For the love of leadership

Did you know the first Starbucks store in Seattle was called Original Starbucks?

There has been proliferation of books on leadership. Yet, only one is considered the original leadership book. This book was produced after a five year research project that included over 2000 interviews and 5000 articles. The book is called Good to Great. You will find it gathering a melancholic dust in most cubicles.

The author, Jim Collins writes about what takes a company from Good to Great and the type of people required at the helm to turn a good company into a great one. Talking about people at the helm – most of us have an image of this suited-up, smug guy who stays at expensive hotels and gets to use all the free shampoo. Collins says that’s not the right image. He argues that leaders who take their companies from good to great combine:

extreme personal humility with intense professional will.

In other words, they don’t really care for free shampoo.

The crux of the book is this idea called the five levels of leadership.

Collins focuses on Level 5 leaders, the paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will, at the helm and says that’s what takes good company to greatness

Aarav Kumar Jain perfectly fit the definition of a Level 5 leader. Only, he just started his career. We me, and 32 other wobbly souls. Aarav would come to work at 8, the only other person at office beside me. I came at 8 so that I could leave early. He came at 8 so that he could do more work: intense professional will and all.

Aarav rarely left before 8 in the evening, and he quietly worked away like this every day. We were the only two people who landed a promotion and while I went around saying, “I got the quickest promotion in the 20 year history of the firm in this universe,” he dismissed his promotion like it happens to everyone: that makes extreme personal humility I guess.

Aarav put in all the extra hours writing automation scripts, teaching his manager how to use MS Excel and, secretly, waiting to hit the 12 hour mark.

His manager occasionally noticed his dedication, and as did everyone else in the team. But Aarav always downplayed it and made amusing statements such as, I like to work. One day, we wanted to head out for dinner and Aarav decided to leave at 7. His manager who had sauntered in at 11 asked him, ‘how come you are leaving early today.’ Instead of punching him in the stomach, our humble friend worked away for the next one hour. He looked pretty disgusted when we met at 8:15.

After a year, he got the ‘rising golden retriever award’ or something like that. I took my silver retriever award, framed it, and proudly displayed it in my house while he jammed his between the pages of a book inside his desk.

The genius that he was, Aarav’s automation scripts finally bore organic fruition. We were all excited. He because his scripts worked and the others because it was salary day. The next day, his manager spoke about how the client was really happy with the team and their exceptional work on the scripts. There was passing mention and mild applause for Aarav in the beginning and after that, it was about how this was the greatest team in the world. Apparently, they went for a team lunch and Aarav said he couldn’t have done it without the manager’s ‘blessings.’

I became nauseous listening to that. It had been two years, and we had the annual review. Aarav was punished by the home-grow organizational executioner: the bell curve. He got a ‘two rating’ because this other guy had to get a ‘one rating’ this year for no particular reason other than – that’s how bell curves roll, baby.

He quit.

Aarav is not an exception.  I see people like Aarav a lot. His story-line narrates itself across firms. The story of the inverted pyramid: the story of the level 5 starter going wrong.

When we start work, we are okay with the drudgery because we hear a discourse that began something like this: “fresher means you should do all kind of work. When I was fresher I did xerox also…” You know the rest of it. It’s the ragging truth we all hear when we start work. But what is also true is the fresher (sounds more vegetable than human) should start at Level 1:

Highly capable individual – Makes productive contributions through talent, knowledge, skills, and good work habits.

No one tells you that. No one tells you about learning to become productive and cultivating good work habits. Good work habits are sneered at with motivational phrases like “SRINATH, it’s 5 and you are STILL at work.” (In my defense I was STILL there because of that dinner and also the TT table wasn’t free.)

Level 1 is about making a contribution. In between all the drudgery, there are many areas to contribute in. It’s in identifying these areas, tying them to your interests and talent that makes you the ‘Highly capable individual.’ The mistake we all make is in believing someone will notice all the extra hours we are put in and think of us as highly capable. Many times, we put in those extra hours just to be noticed!

Here’s something better: If you want to be noticed, leave early! Aarav’s dedication to work the extra hours soon became the norm for him. In the process he did little to become efficient or effective. He believed working the extra hours meant he was getting more work done and coming up with better solutions. His philosophy of being extremely humble did not feed into his expectation of being noticed for his extra hours. That’s precisely why Level 5 is hard.

Firms need Level 5 leaders at the helm and I think that’s important. What’s also important but hard is to groom good Level 1 leaders. Because it always starts at good. It always at the bottom. Lousy to Great has not been written.

If you are starting your career now, you need to start at Level 1. It is contradictory to the traditional half-witted dictum of “think like the leader” and “you are all leaders.” However, going from good to great is a process. Humility is a great virtue, but so is discipline! The level 5 leaders have been able to strike a perfect balance between the two and it has taken them over 30 years to learn that skill. This balancing is an art without which we fall off into the servile uninspiring rut.That’s what happened with Aarav. He lost confidence and the firm lost a great employee – a level 5 leader – right place, right time, wrong level.

We have an inverted good to great pyramid. The people who are getting started exude a burning ambition – humility attribute (level 5) and the people who strive to reach Level 5 believe it can be done through contribution to the growth of their area within their business units within their region within their dusty spaces.

We need to get the pyramid back in shape. And it has to start at Level 1.

This essay is a work of fiction if one such thing can exist. I felt the need to write this after I spoke to many Aarav’s over the last six months. I am lucky enough to have started at a firm that groomed me into a Level 1 leader.

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