In 2007, I experienced a career-altering moment. After being in the general manager role for Sniffer's India R&D center (subsequently acquired by NetScout) for four years, my new SVP of Engineering asked me if I would accept being a functional manager for my current direct reports. As a good company man, I consulted with all involved leaders and my direct reports, and enthusiastically said yes, while, to be honest, not completely grasping the importance of the opportunity.
What started off as an innocuous query from my leader soon became a chance to explore and grow myself as an individual contributor at a deeper leadership level - what I now refer to as an "Individual Leader" - someone who doesn't need a hierarchy, department or budget to make an organizational impact. An individual contributor operating at organizational leadership level is like a cross between Greenleaf's concept of "servant leadership" and Maxwell's 5th level of leadership. People follow you because of who you are and what you stand for.
What happens when you separate leadership from authority? Over the next seven years, I learned a lot about leading without a team. My experiences were in India which is a rather hard place for such radical ideas -- as a hierarchical society, we value seniority, and as a successful IT services industry, there is a fair amount of achievement-orientation. So, some of my insights could be very contextual, though I believe most have universal relevance.
1. Leaders are hired for change
Change has changed. In the past, change was mostly large-scale, which meant it was episodic, costly, and initiated by those who wielded "power". However, most of these changes were about improving efficiency, or the bottom line of an organization. Today's leaders must raise the game to create a new top line, and bring about innovation, which has more in common with knowledge than traditional power.
In the knowledge era, change changes at a much rapid pace. Even the role of change initiators seems to have been democratized if not altogether reversed. Those with knowledge now have the "power" to initiate change irrespective of their level inside an organization. In a level-playing field, it is meaningless and rather risky for leaders to bring about changes without involving the true power in their organizations, for the boardrooms can't match what those working on the front-line know. In fact, the visible "symbols of power", such as a heavy-sounding title or a corner office, stands in the way of a leader being perceived as genuine by employees, thereby reducing a leader's credibility to effectively lead change. An individual leader offers a great alternative to a more "human" and "humane" face of change by bringing authenticity to the employees, and inclusivity in representing them to the organization in order to raise trust - which is the key ingredient for disruptive change.
2. Leaders are measured by impact
Until now, leaders were 'measured' (and 'rewarded') by absurd status symbols - large team sizes, additional territories, fancy budgets, executive administrators, or large offices! And these don't even include the perks doled outside the office such as golf club memberships or annual family vacations to exotic places -- no wonder they were called "entitlements"!
None of these status symbols has anything to do with the ability to make impact. On the contrary, they only hide the weakness and incompetency of leaders by making them look larger than life. Real leadership impact is measured by the ability to cut through the organizational red tape and institutional mental models. 'Leaders' who hide within the safety of four walls of their glass cave to feel powerful are far too detached from reality to recognize that true power is all about having the humility to learn and bring about the right impact by engaging with employees in the hallways and cafeteria.
3. True leadership is servant leadership
Hierarchical leaders need direct reports to carry out their designs. Paid followers, (i.e., followers receiving a salary to follow the leader) appear to exist to serve the hierarchical leader rather than the organization. The world has seen enough of power-hungry leaders who believe that their position is an endorsement of their ability and that their title gives them unbridled power, and their team exists to solely serve them.
Individual leaders don't require direct reports to create an impact. They build their networks, and use their passion to recruit volunteers from across the organization. Volunteers are experts in their own field who want to get involved in a community of like-minded peers and contribute to the change. Individual leaders selectively recruit volunteers and develop them into individual leaders.
Developing social intelligence
Plunging into a leadership role not defined by a position of authority gave me a unique opportunity to acquire new set of leadership skills where the only "tool" was persuasion and mutual understanding, and the only "method" was empathy and transparency. Anyone with those skills can be a leader, but any leader without skills will eventually fail to step up when challenged.
Leadership from a place of individual responsibility is not for someone seeking comfort in a familiar and static job description. In all the three companies where I gained invaluable experience, the job description was fuzzy at best and useless at worst - finally I just did what I felt was right. Sometimes it required sticking my neck out to confront the status quo. Fortunately, my peers supported me, and I also kept my communication lines transparent.
It takes a huge helping of professional humility to start on a track where you feel alone. You have to get past the idea that you need an army to report into you to make an impact, and that realization was sometimes painful. Some people saw me as a pushover. Other times they thought I was on vacation with no pressure to deliver. In the end, one simply stops defending and lets the results speak for themselves. Finally, taking on an individual leadership role without a position of authority demands you to accept the social implications. I dealt with that pressure by ignoring it, and just focusing on what was the right thing to do.
Here are three ways to prepare yourself as an individual leader:
- Develop your social skills that allow you to succeed without traditional power or roles;
- Build your professional network inside (and outside) the company;
- Grow yourself in your chosen knowledge area and develop yourself as a T-shaped professional having horizontal knowledge and skills.
Preparing yourself will permit you to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise.
Last year, I took individual leadership to the next logical level: I became a solo-preneur. Though more secure options were available, my experience prepared me for taking the plunge and for serving my clients with the benefit of all I learned from my journey as an individual leader.
Are you ready to take the plunge into leadership without the crutch of authority to lean on?
Tathagat Varma started his career as a computer scientist with defense, before playing a long innings in the software industry. Last year he founded Thought Leadership, a boutique consulting firm specializing in strategy, agility, innovation and leadership. He is among the 'coolest' management consultants having spent sixteen months in icy Antarctica as part of the 13th Indian Scientific Expedition back in 1993-95. He is currently writing a book on Agile Product Development for a major global publisher.