. A Leader needs to trust his or her followers and teach them to trust to each other.

A Leader nurtures. So, while trust is the essence of leadership, it is equally important to provide feedback to help employees grow, which means pointing out both right and wrong behaviours. The Harvard Business Review has devoted reems of pages online and in print, on “how to provide feedback.” This is another area in which our leaders need to up their game.

Leaders are sometimes so over-zealous to provide feedback, that they double down on articulating the minutest of mistakes, and as a result, can leave their follower feeling dejected. Micro-management can severely compromise productivity, if not even retention. This may be more important in a young organisation trying to establish its market presence, and on a case-by-case basis, but micro-management is generally anathema to good leadership, while nurturing, providing positive feedback, enabling opportunities for the followers, are all best practices.

A Leader has a coherent vision. This means that a leader should be consistent in formulating and articulating his or her vision. Lack of coherence or inconsistency in a leader’s vision can severely disrupt productivity and performance of followers. In fact, an organisation is greatly compromised by a lack of coherence in mission and vision and objectives.

A Leader plays nice. Being “nice” is practical politics. There are no two ways about it. This is increasingly recognised as a norm in digital and internet-based companies where the average age of employees is lower, and they have a high degree of engagement with wellness content on social media. However, even more traditional organisations need to appreciate the millennial mindset. This is not a new paradigm however, when one considers that throughout history, leaders have been urged to not confuse leadership with power. An ideal leader leads by consent. And while this may sound impracticable, as leading by consent 100% of the time may require the discipline and patience of a zen master, it is still a very useful ideal to aspire to.

A Leader motivates. This may appear evident, but this is beyond giving motivational speeches. This also means that a leader when challenges arise, a leader is resilient even when followers are demoralised. Becoming de-moralised is easy, whether someone is working a desk job, in a sales role, studying at a university, or even managing operations of a large enterprise. Becoming de-moralized is also a contagion. It can spread among employees of a unit, students in a classroom, or in some cases, an entire section of a society. If that happens, it is essential then that the leader births motivation, positivity, and resilience to put things back on track. Much like an entrepreneur, a leader needs to find his/her own motivation. This is why it is difficult to be a successful entrepreneur without being a good leader.

A Leader is a good follower. Last but not least, it is never without emulation, trial and error, that someone becomes a good leader. While reading this article may be helpful, as will be taking courses at BYLC or reading copious books on leadership: it is ultimately by following good leaders that one can appreciate the incredible value of leadership.

If one hasn’t experienced the excitement of working with a good leader, he or she is unlikely to even consider leadership to be valuable. Therefore, inherently important in the leadership journey is access to good leaders who can be mentors. And just as a leader is a good follower, every follower can be a good leader. Because ultimately, leadership is not about a coveted title, but about drive, initiative, and being ready to be responsible for other people, an organisation, or something that is larger than one person.

It is a truism but still quite true that a nation rises and falls with its leaders. A society can never have too many good leaders. In a successful nation, in which success is measured both in terms of GDP and safety, health and happiness of its citizens, it is essential that leaders emerge from all walks of life. A Minister is a leader, as is a CEO, a factory manager, a police officer, an employee, a student, an owner of a small business, or even a father or a mother. Therefore, as a society, we cannot over communicate about leadership and its tremendous potential to create value and happiness.


Sajid Amit is Director, ULAB EMBA, and Director, Center for Enterprise and Society (CES). Prior to ULAB, he worked at BRAC, KPMG, and Morgan Stanley. He can be followed at @SajidAmit75 on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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