'Lead, Follow or Get out of the way!'

What is it to be a leader? What it is not?
S V Ramu (2002-05-24)


I hope many of you have come to a stage where you take everything in life with the legendary pinch of salt. A right state to be, in my humble opinion. Contrary to being a pessimistic state of mind, this is in fact a productive mindset. Honestly, stereotyping notwithstanding, there is good and bad in everything. Just placing ourselves in different roles, to which the life forces over time, broadens our mind to ills of others and especially to the strengths of people around us.

So many times have I found that planning is impossible without enough experience, but plan we should, with this caution in mind. What is the difference between planning with the thought that 'we have to plan it best', to a mindset which vows 'not to repeat our past mistakes'? The first state is groggy with dreams, but the second has its feet squarely on earth, and this makes all the difference.

How is a leader born?

Noneimportantix (in the famous Gaul style) is a boy who is bored with life already. His changing moods made his friends feel that he is abnormal. But slowly their interest waned when found that the boy has no special talent. The boy sensed this disenchantment and craved for attention, which he couldn't demand now. The initial sparkle he has seen in people's eyes has gone. His usual boyhood achievements had no impact whatsoever. He need to show lot more to get back that unfitting early adulation. He found that anything unusual should do. Anything at all.

So he did some really crack-pot acts, which did amuse people but didn't quit win that old sparkle. What should he do now? Having tasted true adulation before, he did not wanted regulation praise. So he hibernated. Drew a cocoon over himself and became near invisible. Heard people saying how good he once was and what he could be; but didn't bother. He studied some irregular things, and did some irregular things too. Spent his time alone and silent, with only himself and his dreamy world. He cooked some fantastic things, only to see them crumbling down in practice. His failures increased, his cocoon tightened, and his self study grew.

One day, being silent, alongside a happy bunch, he said something that was obvious to his intellect, but which raised many a eyebrows, as if saying, 'Oh God, he is a genius after all'! The boy was surprised. Surprised by the sudden feeling of the people, and by his own ease and expertise in certain things. He panicked now. What if they found out that his expertise is only shallow? What if they pity him again? He thought he would spend some time everyday to equip further, but if he anyway lost his audience once more, he will quietly retreat back to his cocoon.

He perused things out of fear, that were hitherto considered too tough, but were only too important to his own future. His fear lessened, but his interest grew. His peers have that sparkle constantly now. So he needed more, and realized that peer attention is such a strong motivator. So, started jumping into situation that warrant meritorious attention. Once again he did abnormal things, out of confidence and past knowledge, and not just with the attention grabbing goal. You know what; this boy grew to be a genius.

Aspects of a leader

...and so the story goes. How many times have we heard a story like above, about this or that genius?! Many are not motivated even when said that geniuses are normal persons only, with abnormal motivation. They think this is too simple to be true. It seems Einstein said, "Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration" and that "The secret to creativity is in knowing how to hide your sources". These may well look like just humble words from a great soul, but no, they are true! Even the simplest of personal achievement or public praise could assure you that these are true, without causing any disrespect to great people like Einstein. I guess you can hear similar words from other so called 'born leaders', especially in their pensive mood, that elevating oneself from the obscurity is just a matter of some good luck with surrounding, and a mind that is craving to hold on to that feeling.

If you notice the above fictitious typical story line, following aspects emerge...

  1. An expectant group, is a fertile ground for a possible leader.
    Life is very complex in its details. This mystery invariably provokes the mind. And any group is not complete. There is always a need for a person who can do bit more than others. An expectant mind make mountain out of a mole hill. This expectation, if properly backed by the situation, creates a genius or a leader out of an otherwise normal human being. This simplification of facts is not to ridicule a leader at all, but to wake the leader that is there in all of us. Like a seed that is waiting for germination, our greatness is only one realizing moment away.

  2. A person who has tasted once what is true adulation (need), would strive to get it back
    When will one taste true adulation? or expectation? We cannot tell. What is true adulation at all? Again no rule here. Usually anything that makes a person confident to do more is such an adulation (for want of better word). A reprimand could be that, if it is due to honest disappointment. Sometimes a scolding could relieve a mind so nicely that it would explore new and tough things with irreverence.

