Lessons in Leadership

Twice last week, I got fresh new insights into ‘the soul of leadership’.

One was through the words of Deepak Chopra, the renowned leadership teacher, and another through the words of a Bahraini businessman, a reputed leadership practitioner.

During his seminar here in Bahrain, Deepak Chopra gave us an example that made me think of the tremendous influence leadership has, on people.

He talked about a time when Jawaharlal Nehru, the great Indian statesman and the first Prime Minister of independent India, visited the speaker Deepak Chopra’s home town in Madhya Pradesh in India, when the speaker was barely seven years old.

On hearing the news of the Cambridge-educated former freedom-fighter, visiting her town, Deepak Chopra’s mother – the wife of an army doctor – started selecting and deciding which sari to wear. And it was still many weeks ahead of the scheduled visit.

Everyone knew that she will only be standing, like thousands of others, on the side of the road to see Nehru’s motorcade pass by. So, her family and friends made fun of her saying that she was over-enthusiastic, and that she was acting as if Nehru would really look through the crowds to notice her pink sari.

But, strangely enough, though briefly, Nehru’s open-top vehicle in his motorcade actually stopped near her. Nehru looked at her, smiled, plucked the rose with the stalk from his coat, and threw at her. And, with her joy knowing no bounds, she ran home with that rose. And put it in a small vase of water.

And for days afterwards, people queued up at her house just to look at the rose Nehru had given her.

What was in a rose? Nothing. But, the greatness of the leader who gave it, made it so important that, when it was withering away, some people asked from her, for just one single petal as a keepsake. The seven-year-old Deepak asked his mother: What is there in this rose petal ? The mother replied, ” That petal represents the soul of India.”

Nehru’s leadership influence on the British India and the independent India was so great, and his foresight into India’s future – if you look at the development plans he laid out, in education, agriculture and foreign policy – was so ahead of his time, that he will remain as the greatest leader of a new, emerging India. The soul of his leadership was being seen in simple petals by some people.

When I recently met one of Bahrain’s well-educated top business leaders in his office, along with my colleague Unnikrishnan, I asked him how he can look so calm and peaceful while Bahrain is facing vandalism and violence, almost every other day. Is it not affecting business adversely?

His answer gave me a new look into leadership. He said that, as the head of a large business establishment, if his face looks gloomy when he comes to work, it affects all his staff. So, he tries his best to always face the day optimistically. He said he continues opening new branches and making even bigger plans for growth.

He recounted to me, a statement he heard ten years ago, when he was attending a month-long CEO seminar in London.

An old professor from the Indian city of Kolkata (then called Calcutta) said to them that “a leader should make the environment of his company like it is ‘Spring in Paris’ and not like it is ‘July in Calcutta’”! The discomfort due to the heat and dust of Kolkata during July will be a complete contrast to the pleasure of the wonderful and uplifting air of Paris during spring.

He said that the motivation of the staff largely depends on the disposition of their leader.

With examples from Indian history, my Bahraini businessman-friend said that just like how India went through invasions by several global powers and yet emerged stronger and brighter, Bahrain too will pass through this short bad phase and emerge stronger and brighter.

He said that Bahraini people have goodness in their hearts. And that will help them to keep their spirits high, and to keep their eyes focused on the growth of the country.

Yes. The soul of leadership is in the fact that a leader’s disposition and actions, can have a very far-ranging and long-lasting impact on the followers, and on their collective growth.