Satya Nadella and bad days

I was recently reminded of a line about bad days from an interview with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

He was talking about what changed when he became CEO and he said (paraphrased) – “One of the things I realized is that I can never have a bad day.” He went on to explain that the ripple effects of his bad day were too large for it to ever be an option.

It is a simple and powerful idea – one that is applicable well beyond work and the teams that we run.

We don’t control what happens to us. But, we do have options on how we respond…

The value of inspirational leadership

In a post just before Christmas, I’d written about the importance of working with managers who believe in us. The impetus for that post was watching the highlights of a Manchester United game under the new interim manager which saw the team hit 5 goals for the first time in 5 years.

That match, it turned out, was a watershed moment. Under the leadership of the interim manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United went on an impressive winning streak – 7 consecutive games, 8 consecutive away games, and victories against top rivals. Through this process, we learnt that Solskjaer wasn’t just a club legend brought in to tide the team through the rest of the season. He was an astute manager and an inspirational leader.

While he’s exceeded all expectations so far, he faced the biggest challenge of his reign yesterday. His only defeat thus far came in the European Champions League against heavyweights Paris Saint Germain. He lost two of his best players to injuries in the first half and the team lost 2-0 in the first leg.

So, he headed to the second leg facing a task that had eluded 106 other teams who lost 2-0 in the first leg in the knock out stages. In the world’s elite football tournament, no one made their way back at 2-0. But, that was not all. He also had 10 senior players out of his 22 member squad injured. So, he fielded a make-shift team with 4 teenage substitutes – all of whom had never played a game in the Champions League for Manchester United. And, to top it off, he’d lost his talisman – midfielder Paul Pogba – as he was suspended after two yellow card fouls in the first leg.

Against all odds, the team won 3-1 and are through to the quarter finals. They rode their luck, they took their chances, and they made it.

This victory was a great reminder of the value of inspirational leadership to me. United were given a 6.7% chance by the bookmakers at the start of the game. But, Solskjaer got every member of the team to believe in their own capabilities, to keep faith in each other, and to dig deep and find that extra bit of energy and resolve when they most needed it.

When that happens, individuals and teams are capable of overcoming absurd odds.

Leadership and imagination

There’s an obvious application for imagination when you are leading a team. It is in imagining an inspiring vision. “Visionary” is often among the first words used to describe great leaders. And, the word “visionary” is associated with a leader’s ability to conjure a vision few others had thought of. However, there is another place where leadership and imagination go together. And, I’d argue that this place is just as important.

It is leading people with imagination. One of the biggest challenges for leaders is to manage people as they are but lead them as they could be. It is an important distinction. As you eke out efficiency from your team, you need to manage people by designing contexts that help people be productive as is. Helping your team be productive, in turn, helps them feel successful. And, this drives more learning and more productivity. The question that drives this is – “How can I help ___ be more productive?”

However, as you put on your leadership hat, it is vital you ask yourself – “What could this person be 5 or 10 years from now? And, what can I do to help this person be that best version of themselves?” The brightest, most precocious talents often threaten managers who don’t understand them or who don’t understand that they need to put on their leadership hat every once a while. People who aren’t understood can also be exasperating. It is easy to focus on productivity as it is somewhat measurable. And, we, as humans, gravitate to things we can measure. That’s exactly why leadership and imagination go together.

As you lead people, you have to imagine what might happen if all their hidden potential was harnessed. Your 21 year old analyst, in your eyes, shouldn’t be a 21 year old intern who doesn’t know how to do the basic things right. Your imagination must work hard to transform that 21 year old into a seasoned professional who is working her ass off to make a difference while living her life in a way that she describes as fulfilling. Seeing people in such light will transform both your relationship with her and how you treat her. You will still push her to deliver quality work on that next deadline. But, you will also engage her in discussions about her future and pull her into interesting discussions that are well above what she might think she’s ready for.

Manage people for who they are. Lead them imagining what they could be.

This is hard to do because it often doesn’t feel like it is paying off for the longest time.

Until it does.

