Don’t aspire to become inspiring leader, get inspired by a grand cause

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Move over relativity because Professor Srikumar Rao wants every thing to be relatable. From his graduation in Physics from Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College to his PhD in Marketing from the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University, Rao has always exhibited an offbeat streak. The author of such bestsellers on personal development as Are You Ready To Succeed: Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Mastery in Business and Life, is known for his unconventional take on management and leadership. He was recently interviewed by McGraw Hill for their series on the 50 most influential thinkers in business. CD caught up with the management maven last week as he was breezing through Mumbai on a business trip. Excerpts:

Why do you tell ambitious executives that they should not try to be inspiring leaders?

When you say “I want to be an inspiring leader” the operative phrase is “I want”. This is inherently me-centered and self serving whether or not you recognise it. What you are really saying is “I want to get people to do what I would like them to.” Perhaps they don’t want to do that. So you have to somehow get them there. You want to learn how to manipulate people.

Whoa! That’s a sweeping generalisation.

I am deliberately being provocative to get a point across. But it IS true that the desire to be an inspiring leader is all about you. I don’t believe that being an inspiring leader is a goal that you can aspire to. It is a by-product. Instead be inspired by a grand cause, let it grip you and engulf you and take over your life. Then you will become an inspiring leader by default. When Gandhi started his work in South Africa he didn’t set out to have millions of followers. He set out to overturn the passport laws that he felt were unjust. In the process of mobilizing support for this cause he became an inspiring leader.

We live in a goal oriented society. Why do you say that goals are bad for you and we should forget all about them?

Being obsessed by goals is bad for you. You should set goals, even ambitious goals, regularly. But focus on them only to the extent that they give you direction. Having established direction, forget about the goals and focus on the process, what you have to do to achieve those goals. A goal is an outcome and outcomes are always beyond our control. Actions, on the other hand, are largely within our control. So if you concentrate obsessively on goals, you will have many upsets and you will suffer and your judgment will become clouded.

If, on the other hand, you pour all that mental energy into the process, you can dissociate yourself from the outcome. If you achieve what you set out to do, wonderful. If you tried your best but it did not happen, still wonderful. It does not affect your emotional well-being. You simply accept this as a new starting place and decide where you would like to go from there. Paradoxically, the more you are detached from the outcome, the more likely it is that you will actually achieve it. As any negotiator knows, you are most powerful when you are genuinely prepared to walk away.

Not reaching your goal will certainly affect you, will it not? It hurts to fail.

That is a mistake that all of us make. And we make it repeatedly. Something happens to us and we immediately judge it as “good” or “bad”. We label not reaching a goal a “failure” and “bad”. These are all models in our head and they do not serve us well. Can you recall any event that, when it happened, you thought was “bad”. But looking back on it now with greater wisdom you can see that it was not so bad after all and, in fact, may actually have been “good”?

There is always a possibility we can move from labeling what happens to us “bad” to labeling it “Don’t know whether this is good or bad”. This is a huge step and greatly brings down the suffering you experience. And anyone can learn to do this with practice. I have had countless graduates of my program tell me that something happened to them that seemed terrible – such as losing a job – but when they didn’t stick that label on it they became aware of ramifications they would not otherwise have been able to explore.

Why do you say that it is not the function of a manager to motivate employees?

Human beings are inherently motivated. Think of your first day at a new job. Did you start expecting to be bored and disgruntled and reduced to clock watching? Oh, no! You were excited and thrilled and ready to set the world on fire. The disillusionment happened later and gradually and, quite likely, both your attitude and the environment contributed to this. So, in my view, it is not the function of a manager to motivate workers. It is the function of a manager to find out what is demotivating workers and systematically getting rid of it. This is a profoundly different philosophical approach.

What’s the root cause of executive stress?

Executives at all levels and especially the senior ones say that stress is out of control in their lives. They attribute it to workplace politics, competitive pressure, relationships fraying with spouse and/or children or any of a host of similar reasons. But the truth is that none of these cause stress. The only reason you experience stress in your life is that you have a rigid view of the way the world should be and the universe is not cooperating with you. You resist the universe instead of accepting it and this results in stress. You are self-centered. You want the world to be the way you visualise it. But it isn’t and never will be. Many graduates of my program work in the financial services industry, which is not known for being warm and cuddly.

Quite a few say that there is stress in their life because of an “unreasonable” boss. Lets look at what is really happening here. You have an expectation of “This is the way my boss should behave.” He should be civil, appreciative, provide guidance. but you may instead have a profane tyrant who uses every opportunity to berate you. You feel stress because you will not let go of the vision of what you would like and this is not what you got and you resent this. You have just handed over the keys to your wellbeing and happiness to a jerk. Why would you want to so a fool thing like that?

How can one avoid that?

Because of his hierarchical position a boss can dictate what you will work on and how long and things like that. He has absolutely no control over your emotional well-being unless you give that control away. The first important step is to determine that you will not give that control away. Think of yourself as a civil engineer called upon to build a road. There is a swamp, a mountain, dense forests and loose shale on the path the road will take.

You don’t rail against these obstacles or curse them. It is your job as a civil engineer to get the road built and you figure out if you will go over, under or through the barriers. Life is the same. Toxic bosses, difficult customers, irritating relatives are the “obstacles” you are given. Figure out how you can live a joyful, fulfilled life in spite of them.

Why do you say that managers should not offer helpful suggestions?

That is an over simplification. I don’t say that managers should not offer helpful suggestions. I do say that they should be very careful about the impact of what they say. If a subordinate comes to you bursting with enthusiasm about something that she has thought up, listen carefully. Perhaps you can improve on it a little, but if you do so you run the risk of seeming to hijack the idea and lessening her commitment to it. The higher up you get in the hierarchy, the more important it is for you to listen a great deal more than you talk.

What is your vision for a corporate executive in today’s world?

That he – or she – finds deep meaning and purpose in what they do. That there is joy in their life at work and outside of it. That there is a sense of fulfillment, a knowledge that this is exactly what they were put on earth to do. It would be wonderful if everyone does what they do because they cannot not do it.

Personal Mastery for extraordinary impact

I am creating a community of entrepreneurs and senior executives who seek to infuse spirituality into every aspect of their lives. Persons who want to leave a dramatic footprint in the world but are also well aware that “Imperious Caesar dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.” If you think you qualify, join the community to take advantage of the bounty of resources that will help you achieve Personal Mastery.

Dr. Rao has helped thousands of executives and entrepreneurs all over the world discover deep meaning. His methods have enabled them to achieve quantum leaps in effectiveness. Graduates of his workshops have become more creative and more inspiring leaders. He conceived the innovative course Creativity and Personal Mastery. Students found it so overwhelmingly powerful that it remains the only business school course in the world to have its own alumni association.