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What Does It Take To Become A Leader In The 21st Century?

October 7th, 2019

What does it take to become a leader in the 21st century?

Not long ago, I was asked to describe my “leadership style”. I am a firm believer in leading by example. I am also of the opinion that a leader is only as good as the team he or she heads.

I am passionate about the work we do at Xpress Money. So, whenever I interact with members of my team, either as a group or individually, I endeavour to pass on some of that passion to them. I try to motivate them to give their best.

But I don’t think that is something extraordinarily unique. An individual can’t be dispassionate about his/her company or business and still be highly motivated. Some leaders may have a hands-off approach when leading their companies, but that does not mean they are dispassionate about it.

Take Warren Buffett for instance. Here is a man who is known as the “Wizard of Omaha”; he is one of the richest men on the planet. His company – Berkshire Hathaway – posted a little over $250 billion in 2018-19, and it controls a host of leading American brands like GEIKO as well as global brands like Kraft Heinz. Yet he is a hands-off CEO, if ever there was one.

Buffett maintains a laissez-faire approach to managing his company; he has given free rein to his team leaders. But if he were not passionate about his company, would Berkshire Hathaway be what it is today – a leading global company?

Also Read: Collaboration Is The One Way Forward For Financial Services

There’s a quote by Gilbert W. Fairholm – an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of ‘Understanding Leadership Perspectives: Theoretical and Practical Approaches’ – that I think explains “leadership” rather well. He says, “Leadership is not a starring role. True leadership describes unified action of leaders and followers (stakeholders) working together to jointly achieve mutual goals. It is collaborative.”

At a dynamic organisation, like Xpress Money, a collaborative approach is what I aim for, as I believe mentoring is an empowering way to engage with the employees. I may delegate some major decision-making to trusted individuals, but staying involved as a mentor helps me keep a tab on business operations while preserving the company’s central vision and ethos.

Mark Zuckerberg is an excellent example of this: he is both encouraging and aggressive at the same time. He can be autocratic, democratic, and open to laissez-faire all at once. He encourages debates and challenges and seeks out regular feedback from his employees, whom he treats equally. But he also demands that his employees execute the assigned job diligently.

To me, an ideal employee is someone with initiative, someone willing to step forward to claim ownership, someone with a fearless can-do approach to challenges. This is critical in an ever-changing business like ours.

On the other hand, I believe that a true leader must exhibit three main qualities:

  • Willingness to learn: The team leader should always be a student and keep himself/herself updated about the sector his or her company is engaged in.
  • Firm but understanding: The team leader leads a group of people with unique traits and personal styles of working, likes and dislikes. The leader must be the driving force who inspires his employees to work as a cohesive unit and strive for business excellence. However, the leader must not forget the human element involved either.
  • Lead by example: The team looks up to the leader for guidance and inspiration and that is a huge responsibility. In my opinion, a true leader can be an inspiration if he or she sets an example for the team.

Of the many corporate personalities from whom I have tried to absorb the best in leadership, one name that I must take is that of the late Lee Iacocca. After joining a debt-ridden, loss-incurring Chrysler Motor Corp in 1978 as its President and CEO, Iacocca pulled back the auto giant from the brink of bankruptcy into profitability. He also emerged as the face of American industry.

Communication and collaboration were his great strengths, which he used to the hilt to extract concessions for Chrysler from the government, Congress, banks, suppliers, employee unions, and even the American public, who were beginning to turn to Japanese cars in the ’70s.

The following words from Iacocca’s book ‘Where Have All The Leaders Gone?’ resonate with me: “Communication is the lubricant that makes an organisation run – and never is that more true than during times of crisis. It always amazes me how big corporations will spend millions of dollars telling the public what’s happening but forget to tell their own employees. A good leader will make every person feel personally involved in the recovery.

Many years ago, when Chrysler was fighting for its life, I went to every single plant so I could speak directly to the workers. I thanked them for hanging in there during those hard times and asked them to join me in restoring the company to greatness. There were a lot of cheers and some boos, but I got them involved.”

Like Iacocca, I too believe in employee involvement as I am a firm believer that a leader is as good as his or her team. I think that results are directly shaped by group interaction processes that are, in turn, influenced by the team leader. It is a two-way process.


Written by – Sudhesh Giriyan, CEO – Xpress Money.