  3. A phase of hibernation, is usually a phase of irreverent self study
    Of course this is not a rule, but this usually happens. The highlight is the irreverence to greatness, a dare to take up anything. If this irreverence is fixated on a productive study, a potential leader is in making. The odds are high that somebody usually hit upon the right question when they are cornered. This coupled with a self-inflicted loneliness is bound to produce results somewhere. Taking up established notions, or reopening a declared impossibility needs a sense of desperation and pure mental abandon. When a person is ridiculed suddenly, or ostracized over time, his or her rebellious mental state will analyze without respect.

  4. A phase of re-glimpsing the possible acceptance by the group is the turning point
    After being disappointed, after the study in hibernation, a mind is usually non-expectant and hence receptive to new opportunities. It is challenged by any possibility of exercising its mind usefully. In these periods, a true praise, even the most insignificant, can re-ignite the lonely soul to exhibit itself. The involuntary past study, aids this build up of confidence and possibility. A hungry mind needs no more cues; it is on its ways to its greatness.

  5. What can happen accidentally, can happen with deliberation too
    This is the realization that is the mark of a true genius. Their past has convinced them that they are capable of engineering their surrounding, for their own motivation. Of course they blunder sometime or even many times. But they will constantly try to create their own stimulating environment. They will not wait for one more luck. They understand that waiting for luck is too costly, so they create their own. This is the lesson for everybody. If the previous phase make them a god in the eyes of others, this is the phase that makes them the real smart human being, who know their limitation. For sometime they could be afraid that they might loose their audience, but soon they don't care one way or the other. Life has already become one huge game of possibilities.

Will demystifying greatness, reduce its luster?

If it could, then Einstein could not have continued after his 30th birthday, by which time his phase 4 is over. He went on after that till his 70s and 80s until he died, and kept astonishing people with his motivation, creativity and scientific leadership. If knowing the details of a greatness is to reduce its greatness, it will no longer be great. But leaders and genius ever enchant us. These extraordinarily ordinary people, always stun us with their infinite energy and the passion to live, to create. Many of these leaders do realize their normality, and refrain from going into fame chasing. It is not enough to know how to be great, but it is vital to realize, how to stay that way with humbleness and yet with no less inspiration. Knowing what is greatness and its symptoms, and how to get it and stay with it, is the only surest way to help us from not falling into its pitfalls later.

Can everybody become a leader?

The simple answer would be, It will NOT hurt to try. The deeper answer would be, Maybe not everybody. This has nothing to do with the hype that 'A leader is born, not made'. This is an useless adage. When is something born and when is something made? We can very well plant a seed and water it, but it grows, only when everything is perfect enough. Should we say we made it grow, or that the seed is born fertile? Ok, you prepare someone for leadership, you teach him/her various subjects, expose them to various situation, and wait for them to lead. If they do lead successfully, have you made them or they are born that way? There could be plenty of examples, but the point is, the difference between the word 'made' and 'born' is too subjective and circumstantial. Without doubt, even the potential genius need initial coaching and conducive environment. And without doubt again, none of these can ensure the creation of a leader.

You can also see it in another way. Isn't it true that anybody is trainable for anything at all. Maybe we can train somebody to be a genius even. But it all depend on the trainer; the trainer's skill and patience to train. Usually the cost benefit analysis won't encourage people to take up somebody with no exposure to the relevant areas, simply because there are plenty of people around who are already partially qualified. A 'genius' category person is already a dynamite, needing just a spark to blast. A potential genius in one field, if forcefully exposed to a different one, might even be less than average.

In a way, we can imagine that mind has finite but fixed potential. A person, uses this according to his environment. A jack of all arts cannot simply be the master of any one. Beware, there is a difference between maximizing your potential, and going beyond the human potential itself. If say, human mind is like our computer chips, and it has say 100 Giga FLOPs of processing power, maximizing the use of this power can be tweaked to a great extant by changing our software properly, or by involving other machines properly. As it is, there is no immediate possibility to increases our brain capacity by some hardware hack (like an extra kilo of neurons or something). But there is immense possibility of differently using our own self, or others, and of course the computers and other external gadgets, and thus could radically redefine human capabilities.

