My good friend P was retiring. After an illustrious career in WHO and many other organizations he chose his retirement day in Delhi.

I would take over the Program Director role from him from tomorrow.

After a daylong meeting, we sat at the hotel bar. Exhausted from making, hearing and moderating presentations through the day. We chatted over whiskey and salted nuts.

How does it feel my friend, I asked. Fine, P said. And then after a pause added, I leave behind the next generation to carry on the work that someone had passed on to me. You are now in-charge of the work. Therefore, I am happy to retire.

I felt very humbled. And a little awed. P has been a legendary leader in his field. He is widely recognized and respected. I was only some ten years in the field of public health. And a novice when all these responsibilities are now coming over to me.

I asked P, what is your guidance to me P on how to be good. Good what? P asked. A leader, I replied. P smiled and said, just be yourself Raj Shankar. All shall be good.

I insisted and there was perhaps an element of genuine appeal in me. P ordered for more whiskey and spoke. Raj Shankar, I do not know what a good leader needs to do. But I will tell you what I have done when I have led teams. For the past thirty years. You can try those. Whether they are good or not I can not say.

Below is what P said that evening in a bar in Delhi. Over whiskey. On what he did as a leader.

In your leadership, remember 4 Ls. I have practiced at every step.

  1. Learn. A leader who does not learn from the team fails to succeed. To learn, you must listen. A leader must learn more than each member of the team because only when a leader learns, she or he can demonstrate the learning to the team. Knowledge is very dynamic and always on the move. If you stop learning, you become outdated. Therefore, as a leader never stop learning.
  • Leverage. Your team members will have strengths. They will have weaknesses. Please know those strengths and weaknesses thoroughly. If you do not know your team with strengths and weaknesses of each member, forget being a leader. Once you know their strengths and weaknesses leverage your knowledge to get the maximum from your team. The trick that I have applied was to find how I could convert some of the weaknesses to strengths. Strength and weaknesses are actually virtual terms. And contextual. Bottomline, leverage the strengths and weaknesses of your team members well.
  • Lead. If you are a leader, the first expectation that the team would have of you is to lead. You will have read of the various types of leaderships: authoritative to participatory to various neo-styles. Read them. Follow or develop your own style of leadership. But if you are a leader and that has been made known to the team, demonstrate your leadership. One key ask of a leader is decision making. Follow your style of decision making. The how part. You can always learn from the team and work on your style but for heaven’s sake never step back when your team is asking you to make a decision. You may think many will not like your decision. But it is a myth. If you make a decision then the team irrespective of whether they like it or not will accept you as a leader. Do not scratch your head on being a good or bad leader. The first step is to be a leader.

 Now I will come to the last L. And this I believe is as important as the previous three Ls.

Ok, Raj Shankar tell me what is the latest buzz word in a public health program. The word which everyone is talking about. Sustainability.

Similarly, in leadership there is an important word that I have always remembered. Legacy.

  • Legacy. Please seek to identify new leaders. As much as knowledge is dynamic, the art of leadership is dynamic too. Groom, nurture, accelerate those who you identify so that after years when you plan to retire and go back to your private life, you can drink whiskey happily in a dim lit bar knowing that you have exciting family times ahead and that the work that you inherited from some leader is smoothly passed on to someone you trust. Most importantly do not leave a void when you leave. Do not leave till that leader is available who you can pass the baton on to.

And then, P ordered dinner.

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