“Leadership secrets from the armed forces”

Avnish Sabharwal Managing Director, Accenture (India) draws leadership inspiration from the armed forces. The dynamic leader shows how the art of leadership is not very different from the art of war. He tells B&E that he learnt the most powerful leadership lessons from his days in the army

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What leadership lessons did you learn from your time in armed forces and how did they help you become a successful leader in the corporate world.

Avnish Sabharwal (AS) : Although nowhere are lines of authority more strictly defined than in military, the mutually reinforcing relationships of leaders and the men they command has to be earned and established before there can be genuine leadership. Therefore, in my view the underlying leadership principles of the armed forces are very similar to the corporate world. However, the personal stakes are very different. In combat, where leadership is at its most raw and basic, absolute trust and loyalty between you and your men are the critical leadership traits which are critical to ensure survival. I share below 5 key lessons from my days with the Indian Army which resonate very well in the corporates as well:

Lesson 1: Mission First, People always: We are taught in the army that in order of priority, your mission always comes first. However, the road to victory in war begins with victory at home station, while training and caring for service members and families. The greatest military and corporate leaders find a way to offset their focus on results with a personality that people connect with. They immerse themselves in the goal of creating an environment where the best, the brightest, the most creative are attracted, retained and, most importantly, unleashed.

Lesson 2: Your job as a leader is to take tough decisions: Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up alienating are the most creative and productive people in your organization.

 Lesson 3: Leadership is not exercised sitting in ivory towers: Policies that emanate from ivory towers often have an adverse impact on the people out in the field who are fighting the wars or bringing in the revenues. No soldier will ever be inspired into a hail of bullets by orders phoned in on the radio from the safety of a remote command post; he is inspired by his officer leading the charge. Business leaders must follow the same principal: it is much more effective to have your employees follow you than push them forward from behind a desk. The day your people stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. Real leaders make themselves accessible and available. They show concern for the efforts and challenges faced by underlings, even as they demand high standards. Accordingly, they are more likely to create an environment of trust and mutual respect where problem solving replaces blame game.

Lesson 4: Strategy equals Execution: All the great ideas and visions in the world are worthless if they can’t be implemented rapidly and efficiently. Good leaders delegate and empower others liberally, but they pay attention to details, every day. Bad ones, even those who fancy themselves as progressive “visionaries,” think they’re somehow “above” operational details. Also, good leaders don’t wait for official blessing to try things out and are action oriented. While less effective middle managers endorse the sentiment, “If I haven’t explicitly been told ‘yes,’ I can’t do it,” the good leader’s believe, “If I haven’t explicitly been told ‘no,’ I can.” There’s a world of difference between these two points of view.

Lesson 5: People are your biggest assets, pick them wisely: Organizations on their own don’t really accomplish anything. Strategies and Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Technology in itself cannot create value. Missions and programs succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best talent will you accomplish great deeds. You can train a bright, willing novice in the fundamentals of your business fairly readily, but it’s a lot harder to train someone to have passion, integrity, judgment, energy and the drive to get things done. Good leaders stack the deck in their favor right in the recruitment phase.

Aristotle once said -the hardest victory is the victory over self. What are the self-mastery secrets that make you the world class leader that you are?

(AS) : Mastery of the art of leadership comes from the mastery of the self. Following traits have helped me in my ongoing journey as a leader:

  • Self-awareness: Self-awareness is essential to leadership. It helps you get better, because you know how well you currently are doing. It helps you make the right decisions, because you know your blind spots. It helps you do great work, because you remember past mistakes and address them. Being self-aware is being self-knowledgeable. I believe I have a high degree of self-awareness including my strengths, weaknesses and biases. This helps me to be more introspective in my work as a leader.
  • Hunger for learning: I love to read and my brain is like a sponge absorbing new facts and insights from multiple sources, including my team-members and peers. I am energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice I have learnt, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that entices me. My hunger for learning enables me to thrive in dynamic and ever changing work environments where one asked to take on short but critical assignments and is expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one.
  • Eye for Talent: I have a good eye for potential Top Talent and I am intrigued by the unique qualities and strengths of each of my team member. I instinctively observe each person’s style, each person’s motivation, how each thinks, and how each reacts to situations and builds relationships. This helps me align them to jobs which play on their strengths and thereby build high performing teams and deliver exceptional business outcomes.
  • Strategic mind-set: Being a corporate strategist and innovator, I am a big picture person who loves to challenge the status-quo and think 5 steps ahead. This skill enables me to sort through the clutter and complexity and find the best solution. This perspective allows me to see patterns where others might simply see seemingly unrelated events. Mindful of these patterns, I like to play out alternative scenarios, always asking, “What if this happened? Okay, well what if this happened?” This recurring question helps me identify the next big trend which could impact my industry or business and prepare for it accordingly.

