The five traits of good leaders

Date : Jan 31 , 2020 | Featured,Opinion

Amit Chandra says he “tries hard” to straddle the for-profit and not-for-profit space, dividing his time between two roles: as Chairman of Bain Capital’s India office and as one of India’s best-known philanthropists. His philanthropic foundation, A.T.E. Chandra Foundation, is among a clutch of donors in the Indian social sector who fund capacity building within non-profits with the firm conviction that great impact can only be achieved by investing in building leadership and improving processes that form the backbone of organisations. 

In this article, Amit draws from his vast experience as a leader in the corporate as well as social sectors to write about the five qualities that, he believes, make a good leader in both spaces. He himself uses this ‘tool-kit’ in selection processes and while evaluating talent during HR processes. 

People speculate that the principles of what constitutes ‘good’ management will need to change over time in response to the changing environment. I actually have a counter view on this: while there is no doubt that the context is changing, the broad principles of leadership don’t really need to change.

What changes over time is how leaders respond, how they communicate using new media, how they manage risk, how they deal with different technology, or how they acquire and retain talent. The ethos and values of good leadership and what makes a good leader don’t really change that much. 

Whether it is the for-profit sector or the non-profit sector, there are five key traits that define successful leaders. These may seem easy or even obvious, but the leaders who truly succeed are the ones who imbibe these five qualities in fair measure and practise them consciously.  These traits are:

1. Character, above all: This, to me, is the most important attribute–one that cannot be compromised while selecting or evaluating a leader. Integrity and humility are vital aspects of character, as would be compassion, especially in the not-for-profit space where one needs to connect with the communities.

If the leader is not empathetic towards co-workers, who in turn lack empathy towards each other, it is difficult to build a truly sustainable or great organisation. 

It’s also important to strike the right balance between caring for the outside world and caring for the organisation itself. If the leader is not empathetic towards co-workers, who in turn lack empathy towards each other, it is difficult to build a truly sustainable or great organisation. 

It is very important to be an individual who has respect for individuals within as well as outside the organisation. Respect, in fact, needs to be embedded in the organisation’s culture—and anything that has to do with the organisation’s value system must always, without compromise, start with the leader. If she cannot abide by this value system, it can be deeply demotivating for the organisation’s stakeholders.  The buck always stops with the leader and the value system always starts with her.

2. The ability to see the big picture: The second big trait in a leader is the ability to set the vision for the organisation. She must work with the board and the management to look beyond the obvious. It’s very difficult for the management team, when they are in the trenches, to think for five years down the road. An effective leader, however, steps back and sees the big picture, and also brings in disruption to something that’s already working to make it better. 

Visionary and disruptive leadership is about challenging status quo— it is difficult because often the leader is challenging herself, people around her, managing that conflict with equanimity, carrying people along and getting them to believe in her…. not an easy task!

3. The passion to follow a dream:  All great leaders I have seen have remarkable passion and energy towards their vision. Their energy is infectious: one can see the glow on their face when they talk about their cause, their organisation and the work they do. They work tirelessly to follow their dream. 

It is important to sustain this by making the goals and the rewards tangible for team members across various levels and functions of the organisation. 

Such passion rapidly starts spreading to other members of the team, who in turn start believing in the destination and happily share the journey towards it. It is important to sustain this by making the goals and the rewards tangible for team members across various levels and functions of the organisation. 

In the not-for-profit sector, for example, it is important that the leader helps her co-workers see how lives are being impacted positively by their work. She can do this by allowing teams to visit the program sites and see the power of change for themselves, or by ensuring that stories from the field travel into the office so that more people within the organisation see the value they are creating.

4. The ability to lead, grow and nurture: An effective leader never loses sight of the human aspects of running an organisation. Like the conductor of an orchestra, she develops the ability to make diverse people play to the same beat. She creates an operational rhythm for the organisation by ensuring a good process alignment in the team, defining goals, roles, accountability and metrics.

She is also committed to enabling individuals to grow and fulfil their potential by clearly understanding the aspirations of individuals,  identifying their development needs, counselling them on what they can do better, giving them feedback. This often doesn’t happen in many organisations as they lack good HR systems. The leader must have it on her priority list to put in place processes and practices that allow individuals and the organisation to grow – she herself will grow while enabling this. 

She needs to nurture herself too, helping the board to acknowledge this. She needs to take some time off every year to invest in her own learning and developing her own capacity to lead.

A good leader creates the right processes to allow sound decision making.

5. Taking decisions in a decisive way, at the right time. Many times, we see leaders take decisions at the wrong time or with too little data or without relying on the right processes. A good leader creates the right processes to allow sound decision making. She involves the right kind of people in the decision-making process and makes sure the decision is timed right. 

The best piece of advice I got in my career was from one of my mentors, Hemendra Kothari, Chairman of DSP Investment Managers, when he put me in my first management role as a banker. He told me: “Make sure you always hire smarter than yourself and build a culture for people to thrive.”

I took that advice very seriously and have always hired people who are far smarter than me and empowered them. Be it the teams I have built at DSP Merrill Lynch or Bain Capital, and or now at A.T.E. Chandra Foundation, I have tried to build great teams and make myself irrelevant.

Hiring extraordinary people allows leaders to work at a strategic level and keep reinventing themselves. A lot of people tend to shy away from this because of their own insecurities; what they don’t realise is that it holds their organisations back—more importantly, it holds them back in their own journeys. 

Amit Chandra is the Chairman of Bain Capital's India office, which he joined as Managing Director in early 2008. Prior to joining Bain Capital, Amit spent most of his professional career at DSP Merrill Lynch, a leading investment bank in India. He retired from DSP Merrill Lynch in 2007 as its Managing Director to move to Private Equity. He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2007 and featured in the Forbes 'Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy' list in 2016, along with his wife Archana. He serves /has served on the boards of leading companies such as Tata Sons, Genpact, L&T Finance, Emcure Pharmaceuticals, Piramal Enterprises, and Tata Investment Corporation. He is one of the founders of Ashoka University and is on the boards/ advisory boards of several oganisations, including Bridgespan in India, the Centre for Social Impact & Philanthropy, and Swades Foundation.

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