Revolving door, evolving leadership
Go out an imaginary revolving door and come back into your Life with a fresh pair of eyes and an open mind. That’s how you evolve as a leader.
A recent story, reported by Bloomberg, examined Ola founder and CEO Bhavish Aggarwal’s leadership style. The story called him “one of India’s most determined entrepreneurs” while, at the same time, calling him “a divisive startup kingpin”.
The story was peppered with anecdotes. One talked about Bhavish “punishing” a manager at Ola’s Futurefactory for a process deviation. The punishment: Run three laps around the plant! Another anecdote talks of him “directing Punjabi epithets at his staff”, “calling teams useless” and “ripping up presentations because of a missing page number”. The story reports that some managers and board members at Ola Electric are “vexed with Bhavish’s management style”.
Here are a couple of relevant quotes, from among a few, that are attributed to Bhavish in the Bloomberg story. They give us a peek into how he is seeing Life currently.
- “Passions and emotions run high and we are not on an easy journey. My anger, my frustration – that’s me as a whole.”
- “Not everybody is a fit for our culture.”
Bhavish could evolve as a leader
My soulmate Vaani and I have had a lousy experience every single time we have used Ola’s ride-hailing service. I remember writing to Bhavish too citing our terrible experiences and sharing our feedback. He never wrote back. Clearly, we are not fans of Ola.
However, even at the risk of sounding like I am defending Bhavish’s leadership style, I believe that he could evolve as a leader in the years to come. Leadership is an evolutionary journey. At 37, Bhavish is the way he is. But perhaps, over time, with reflection, through gleaning learnings from his current choices and attitude, he stands a good chance to evolve into a calmer, more resolute, sharper, and more effective leader.
Aggressive leadership is fine, but a toxic work culture is a no-no
It is quite common to find young people in leadership roles behave impatiently. Now, being impatient and temperamental is part of everyone’s evolutionary journey. This is how we all grow up, how we eventually learn to value being calm and anchored. Similarly, setting a scorching pace is often part of a young, aggressive, leader’s game and personality. And, therefore, demanding high-quality and high-performance from your team is absolutely fine too.
But a leadership style that induces fear, affects the dignity of colleagues and breeds a toxic work culture is a clear no-no.
That’s why a leader must keep their ears close to the ground: Are their team members acting out of a sense of purpose or are they operating from fear? Are they afraid of the leader, of losing their jobs? Are they working freely, happily or are they an unhappy workforce?
The Bloomberg story does allude to Ola’s work culture possibly beginning to turn toxic. This is why it is perhaps a good time for Bhavish, as a leader, to pause and reflect.
Let’s take a moment here to understand leadership – and leaders.
Leadership is not about having power or position or title or money. Leadership is also not specific to a sector – like sports or politics or business.
It works well to have a simple definition for leadership. This is what Vaani and I understand it to be: Leadership is the ability to face any situation in Life and do what needs to be done, effectively and efficiently. Therefore, anyone can be a leader – no matter what role they are playing, or what circumstance they are dealing with, in Life. True leaders, over time, evolve to lead calmly. They learn this art through deep reflection. And this makes them lead with focus, in a hustle-free manner, in any given situation or context.
Deep understanding from lived experiences
This deep understanding of who leaders are and what leadership is comes from our own lived experiences.
I too was Bhavish’s age once. That was 18 years ago. And I too have been angry and frustrated at times when trying to build a world-class consulting firm.
Back in August 1996, as India celebrated its 50th year of Independence, Vaani and I set up imagequity+TM, Asia’s first reputation management firm. We envisioned imagequity+TM with a strong purpose. We set out to be the world’s best reputation management firm by making people realize the value of their reputation. So, everything we did at our firm, and for our customers, we believed, had to be world-class. And it surely was.
We had standards for emails, for presentation decks, for how we were attired when were at client meetings or events, for paper clips, and for the quality of the stationery we used too! We constantly talked to our team members about our purpose, our vision and our world-classness. Every time we had a conversation on who we were and what we were setting out to do, we emphasized on the why behind our actions. On our purpose.
Over the years, we took great care though that our aggression did not manifest as toxicity in our work culture. We ensured that our demand for setting and achieving world-class standards did not induce fear or affect the dignity of our colleagues.