What according to you is the one most important quality of a leader ? (AS): Integrity: The more successful tomorrow’s leader does his job, the greater will be integrity required of him. The new business world demands that the leader of tomorrow roots every action and decision in the bedrock of principles, that he lead not only through knowledge, competence and skill, but through vision, courage and integrity. What will be decisive above all in the future is neither education nor competence, it is the integrity of the leader.

How important is team work in achieving success ?The secret to building a strong and efficient team?

(AS): Teams are at the heart of strategy execution. And I am genuinely passionate about building high performing teams. However, high performing teams are not a result of chance or luck, they require a continuous Innovation in Strategy, Structure and Talent management. Following are my “10 commandments” of building high performing teams:

  • Hiring people smarter than yourself solves 50% of the problem upfront.
  • Encourage diversity and avoid hiring people whose thinking and background is similar. Take risks on people who are lateral thinkers.
  • Your employees can forgive you for a lot of your short-comings, but not for lack of integrity.
  • Good teams make their leaders look talented, and not the other way around.
  • Invest most of your time and resources on your Top Talent and not adopt a socialist approach of equalising everything to the lowest common denominator.
  • People don’t care how much you know, till they know how much you care. Don’t be shy of showing compassion and empathy.
  • Leadership needs to be earned, and cannot be inherited or transferred.
  • Performance of your team is a function of their Potential minus Distraction. You as a leader need to protect them from the organisational politics and clutter so that they can focus on their job.
  • Delegate and empower. And don’t try and add value every time your team member comes to you with a deliverable, it reduces his/her enthusiasm drastically.
  • Bring the entrepreneurial spirit and culture within your organisation and encourage ideation and experimentation. Celebrate Failures.

The secret to handling failure effectively ?

(AS): We all know that failure is an inevitable part of our professional and personal life. How we react and learn from failures is what makes the difference. Some failures provide immediate value in the form of personal insights and learnings that can be capitalised on. Others provide broader lessons that lead to significant personal or organisational development. Also, our society also needs to change its attitude towards failure as that is the only way to encourage innovation and creativity, as is seen in the culture in the silicon valley where every failure is celebrated and appreciated.

Leaders you admire?

(AS) : What I have discovered during my 25 years of professional life is that ordinary people make extraordinary things happen by liberating the leader within everyone. These faceless leaders are the ones I admire the most. Even if you look at the corporate world, Lars Rebien Sorensen, the world’s top-performing CEO as per a recent HBR study isn’t a household name and hardly comes across as a big-time global executive.

Best advice you can give to the future leaders

(AS): While the content of leadership has not changed over last several years, the context has, and in some cases it has changed dramatically. The new demands require future leaders to do things differently:

  • We are living in an increasingly borderless world which requires global leadership skills. Capital and talent flows easily and instantly from one country to another, creating a type of volatility that is very new to most of us. Future leaders must be comfortable in managing global, virtual teams with diverse cultural and social beliefs and try and align them to a common organisational objectives.
  • In a VUCA world, unexpected and frequent technological advancements, competitive moves, customer feedback, political and regulatory shifts, and other unforeseen events are a norm rather than an exception and leaders who recognize that surprises are an inevitable part of the process (and a natural part of business, and life) are best able to actually use surprise as a strategic tool – which makes them the most agile and fastest to capitalize on unforeseen events.
  • Future leaders need to be ecosystem architects as no organisation will be able to do everything in-house in this fast changing world and will depend on a very new set of partners, some of them who might be traditional competitors or from outside your industry, including start-ups.
  • Embrace digital. Each and every industry or business is getting impacted by the digital tsunami and future leaders will need to master this skill, including having a working knowledge of the digital technologies like AI, IoT, AR/VR, Big Data and Cloud etc and their impact on business if they want to become disruptors and not end up getting disrupted.
  • A Leapfrogging Mindset. Leading in disruptive times requires a mindset focused on leapfrogging – creating or doing something radically new or different that produces a significant leap forward.
  • Lastly, my advice to the future leaders is never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it. You are much more than what your business card says.

The leaders of tomorrow will not be more intellectual or powerful than their predecessors. They will be possessed of the same frailties and hedged in by the same limitations. How then can we accomplish these new tasks with the same leaders? This is a major challenge as well as an opportunity for the new generation of leaders in both large and small institutions.