A very warm welcome to all our viewers today. We are very happy to have with us today Mr. Aditya Maheswaran. Aditya is a speaker, coach and consultant who enables businesses and people, realize and unleash their potentials.
Aditya works in a global management consultancy and specializes in leadership development, executive and team coaching and talent management. He is a TEDx speaker and is an MBA from the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. In 2015, he became the first Indian with presenting India to bag the 1st runner up at the World Championship of public speaking held at Las Vegas from over 40,000 public speakers, who competed from across the world. He has coached numerous professional speakers and business leaders and their teams maximize productivity and potential. He constantly writes on his popular page www.facebook.com/adityaspeaks.
We all read quotations about leaderships, we all read biographies of great leaders, aspiring and get inspired by great leaders of the present and the past. But leadership – it does what?
Some secrets about leadership. Let’s learn it from Mr. Aditya Maheswaran.
Everybody talks about leadership. What would be your definition of becoming and being a leader?
I am not a big fan of defining abstract words because the moment you define something like leadership, you are putting it into boundaries and then the people who follow your definition are restricted by the boundaries of your own definition. And it’s like defining love. It’s very personal. What the feeling of love I have may be very different from the feeling of love you may have. The moment I define it, I reduce it to something like affection, care which are all composition of love but they are not love itself. Very similar is leadership. Some people call it influencing others but then you are an influencer, not a leader. Some people call it communication then you are just a speaker, not a leader. So, however, in my own experience, I can tell you some of the key aspects of leadership that I have learnt to be very important in my journey as a leader. For me, it could be the definition of leadership. I forayed into leadership. I was very lucky to foray into leadership very early in life. But, I was 21 and I became the President of the Chennai ToastMasters Club which was an organization, I was a part of as a passion to learn public speaking at that time and this was the forum which had over 60 to 70 members and I had to lead the pack. The average age of that club was around 45 to 50 years and I was here 21 and the president of the club. There used to be everything smoothly but there used to be some arguments between some 40 to 50 years old people and it used to come to me to make a decision or to talk sense into some people and here I was probably the age of their son or children. One thing I learnt at that time is that when you do not have influence because of position or age or credibility, one thing that is very useful for a leader is to be a subject matter expert. So, instead of trying to influence them through bagging or through asking; what I did was I went and met myself experts in the room, the by-laws of the ToastMasters, the rooms of what my situation demanded. So, anytime there used to be a problem that escalated to me, I would rather go into the by-laws of the ToastMasters; rule no.5 rather than try to argue with these 4 to 5 people. So, that was my first foray into leadership and I still follow that. Being a subject matter expert, helps you to command and respect, helps you to see things from a neutral point of view rather than bringing your own biases into the system. As I grew up and as I took up more larger leadership roles, I realized that very important part of leadership is – not to tell people what to do or to create an eager want in others. You see, when I have a higher purpose or I have a big pitch or I have a vested interest because I am (say) the owner of the company or I am a senior manager, why would they have need for interest as me in the same task or project. Of course, I have the interest because it benefits me; because I probably get a fat bonus if I complete the project or it’s my social venture. But, then what benefit do they get. So, unless, I am able to create an eager want in my people, that’s what I call the plauses of intentional change; how are you able to make them changed intentionally by their own regard; where they feel that they need to do something differently, for the company, for myself and that is something which is very important for a leader and I think that’s what really differentiates a leader from a manager. A manager is one who manages tasks; a leader is someone who manages people and when you manage people, it’s not just about telling them what to do but creating their eager want from them. I also have realized over time that this entire age of one big leader, standing up and commanding respect is over. As we say the age of alpha mails is over. Leaders are no more the people who are going to be in the front of the organization, known to the face of the organization like (say) Henry Ford