Expunge fear, enable greatness
In his seminal work, Good To Great, Jim Collins, the management thinker, had a name for programs that enabled greatness in companies. He called them catalytic mechanisms.
Inspired by his idea, we too put in place initiatives that invoked soul, provoked thought and inspired constructive, qualitative, action among our team members.
One powerful catalytic mechanism we used was an internal quality scorecard. It was based on a concept called COPQ – the cost of poor quality. It was an idea that we borrowed from quality circles. Back then, the manufacturing industry alone measured the cost of poor quality. We brought this measurement practice into consulting.
Every daily task, breakthrough idea and achievement was rated transparently – and measured consistently. And each month, the team member who achieved the lowest COPQ score – which is, the one who delivered the highest quality – was feted.
We had a Wall of Shame in the office. This was a dynamic leaderboard for COPQ scores. We were an aggressive team. We were brutally transparent too. Our work philosophy was simple: A business enterprise that strives to stay world-class must think, work and deliver like a great sports team. So, you had no place to hide on our team. If your performance sucked, it showed. The Wall of Shame held up a mirror to everyone on the team. We championed this tenet repeatedly: If each one of us was not delivering high-quality, consistently, daily, then it was indeed shameful!
Leaders will receive flak
Surely, I have been criticized and critiqued for my leadership style.
I was blunt and in-the-face. And I certainly lost my temper when there were process deviations. The pressure was always high on the team – to improve, to perform and to deliver excellence every single time. My title at the firm was chiefdreamer. I knew, however, that my team members often called me chiefscreamer – referring to my aggressive leadership style!
Some team members also questioned the idea behind the COPQ system and the Wall of Shame. Do we need them? Why are we obsessing over minor detail? Why shame people into being qualitative instead of inspiring them?
Vaani and I did take every feedback on board. Seriously. But we remained sharply focused on our view that unless we paid major attention to minor detail, we would not be truly world-class.
The results showed. In 2000, our practitioner model for reputation management was rated as the world’s best by the industry’s apex body based in New York. Our clients loved us. They gave us repeat business. And all our new business came only from client referrals.
We also unfailingly celebrated excellence on our team: Some of our team members made their first international trips while they were working with us. In one year, the best performer on the COPQ scorecard even won a new Maruti Zen car!
World-classness is not a one-time feat
Undoubtedly, we had a very competitive, high-performance culture. Yet, while it was demanding, it was never toxic. It also was not fearful. I was pushy, but I was never abrasive. Simply, at our firm, we worshipped world-classness and celebrated everyone who walked that path alongside us.
To Vaani and me, even today, world-classness is not a one-time feat. It is a daily quest. And we firmly believe in this principle: Unless you perfect your game, daily, you cannot stay on top of it, daily.
Therefore, to stay on top of the game, I have been impatient as a leader in the past, in my youth. I used to get frustrated quickly when people failed to understand why we did what we did. In my book, Fall Like A Rose Petal, I tell the story of how I dramatically fired a team member, for consistent instances of poor quality from him, by literally walking him out the door! There have also been times when I have expressed my frustration by banging my fist on the table. On a couple of occasions, I have even smashed my spectacles!
I have also carried my work – and related pressures and stresses – home. This means, I have taken phone calls at the dinner table or when on vacation with the family. Some of those phone calls invariably brought bad news. And I would immediately lose my cool. Unwittingly, I realize now, I have presented my angry side to Vaani and our two children on many occasions. However, I never had reason to be angry with any of them nor have I ever consciously taken out my anger on them.
An awakening, shameful, realization
Every time my anger subsided, I would be gripped by the realization that I could have avoided getting angry in the first place. And when the realization was wholesome, when it was total, it was a shameful and awakening one.
In April 2003, we took a values-based decision to choose the path of integrity and separated from an unethical client. Nothing wrong with that. The way we chose to run our business after this separation, however, led us on a downward spiral. In end-2007, our firm went bankrupt. And ever since, it has been so many years now, Vaani and I have been enduring this bankruptcy. You can read our story here and in Fall Like A Rose Petal.
In the years leading up to the bankruptcy, between 2003 and 2007, I was very lost in Life. I was in my late thirties. I began asking myself important, searching, questions on Life, about me, and about the circumstances we were faced with. It was a spiritual quest. It led me to deep-dive into a spiritual practice called mouna, of observing daily silence periods.