In this vain, I imagine that being a genius in any one field could be an all consuming effort. You need all your 100GFLOPs to be so, and even more tweaking to your 'software' (the way of thinking), to differentiate yourself from other such 100% users. I don't close the possibilities that maybe some are more genetically endowed, but only say that lot could be explained with just the environment and approach, before resorting to the much complex possibility of 'hardware' differences.

How does a genius feel?

A doctor need not suffer all his patient's maladies, to explain it to others, or to find a cure. A mother need not be a child, to understand its feelings. Her remembrance of her own childhood is enough. We all can extrapolate the ideal with our own partial experiences. More our experience better our extrapolation will be. With ourselves as index, we have to understand others, so that we can react better to those people, and possibly imbibe there good qualities.

Most leaders are lonely at heart. Not in a pessimistic sense, but that they are their only reference point. This is usually ridiculed as selfishness, but it is not just that. After many a disappointment, these great thinkers reduce their scope of being disappointed, so as to be more focused with their area of mastery. They have to do this for their own sanity, otherwise they feel unimportant. Their self worth is closely bound with their work. This unsocial eccentricity is the legendary shabby haired genius look. But in a practical sense it is just a question of priorities. Of course there are various degrees of conformance shown by these people. Some are out right anti social and paranoid about others, some are benevolent fathers and grand fathers (like Euler), some are illegal and belligerent, and some are pathetically suicidal.

The hallmark of a genius is their independent spirit cultivated in their isolated self study. Deep inside, every one of these people, is a nomad with their knowledge as their only possession. Their phase 3, has made them so comfortable with themselves, that they fear being dependent. In fact this total self consciousness is their strongest point in tiding over the daily turbulence, and yet concentrating on their chosen field. Their work is their opium, their grandiose dreams their paradise: where, things are clear to them, and subjectively automatic.

Are you talking about a Leader or a Genius?

Is there any difference? Going back to my analogy of fixed mental power, we can say that any domain of thinking requires the full 100%. The question of what field one chooses is only up to their early environment. People tend to be attracted to those fields that they think is respectful, and great. Some tend to take up completely uncommon activity, while others the one that is very common but too tough. The element of complexity is the lure. If there is complexity, there is something to achieve, and thus feel the self worth.

In this light a leader is just a genius. Of course we do reserve the word 'genius' for scientific or artistic domains, and leaders for social domains. But this is only etymologically meaningful. For all practical and even theoretical purpose, a genius is a leader of this domain. But yes, there is meaning in discussing the unique qualities required to be a leader, but it all stems from the very same disappointment, isolation, discovery, and continuous study. For now we will discuss about the synergy rather than the difference. I also strongly feel that a behavioral change cannot make one person a leader, unless the personal daringly contemplative attitude is there.

'Lead, Follow or Get out of the way'

There are no tips at all. You just know what is out there, know what you need, and if it is your cup of tea, pursue, or else at least be comfortable with what you are. Failure to lead in one field might even be the clue of greatness elsewhere. It also can mean that leadership doesn't enthuse you as much as being a regular honest worker. And I tell you, that it is pretty hard to find people who are mentally settled for non-leadership roles. I like the famous American aphorism 'Lead, follow or get out of the way'. It crisply captures the need for clear cut self appraisal. It doesn't mean that one must not try out things, but that one must know when to stop and give way to others. As everything it is easy to preach than deciding for ourselves. A rule of thumb is to be respectful of other's comment after 40. But before that, when in doubt, err on the adventurous side. Don't renounce too soon. Life is long and you might regret it for some time.

As much as finding the leader in you, you must also equally concentrate on sensing a good leader when you see one. A good leader simplifies life's complexities, he could be a wonderful launching pad, without making you feel guilty of exploitation. You usually cannot miss them, unless your fate so conspires that your ego clouds your eye. Now, ego is no bad word in the leadership business, but it sure is a double edged sword, so handle it with tact. Leadership is not a dish, to have a recipe. It is more a do-it-by-example exercise. Forever a trial and error technique. In fact the very starting point of being a leader is the healthy 'why not?!' sort of rebellion. This dare and total disregard for the established norms, is both the inspiration to take up impossible things, and to face up impregnable people. This arrogance is mostly a product of their confidence in their skills, and partly their readiness to face death or any such eventualities, and above all their desperate quest to search for their own identity in heroic deeds and not accepting a surrender without a fight. Lead, Follow or Get out of the way!