Sketch Note: 6 Leadership Lessons from Dr. A. P. J Abdul Kalam

As Indians mourn the passing away of “People’s President”, Space Scientist, Teacher and Visionary Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, I am reminded of having read an interview he gave to India Knowledge@Wharton in 2008 where he shared some very important leadership lessons.

I decided to pay a small tribute in my own little way to someone who has not only taken India to newer heights but has kindled a fire of inspiration in thousands of young minds through his connect with students. He passed away while on the dais speaking to students of IIM Shillong. What a rare privilege to be able to depart doing what one loves doing the most; working till the last breath!

He has been so many things rolled into one – space scientist, missile man, India’s ex-President, Advisor, Visionary etc but when he was asked how he would like to be remembered, he mentioned that he wanted to be remembered only as a teacher.

And that is how India will remember him. Here is a sketch note of 6 leadership lessons Dr. Kalam shared in his interview.

Sketch Note: How to Influence Without Authority

My work in corporate quality functions in the past involved influencing cross-functional teams (as an internal consultant) on processes and methods when I had no direct reporting relationships with them. I knew that only technical expertise was not enough and I wished I had some guidance on how to influencing without authority.

Jesse Lyn Stoner is one of my favorite leadership bloggers and her post “How to Influence Without Authority” offers useful guidance on the what she calls as “8 Portals of Influence”. It is also one of the most loved posts on her blog! Whether you lead backed by a formal authority or you lead without a title, these ideas should help you build influence.

Here is a sketch note version encapsulating some ideas from her post. Read the full post here.

Leading Well: Listening is Meditation

This post is inspired by a tweet from the legendary Tom Peters which deeply resonated with me.

I once had such a major disconnect with the Head of HR that I had to walk out of his room. And the disconnect was not that of ideas because I could not even start the discussion for which we were meeting. Every time I attempted to start, a text message on his cell phone or something on his computer screen distracted him. Not only that, he chose to respond to those distractions. I requested him to get through his preoccupations and then schedule a time to connect without any interruptions.

But this happens even when technology is not the culprit. You can feel the disconnect when someone pretends to hear you but not really listen.

The art of effective listening has a lot to do with the practice of meditation. Lets see how.

Meditation practice is known to make us calm by focusing all our attention and consciousness to a center within us. Meditation allows us to listen to our own thoughts, feelings and emotions resulting in clarity about the true nature of things. Meditation is about listening.

When communicating with the other, we need something similar – meditative listening if we can call it that way. Why can’t the other person in front of you be that center?

“Listening is Meditation. Clear your mind for the duration.”

Tom Peters (Tweet)

If we clear our mind of all other thoughts and distractions before we start the conversation, it becomes an engaging exchange. When the other person is your center, you are not just hearing what is said, you are also listening to the emotion behind the words, the unstated needs, what it really means and what the body language conveys. Hearing is the function of our mind and mind has a tendency to constantly rationalize. When mind is engaged in rationalization it cannot fully attend. Listening is the function of something more deeper – the heart or soul may be!

You can truly serve others when you know what others really need or value. And meditative listening is the only way to get to it.

It does not matter whether you are a leader or not. Next time someone (team member/peer/customer/your kid) walks up to you for a conversation, treat it is an opportunity. Turn off all your screens. Mute your gadgets. Silent your mind. Let go of the baggage of your preconceived  notions and assumptions. Make the other person your center. And then listen.

It helps you show your respect to the other person, encourage a meaningful exchange, become emotionally intelligent and aware.

Listening well is as much about meditation as meditation is about listening.

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Hidden Strengths – Unleashing The Leadership Skills You Already Have

Most people ascend to leadership positions based on their areas of natural strengths. Tools like SWOT analysis also focus excessively on two things: strengths and weaknesses. So, our natural response as leaders is to leverage our strengths and improve on areas of our weakness. Yes?

But there is a large space between our strengths and weaknesses that which is hidden. Authors Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell calls this space as “Hidden Strengths” in their new book by the same name. About 70% of our skills fall in this hidden space where we are neither excelling nor failing. And according to authors, our focusing on our hidden strengths provide a very fertile ground for our leadership and professional growth.

The book points to research which states that,

“Effective leaders evolve and grow throughout their careers, whereas failed leaders get stuck in a pattern of overusing their strength to the point of staleness.”

After a while, overusing our strengths may just turn out to be one of our weaknesses. And therefore, it is vital to first know the hidden strengths and then work to develop in those areas.

Our natural strengths are an intersection between our talents, knowledge and skills. However, the possibility of having natural strengths is only to an extent of 20%, i.e. your top 20% of skills. For rest of the skills there are missing pieces.

This book can be your effective guide in identifying those missing pieces. To do that, this book provides an overview of 28 skill areas that are divided into four categories:

  • Leading Self: How aware are you of your skills and limitations? How strong is your ability to self-regulate?
  • Leading Others: How do you interact with others in the organization?
  • Leading the Organization: To what extent do you think about the direction of the organization and how you function within it?
  • Leading Implementation: How are you ensuring that things get done?

Knowing that constant learning is our biggest competitive advantage in a rapidly changing world, we all try hard to develop our skills in areas we think we need to improve. But having a handy guide like this book can provide a definite direction to your self-development efforts.