Early one morning, during one of my mouna sessions, I had an epiphany. I understood a simple, powerful, truth about my Life. I discovered that I was intrinsically unhappy being angry and frustrated. I understood that for my world to transform, for my Life to transform, I had to transform. I wholeheartedly embraced this process of transformation. I started seeking ways to understand how I could lead calmly, with focus and equanimity.
Going out the revolving door and coming back in
In his book, Only The Paranoid Survive, Intel founder Andy Grove talked about an idea that helps with reviewing and taking stock of decisions and situations. His idea deals with going out an imaginary revolving door and coming back into any complex situation with a fresh pair of eyes and an open mind.
What will you change about yourself, your choices, your decisions, to change your current reality? What must you do to be happy with the Life you have? What must you do with all those aspects of your Life that make you unhappy?
These are the questions I asked myself during my mouna sessions.
It was around this time that Eknath Eswaran’s book, Gandhi The Man, came into my Life. Reading this book helped me realize that anger was energy, which when channeled, could be deployed very constructively. What I learnt from Gandhi, the man, holds the key to my own personal transformation. I decided to channelize my anger for me to be spiritually stronger, wiser and, importantly, happy.
You see, anger is just plain, raw, energy. Like all other forms of energy, it too can be used constructively or destructively. We become angry when we dislike an experience intensely. And because we cannot immediately control what is happening to us, around us, we express ourselves angrily. Now, in such situations, we throw our anger at others around us because we are not channelizing this energy. When we are randomly angry, we are not in control. But when we channelize this energy and deploy it for a purpose that is larger, for making ourselves and our world better, we have the opportunity to leverage our anger constructively.
Now, being aware, being mindful, helps with keeping a watch on your anger – daily. In the real world, you cannot hope to dissolve your anger completely. You will have to overcome the temptation to be angry every time there is a provocation or upheaval. I still have those moments when some situations incite me. But my awareness alerts me instantly. And I drop anchor. I then let go of the choice to be angry. I enjoy those times when I have thwarted the urge to lose my temper! I celebrate my small wins daily on an equanimity scorecard that I have devised for myself.
To be angry is not wrong. But throwing anger around indiscriminately is wasting precious energy. Channelizing anger with a sense of purpose is living intelligently.
True leaders evolve with deep reflection
I am in my mid-fifties now. I certainly understand myself and Life better than when I was in my twenties, thirties and forties. I also know that my leadership style has evolved for the better through these years.
Clearly, you don’t always begin your leadership journey with either equanimity or wisdom. Your experiences, your choices and decisions, their outcomes, the learnings you glean from them through reflection, and all the course corrections you make along the way – all these contribute to your evolution as a leader.
Without the torrid test that we have been through over the last 16 years, Vaani and I would not have evolved to be the calm and anchored leaders that we are today. By going out the revolving door and coming back in to reflect deeply, through deploying anger constructively, and purposefully, our leadership has evolved. It has transformed us from being failed entrepreneurs (that’s what the world calls us!) to being the happynesswalasTM that we are today. We are not just surviving, we are thriving. We are living a Life of purpose – Inspiring ‘Happyness’ TM – among all those who care to pause and reflect!
Now, looking back, would we have liked to make some changes to the way we led and lived our Life? Actually, how can anyone undo the past? It was what it was. But, yes, we recognize that a dramatic, loud, standard like the Wall of Shame may have been unnerving for some. It was definitely avoidable. As it was to squander precious energy being angry and frustrated. But such is Life. All the choices we made have led to our evolution. We would not be who we are without being who we once were.
This is why I believe that leadership is an evolutionary journey. This is also why I am hoping that Bhavish could evolve to be a calmer, purposeful, leader.
Additional, relevant, links:
- Rise In Love – a 2015-documentary, made by a young filmmaker Shalu C. While focusing on the journey of Vaani and AVIS, the film explores how love thrives in the face of adversity. Viewing time: 30.18 minutes.
- Fall Like A Rose Petal – AVIS’ first book. It is the true story of AVIS’ and Vaani’s Life. It captures learnings from the excruciating, fascinating, Life-changing, experience – a crippling bankruptcy – that they are still going through.
- Click here to know more about the happynesswalas TM, Vaani and AVIS.
- If you wish to seek Vaani’s and AVIS’ perspectives on a Life challenge you are faced with, please reach out here – Let’s Talk Happyness TM!