or even Steve Jobs or Mahatma Gandhi – These people have been alpha mails, their entire freedom struggle is known as reflected in Gandhi’s work, the entire rise of automobile industries reflected in Henry Ford’s work or devices for Steve Jobs. I think going forward with the information age, with thought it has shifted to different levels in the organization, leadership is going to be more suttle; it’s more relationship based. Some of the best leaders are going to go un-noticed to the outside world. But, they are going to change lives of people that they interact with inside the organization so leadership is about building these relationships - having that empathy, a sense of making other people successful for me to be successful and these are the traits of leadership I think are going to be very important in the 21st century leadership rather than stand on the top and say that I am an alpha mail, I lead the organization because gaining respect from employees is tougher than ever before. My father worked in a private sector organization for 25 years. Whenever the boss walked in, he had to stand up and say –“Sir, Good afternoon, probably!!” Like, I probably, never do that and probably my next generation would be just playing candy crushes, their boss walks in because it’s not that they are disrespecting him. It’s just the culture changes, it’s their way of life so if they are not going to stand up and give me a salute or just say Good morning, Sir; what happens to my ego and I cannot see myself as a person who is not respected in the organization and that’s exactly why leadership is not demanding respect or getting loyalty like it used to be in the past. It’s about maintaining relationships, understanding others, thinking from the other person’s point of view, taking quick, well and firmed decisions, collaborating, being participative in approach. I think these are tenets of a good leadership. If you ask me to define it, I would say being good at subject matter in what you are, subject matter expert in what you are, having a large appetite to learn, creating that ego want in others and making leadership a relationship based process rather than a task based process. These are tenets of a good leader.
Now as civilization, we are driven more towards tangible and materialistic benefits. Why should I aim at being a leader and what is it that I will achieve?
There is a very popular myth and I would rather blame all these 20th century management books and leadership is a very used and abused word in our terminology. I am completely against this view on the question that leadership is a destination we must reach. I don’t think leadership is a destination. I think leadership is a just unravelled what’s already inside you. Finishing your engineering is a destination, being very proficient in guitar is a destination but leadership isn’t a destination because it’s something that is already in you which was just tabbed by proper feedback, mentoring and circumstances. Nobody who is gone set out to learn leadership ever has become a better leader but people who have set out in their own internal journey to realize their potential, realize their own internal excellence, they have become better leaders. So, leadership is not an extra burden that you choose or do not choose. Leadership is something that you already have; we are all leaders, just some of us have tabbed that side of us and some of us have not because what is leadership; it starts with self-leadership, it starts with discipline. When you are more disciplined in your own life, leave the other stakeholders that you interact with or influence, when you are more disciplined in your own life, you feel that sense of joy and when you go to office, the sense of joy spreads at office – you are more calm and balanced in thinking because you are not waking up at 9:30, dressing up for 5 minutes and getting to office, a lot of noise, having breakfast on the way and your decision making cannot be balanced and calm if you do that. So, leadership starts with self, it starts with discipline and then it exudes across the organization, people see you as a more calm, balanced and composed person. People want to come to you for advice and mentoring and this is irrespective of whether you are a new person or a senior person in the organization. And, therefore building discipline in your life, building a sense of balance in your life, having a philosophical mindset in your life and philosophy has nothing to do with spirituality or religion. It’s having the ability to enquire, not externally but internally. These are tenets of a calm and balanced mind and that naturally creates that leader in you and it’s not something that you need to chase after so I would just say that leadership is a natural state. Some of us have been lucky to tab that natural state and some of us are yet to so that but all of you can become good leaders if you have that philosophical vent to leadership rather than just tactical vent to leadership as propagated in these management books.
What are some of the things that no one talks about leadership?
