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Q-and-A with Rajeev Peshawaria: Stop bossing and start leading

5 min read


Rajeev Peshawaria is the CEO of the ICLIF Leadership & Governance Centre and the author of “Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders.” He has previously served as chief learning officer at Morgan Stanley and Coca-Cola and is one of the founding members of the Pine Street Group leadership development program at Goldman Sachs. I talked to him about why there is a lack of strong leadership and what can be done about it.

There is a ton of leadership advice out there, yet, as you point out in the book, on average people say they have worked for between zero and two good leaders. Why aren’t traditional techniques working?

First, we spend a huge amount of time and money trying to teach something that cannot be taught.  True leadership is about having the lasting energy to create a better future — that’s not something you can learn in a classroom or training module.

Further, not only are we trying to teach the unteachable, we are also using methods that don’t work. Let’s walk through a few of the most widely used techniques. First, most leadership training is based on competency models. These capture what made someone successful in the past, and argue that if one repeats those same behaviors, one will be successful in the future. But today, when the world is changing faster than ever before, past behavior is no predictor of future success.

Another popular tool to teach leadership is psychometric testing — this is meant to determine if someone has a personality suited for leadership.  But a quick look at successful leadership through the ages will reveal that good leadership comes in all personality types and styles, and that here is no correlation whatsoever between a certain personality and effective leadership.

The third popular technique is one used by every business school — the case method. But if we could become great leaders by discussing cases with strangers in a classroom, we would all be leaders by now.

Then we have copy cat role plays based on the notion of “best practice.” Leadership experts tell stories of great leaders (like Jack Welch) and translate their greatness into three-step formulas. The truth is that there is no such thing as a three-step formula to good leadership.  And last I checked the dictionary, copying someone else’s behavior was an act of followership, not leadership.

Leadership is not about competency models, two-by-two matrices or best practice role plays.  Leadership is about finding and maintaining the energy to create a better future.  To become a leader, one must feel deeply about the inadequacies of current reality AND decide to do something about it — and these things come from within.

What does a good leader actually spend his or her time on?

The first step for any leader is to discover their personal source of energy. In order to do this, she must develop laser sharp clarity about two things — her purpose (the results she wants to create) and her values (the principles that will guide her when tested). Clarity of purpose and values are the only sources of long-lasting leadership energy.

After a leader has uncovered her own energy by clarifying her purpose and values, she must spend most of her time aligning the energy of others towards shared purpose.  There are three pillars that a leader must proactively shape to make this happen, particularly in large organizations: the brains, bones and nerves of the organization.

The brain of an organization is its vision and strategy. The bones are the organizational architecture, which means having the right people, processes and structure.  Finally, the nerves refer to the organization’s culture. We have found that those leaders who proactively and regularly pay attention to these three pillars drive sustainable success.

You define a company’s culture as “what your people do when no one is looking.” What makes for a positive culture, and what is a leader’s role in bringing it about?

A leader must first define what the culture stands for in terms of clearly recognizable behaviors.  Unless there is a clear definition of expected behavior, there is no common culture.  Once defined, the leader must socialize the culture by communicating expected behaviors regularly.  While verbal and written communication is good, the most powerful communication is walking the talk — a leader’s actions speak much louder than her words.

Finally, the leader must reinforce the culture by aligning reward and recognition systems to the desired cultural behaviors. When I was at American Express many years ago, 50% of my bonus depended on my leadership behaviors. I had no doubt in my mind that they were important.

Your book talks about the importance of communicating company goals and strategy. What can leaders, especially those who oversee large numbers of employees, do to make sure their communication efforts are successful?

The key is to make the communication both simple and powerful at the same time.  I have seen many brilliant minds fail because they could not communicate brilliant ideas simply enough.  And while making things simple, one must not make them simplistic. Vision and strategy must be communicated in a way that is simple to understand but powerful enough to motivate people to action.  If leaders can ensure everyone in their organization has a common understanding of the vision and strategy, and are inspired by it, they will unleash the energy of a large number of people towards shared purpose.  This is easier said than done, and the only way to become good at it is to consciously try away.

Image courtesy of Cave Henricks Communications

An earlier version of this blog post stated that Rajeev Peshawaria was the sole founder of the Pine Street Group at Goldman Sachs. Peshawaria is one of the founding members. The text has been edited to reflect the correction.