How Leaders Groom Leaders

How leaders groom future leaders

By Roopen Roy Jul 07 2015

Tags: Op-ed

As writer Tom Peters said, “Leaders do not create followers, they create more leaders.” How do leaders create more leaders? Mahatma Gandhi had provided a hint: “Catch them young.” But how do you look at young talent and separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you see the tree in the seed?

I recall an interesting conversation with a CEO in the diamond business in Jerusalem. The price of a diamond is driven by 4 Cs — cut, colour, clarity and carat. The first C is in the hands of human beings i.e. how you will cut and polish. The last three Cs are essentially intrinsic qualities of the stone. He went on to explain that the most highly prized experts in his company were those who could look at a rough diamond and figure out how to bring out the brilliance of the rare gemstone with a minimum loss of weight (carat). Similarly, in the world of business, only a truly great leader can spot a brilliant talent and groom him/her for future success.

Michelangelo described it famously, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” His famous Renaissance masterpiece, David in Florence, that’s about 14.2 feet tall, was carved out of a single block of white marble. It needed the magic touch of a Michelangelo to breathe life into a block of dead stone.

One of the difficulties in talent grooming is the “ugly duckling” problem. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, a different looking bird was growing up with ducklings. He looked ugly and was mocked and humiliated by others. But one day, when he grew into a beautiful white swan, he flew away. When they are born, swans look ugly but grow into the most graceful creatures in adulthood. The takeaway from this story? If a company’s DNA is unable to embrace diversity, if it cannot integrate with those who look different, talk different or think different, then its insularity will doom it to eternal mediocrity.

In most societies, “otherness” is an issue. People who are mavericks are looked upon with grave suspicion. They are disgraced and embarrassed by conformists and rulebook minders. Yet, these are the very folks that must be protected. George Bernard Shaw had aptly said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

If you challenge mavericks and iconoclasts to dare to reach audacious goals, they will achieve exceptional success. True, there may be failures and even minor disasters, but if you pin your hopes on innovation and bet on creativity, you need radicals and out-of-the-box thinkers. You need risk takers and entrepreneurs who dream big and act bold.

There are two stories my grandfather told me when I was young. At the time that I heard them, I thought the first guru was the clever one and the second guru was a fool. My views are exactly the opposite today.

The first story: a famous pehelwan (wrestler) had a devoted follower to whom he taught all the tricks in the craft of wrestling. The disciple finally became a famous wrestler by defeating one challenger after another. But he became arrogant and began to proclaim himself as an undisputed world champion. A young boy from the spectator gallery, mocked him and said, “You can never be greater than your guru while he is still alive.” The wrestler became furious and in his rage went to the guru and challenged him to a wrestling bout. He thought that the guru was older and would not be able to put up a resistance. But the guru had one trick up his sleeve. He had taught his disciple everything except for a single, special grappling technique. By using this, he defeated the disciple and said, “I knew you might become arrogant and challenge me one day, therefore I saved this last trick for you.”

There is a second story of a horse-trainer who was employed by a king. He was an exceptional trainer. He trained a horse that had a record of never being beaten, and won every race it ran. Another rival king, extremely jealous of this king’s success, sent a thief to steal the horse. The thief stole the horse at the crack of dawn and raced it out of the stable. The guards woke up the trainer and gave chase. When they had almost caught up with the horse, the trainer told the thief the secret, “Box his left ear.” The thief followed the instruction and the horse bolted like lightning. It was out of sight in no time. The guards reported this to the king who was furious and told the trainer, “You idiot, for you I lost my best horse. Why did you have to tell the thief the secret?” The trainer said with all humility, “Yes sir, you lost a very good horse. But as his trainer, I had the duty to ensure his unbeaten record was not blemished.”

The second trainer was the wiser leader and teacher. His obligation was to the champion horse he had groomed even if it harmed him personally. The first guru was selfish and considered his own disciple as his potential competitor. He did not teach him two things: humility and the last trick — the special grappling technique.

In training leaders, the mentor should be completely unselfish. He should never consider his disciples as his future competitors and his sole objective should be to make them successful. That is how leaders groom leaders.

(The writer is The Managing Director of Deloitte Consulting, India)