Ya, there is a lot. I already covered a little in the last question that what nobody talks about leadership is the principles, the mind behind leadership. A lot has been said about the 5 things a leader should do or the 5 styles that the leader should have but leadership is like a mirage that has no real destination as I said. But another thing that’s never normally discussed is that there is no right or wrong way to be a leader because if these things are discussed openly and people understand it then none of these leadership books are going to be sold. But, it’s very important and interesting to understand that is it the journey of the destination, are you focussing on 4 things you should do as a leader or are you focussing on the effect or consequences, you want to drive as a result of leadership. If you want to drive a bigger picture – end-goal, then you realize that there is no right or wrong way to be a leader. A leader is a person who gets things done by the end of the day.
For e.g. I hate this debate that goes on about – whether Steve Jobs is a good leader or Steve Jobs is a bad leader. These are gossips that we get into. The point is he embraced his own unique nature of leadership and he had his own way. There were flaws, there were great things about him but he was effective. Gandhi had his own unique way to approach people leadership. Henry Ford had his own unique way to approach leadership. No leader has completely fit into your definition of leadership. That does not mean that, that leader is a bad leader. They were very effective. I know some of the most inspiring leaders are people I met even during the recent Chennai floods. These could be ordinary college students like you watching this video or it could be big professionals who left their work to help people in relief. It’s a situation that had ambiguity written all over it. Nobody knew where the floods happened, which areas were most hit, nobody knew how deep the water was, nobody knew how many people were captives inside their houses. People wanted to donate but they didn’t knew how to donate, what to donate, where to donate and how to reach these places. In this ambiguity, there were few people who rose up and connected demand and supply, integrated many different helping groups into few bigger helping groups and they made a difference even more than the Govt, could make a difference. These people according to me are leaders. They might not have done those 7 rules of leadership that you might read in your book but leaders are people who are effective in the end and therefore, one thing that is not normally talked about leadership is that true leader – there is one way, right way or the highway to be a leader. It’s really what the situations demands of you and it’s really about embracing what your natural preferences and traits are.
Would you like to share any interesting and inspiring story from your experiences about leadership?
There are so many stories that I can share. One thing that comes to my mind – in fact, two things because you mentioned in the introduction about the world championship of public speaking. The day before the world championship of public speaking, from 40,000 speakers from across the world over 100 countries, we had crossed through process of elimination, various rounds and I reached the final 10 from the world – 6 Americans, couple of Asians, I was the only Indian. And, next day was the big day, 3000 people live in front of you at Las Vegas; 40,000 people watching it live over web-streaming and the previous night, I had my speech ready- I knew what I was going to speak about. I had it just in mind but I really wanted to go practiced and there were past world champions who were there at the conference and normally people run to these past world champions because since they are past world champions, they give advices, they tell you what to tweak, what to change but somehow I didn’t feel right to go to them and seek advice. I mean, I was stupid; I could have gone. I rather went to another person who had come from India to Las Vegas. This person himself, might not; I don’t think he has ever competed in a speech contest, I don’t think he would ever aspire to be a world champion himself. But, I wanted to be with that person. I knocked at his room and he opened the door and I said, I wanted to rehearse my speech in front of you and he said if I was stupid and I should rather go to the world champion. I said, it’s not about improving my public speaking skills, it’s the night before the world championship. I can’t improve my skills now, I am already good, that’s why I am here. But the point is, there is something about you that makes me want to be with you and practice my speech in front of you. You don’t need to give feedback, you don’t need to tell me anything. Just sit down and listen to my speech and I will walk out of the door after my speech. And that’s what I did – I practiced my speech for a couple of times, in front of that person, he didn’t add any value to that speech as such but he just listened and said- “It’s a good speech. All the best!” And I felt so empowered as if I am ready for the world championship. That’s the power of the leader. That’s because of the respect and credibility, I have about that person and sometimes all that is required of you is just to be there. You do not need to add value, you do not need to have the treasure of being better than your sub-ordinates or better than your employees. I probably was a better speaker than that person but just that being in the environment of that person boosts my energy so that I co-relate to what effective leaders can do. Sometimes, leaders in organizations try to do everything themselves because they know that as a leader, they have to be role models or they know to do the work better so they can do. They have been high performers in the past. But sometimes all that your team needs is just your physical presence, to be there, to motivate them something I found being a leader member.