This is a compact 80 page book that is not preachy in its tone, doesn’t offer any quick fix models but just outlines the premise, key skills and why they are important. Free online profiling of hidden strengths that comes with this book  also complements for brevity in content.

Whether you are a leader looking for improving your skills further or an aspiring leader, this book will offer useful insights into some of the key skills that contribute to great leadership.

7 Pointers to Build a Strong Company Culture

Much like electricity which cannot be seen but empowers the devices, culture is an invisible force that drives beliefs, habits, rituals and outcomes of an organization. In fact, culture is a sum total of an organization’s shared values, behaviors, rituals, beliefs, attitudes, goals and practices.

It exerts a powerful influence on day to day behaviors and choices of people. Yet, the truth is that most organizations are not aware about the current state of their culture.

The thing about culture is – even when you are not consciously building a culture, it is still being formed by default based on your actions and decisions on a day to day basis. And it impacts your bottom line.

“If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff will take care of itself.” – Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos

If culture is anyway being formed, why not work to build it consciously? Here are some good starting points to build a strong culture.

  • Clarify your motives: The goal of building a strong culture is not to merely extend a “feel good” factor to your people. The goal of building a great culture is to empower, enable and network your people through values, beliefs, rituals, systems and practices so that they can create real business value.
  • Understand the drivers of great culture: Many leaders associate culture with external perks like free lunches, vacation policies and such. Culture is driven by combination of internal and external forces and most importantly, understanding of what your business really needs.
  •  Define your values: Once you know what kind of culture you want to build, you need to establish values – guiding principles that should dictate the behaviors and actions and help people differentiate between right and the wrong. Involve your people in defining values for better buy-in and collective discovery of associated behaviors. 
  • Live them: Values defined, posters created,communication done and office space is decorated with new values – great! But culture, real culture, is built one action and one decision at a time. Your values will mean nothing unless they are lived at every level within the organization.  Reward what you want more of.
  • Assess your culture: Take time to periodically assess the culture. Are we living our values? What do people think about our culture? What are our strengths and opportunities for improvements? Assessments can vary from simple internal surveys to sophisticated external assessment tools. The key is to know where you stand and what needs improvement.
  • Take Actions: People make sense of an organization’s culture not by written words but by real actions. If building a strong culture is your priority, act on the feedback you receive from the culture assessment. Talk to your people, involve them in the change process and make real progress in areas that matter. Strong cultures are shaped largely by how leaders act.
  • Communicate Relentlessly: It helps to communicate about your culture and values continuously and explicitly. Your internal and external stakeholders need to understand your culture. Communicate through words and through your actions. Reward people who demonstrate right behaviors and live your values. Provide feedback to those who don’t.  Encourage open and honest dialogue about your culture whenever you can.

Yes, your product or service is the starting point of organization building activity. But unless you build a great culture, it is incredibly difficult to accelerate growth.

So, there is a reason why Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Strategy is created in boardroom but culture determines how people on the floor actually implement the strategy – and how well!

Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘Thank You’. In between, the leader is a servant.” – Max De Pree

Gone with the industrial age is the concept of traditional leadership where people at the top of pyramid exercise the power in a hierarchy. In a creative and connected economy, a leader’s first and foremost job is to serve to the needs of people they lead. To create an ecosystem where creative people thrive. To create trust by trusting others. To build a learning organization. To deliver meaningful results.

That is what Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes® Lousiana Kitchen, Inc says in her brand new book “Dare to Serve – How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others”.

Why dare? What kind of a leader is Cheryl Bachelder talking about?

“This is a different kind of leader with a rare combination of traits, courageous enough to take the people to a daring destination, yet humble enough to selflessly serve others on the journey. The dynamic tension between daring and serving creates conditions for a superior performance.”

I could see the same contrast/creative tension between “dare” and “serve” that Jim Collins described as “Fierce Resolve” and “Humility” as a trait of Level 5 Leader.

What I like about this book is that it is a first hand account of a CEO who turned the business around. In 2007, Cheryl Bachelder was hired to turn around the business situation that reeled with poor customer service, dwindling sales and troubled relationships with franchise owners. In the first part, Cheryl describes the journey of transformation, challenges, setbacks and ultimately the triumphs. In the second part, she puts forward anecdotes and specific examples of how leaders can become stewards of people and organization’s mission. The book makes you think through game-changing questions that Cheryl calls as “Dare to Serve Reflections”. Exercises and quotes makes the book all the more interesting and learning oriented.

The concepts of servant leadership or the paradoxes of leadership are not new. But Cheryl Bachelder does a great job at bringing these concepts to the fore using her own transformation experience. And for that, this book is valuable.

Here are some of the other gems from the book:

Helping people who want to find meaning and purpose at work is exceptionally rewarding. It is the leader’s opportunity to leave a legacy in lives of people you lead.

For principles to matter, they have to be “in action,” not on plaques. Principles must come alive in the daily conversations, decisions, and actions of the team.

Self-centered leadership is actually a lazy path. The leader merely wields power over others to achieve results for their own benefit. This is not difficult to do. But this approach stunts performance of the people and the enterprise. It cannot deliver superior results.

If you are a leader who is at the center of transformation responsibility, this book is a must read. If you are already someone who already leads through service, this book will help you gain a diverse perspective of what stewardship looks like in real life.


Also Read: Other book reviews/author interviews at QAspire.