Three Simple but Effective Tips for Leaders and People Managers

When my grandfather took over the control of our family and its resources from his father’s brother who is credited with building most of our family fortune, he was given three pieces of advice by the outgoing patriarch.  These three simple yet effective tips for leaders and people managers which were passed down in our family, and which I inherited from my father, form the subject of this post.

1. Trustability over ability

Successful management starts with having the right team in place, and this is where the first tip fits in.

Trustworthiness and ability are hard to find in the same person. In a trade off, choose trustworthiness.

In any age, those who’re absolutely trustworthy, and those who are extraordinarily gifted are both rare – a combination of these qualities being rarer still. The thumb rule says that integrity and dependability are much more important than superlative ability. This does make sense because a person with great ability, but lacking in principles is more of a threat than an asset. Incompetence, on the other hand, can often be overcome with right guidance and support.

A similar sentiment is expressed  by Bhartrihari in his Neeti Shatakam

दुर्जनः परिहर्तव्यो विद्ययाऽलंकृतोऽपि सन् ।
मणिना भूषितः सर्पः किमसौ न भयंकरः ॥

Evil folk are to be avoided, even if they are learned; isn’t a serpent frightening even when adorned with a jewel?

In a modern setting, reliability (or lack thereof) comes in many new flavours. A judicious application of this principle can help mitigate several risks such as attrition and breach of confidentiality.

2. Influencing people

It is seldom the case that we will have direct control or influence over all the people we need to work with, or do things for us. There are some who wouldn’t trust us enough to do our bidding, others who don’t want us to succeed, and then those who’re just too lazy to do anything unless they absolutely need to – but we’re often dependent on them. The second tip can come handy in handling such a situation.

Talk to those who won’t listen to you through those they’ll listen to

When my grandfather took up the reins of our family, he was very young. This meant that many of the members of the family, who were much elder to him, saw him as a kid and wouldn’t take his words seriously. To convince and influence them,  he often had to convey his opinions through a doctor,  or a priest, or somebody else depending on who needed to be convinced.

In Mahabharata, after the war, Yudhishtira considered himself to be a sinner responsible for the death and destruction caused by the war and sank into depression. Many tried to cheer him up, including Lord Krishna whom he recognized as friend, well-wisher and God. But none of them could convince him, and finally Sri Krishna had Bhishma console Yudhishtira and enjoin him to his carry out his royal duties. If the Lord himself finds it useful to convey some ideas through others, we lesser mortals should take this approach much more often!

3. Modesty

At a time when pappadam (a thin, crisp,  fried food that forms part of a full Kerala meal) was considered a luxury and not part of everyday meal, my grandfather was advised to fry a pack fewer pappadams for his own birthday. In today’s setting, or to help a larger audience relate to it, let me rephrase it as:

Serve a smaller cake on your own birthday

Clearly, the point here has nothing to do with pappadam or cake. The message is that a leader should conduct himself with modesty and humility, rather than indulge in a shameless display of wealth or status. While this goes without saying for a person in charge of an organization or property that is owned by someone else, as in the case of government officials or trustees of charitable organizations, the message is relevant even in cases where it is not outright unethical to flaunt one’s position or the advantages that come with it. For example, an employee may be more inclined to work hard if he feels that his work is going to serve a social cause (or at least benefit himself) than when he thinks that it is only going  to help the CEO buy another luxury car or a holiday home.

 A counter example I’ve seen to this is how crooks at the top of pyramid schemes buy luxury cars or travel business class to attract greedy folks who can be potential victims or co-conspirators, and convince them of the wealth generating potential of their “business model”. Though it may not be applicable for such people who thrive on the weakness in others, I am of the opinion that humility and modesty are great qualities for every individual to have, and the defining virtues of a true leader.

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