The second anecdote I remember is my speech in the world championship finals was called the scratch. It’s not how my new car gets scratch and in the process of polishing that scratch, I end up scratching a lot of emotional scratches, causing a lot of emotional scratches on people and how I go about polishing those emotional scratches. That was the core of my speech. After I came back to India, 2 weeks after the world championship, I received thousands of these social media messages & emails. One or two messages / emails still stuck in my head.
One was from a lady – I think from France, from Europe definitely; who wrote me a mail saying that “Aditya, my brother and I have not been talking from the last 6 years. Infact, even when our father died, we met at the funeral but we did not exchanged words. I listened to your final speech called the scratch where you talked about how these emotional scratches, you can keep making it stay, stay but a scratch stays as long as you don’t polish it. So, I decided to polish that scratch and I called up my brother. He came home after 6 years and we spoke for 5 hours continuously and why we didn’t speak for 6 years, I will never know. Thank you, Aditya, for giving us that speech and changing my life for the good.
I was very touched by this email and I realized that if you are able to truly change lives, if you are able to truly influence people for the good, you are a leader. You see, on stage, I was alone. I did not have 5 people as a team, I did not have a project management tool, I did not have anything. I was just able to convey my thoughts as pure as it was to the other person and ended up creating an impact. And in a real firm, I believed that communication, public speaking, articulation is such a vital core part of leadership because when you are able to articulate your point of view, you are able to inspire people and it’s only when you inspire people that they would work on their own accord and not just because you have told them to do something and that leady probably, just required a small trigger to re-establish contact with her brother after 6 years and probably she had not got that trigger for 6 years and 7 minutes speech have provided her the trigger. Imagine how many triggers, you can give to people across the world, across your community, across your neighbourhood by unleashing that leader and unleashing that potential in you. So, these are few anecdotes that stay in my mind, that also happen resending to me which goes on to show that leadership is not something doing different things, with jumping up and down, it’s about creating the brand for yourself, it’s about being honest & truthful about yourself and it’s about building skills like articulation, to ensure that you are able to do a better job.
Those are some of the very inspiring anecdotes that you have shared with us. Now, we all know that finding a purpose in our life and being a leader is of huge importance. But does it help me to have a better career? If yes, then how?
You see the problem which many of the technology companies face now is that most of their people who are now senior managers, directors, who are in the upper mid management cadre are people who grew up very fast during the IT boom in India in the early 2000s and mid 2000s so because of the IT boom in India, many people grow faster than they should have. They got promoted probably every year as compared to every 2 or 3 years which normally happens. What happens as a result of that is – though they reached higher positions in terms of designations & roles, their capabilities in terms of leadership or people management have stagnated. They are never ready to invest around that and therefore the result of which is something that you are able to see now. The only people who are able to make this leap across this now are people who are able to take teams along with them; who are not just the value-add of a senior manager is not about being great in Java, the value-add of a senior manager is about getting the work done from his account or his team and this is what is happening in every industry. Now, in any task that you do, whether you be an individual contributor or whether you have 40 people reporting under you, whether you are a cricket team captain or whether you are a public speaker; that is a time in your career where you cannot be an island and be successful. You have to deal with multiple stakeholders; you will have to lead a team. Even, if you are a technical expert, there will be a point when you will become an architect and you will have junior architects reporting to you and which again makes you a manager so being a leader is not a choice anymore and therefore, it’s better to learn the skills of it, earlier than later in all our careers.
That is very insightful to know that we cannot escape leadership if we need to have a growth in our career which is someday or the other we will have a promotion – it might come sooner, it might come later but we will have to step into the shoes of being a leaders, managers, and stakeholders as well.
A lot of learning out here from you. Thank you so much for sharing your insights & anecdotes on leadership!!