Leadership and consistency – The 200 words project

Essayists like Ralph Waldo Emerson who shaped the 19th century view on leadership defined it around heroic consistency of message – no matter what the evidence. So, political campaigns are now lost the moment a candidate switches views on a topic. While political candidates are often guilty of changing views based on when it suits them, we also end up punishing those who’re changing it because of better data.

The greatest leaders, however, have always been incredibly persuadable.

Abraham Lincoln, for example, was a notorious flip flopper who changed his views on the civil rights movement as new data presented itself. Sadly, the 2012 “Lincoln” movie made no mention of this inconsistencies –Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner lamented the absence of his hallmark of greatness – his capacity for change and growth. Even black scholar and activist W E B De Bois, who was often critical of Lincoln, admired his always critical and flexible brand of leadership.

As Jeff Bezos says – people who were right a lot of their time were often people who changed their mind. Perhaps we should revisit our responses when we see our leaders change their point of view based on sound evidence?

Abraham Lincoln is the greatest figure of the 19th century. He was to be admired not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet he triumphed. Out of his contradictions and inconsistencies, he fought his way to the pinnacles. And his fight was within as well as without. – W.E.B De Bois

leadership, consistency, change, flexible

Source and thanks to: Persuadable by Al Pitampalli

Leadership in 1 page

One of my recurring frustrations with books on leadership is that leaders are often made out to be superhuman. You have to be able to do this and that and then that as a leader. I think the issue with most of these books is that they study the best leaders of their age and try to combine all their best traits into one thesis on what makes a good leader.

I think that’s the wrong approach. There is no trait-based path toward leadership. We lead others the way we lead ourselves. And, the best way to lead ourselves is to be authentic – to be 100% ourselves.

So, one of my goals has been to understand what it is it leaders actually do. Over the years, I’ve been piecing this graphic together through books, blog posts, conversations with wiser folk and my own experiences applying what I’ve learnt. So, here goes.

We’ll be building to the full 1 pager step-by-step.

Leaders do 3 things – they lead, manage, and build culture. In simple words, these mean
1. Lead: “Doing the right thing” or effectiveness
2. Manage: “Doing things right” or efficiency
3. Culture: “This is how we do things here”

The size of the boxes gives a rough illustration of the amount of time you spend on each of these 3. I estimate management to be 50% of the time with the rest split between leading and building culture.

To draw on the difference between leadership and management, I’d like to draw on a Stephen Covey story that distinguishes efficiency from effectiveness. Imagine a group of woodcutters getting ready to cut trees in a forest. The managers or efficiency leaders are those who walk behind the woodcutters and say – “Try a 45 degree angle. It’ll cut the tree faster.” Managers optimize.
The leaders are those who climb up the trees and say – “Guys, wrong jungle.” Leaders focus on whether our effort is effective.

Finally, the one central principle that ties leading, managing and building culture is “deep care.” As a leader, all the things you do will be null and void if you don’t care more than anyone else about leading. I’ve added my own interpretation to this idea – “doing small things with extraordinary care.” I have come to realize that leadership isn’t so much about the big things. It is all about the small things. Over time, the small things become the big things.


The first piece to dive into would be the lead part. For the “how,” I’ve channeled Jack Welch’s idea – caring more about your people and work. You have to obsess about what the right things are. There are no shortcuts.

But, to bring it to the tactics, I’ve gone with the what Ben Horowitz laid out in “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.” Leaders do 3 things
1. Articulate and share a vision – The Steve Jobs attribute
2. Ambition for the team (versus self) – The Bill Campbell attribute
3. Ability to execute and bring their vision to life – The Andy Grove attribute

Of these 3, the tactic you need to consistently focus on is honing your ability to articulate and share a vision. You would assume that you have risen or been given leadership because of your ability to execute. And, the ambition for the team is one that is the hardest to coach. Ben Horowitz believes that, by the time you reach your twenties and thirties, you either have it or you don’t.

So, as a leader, you obsess about doing the right thing and then communicate the vision and priorities relentlessly.


Next, we move to management. Management is all about efficiency. And, the “how” revolves around setting and managing expectations.

A beautiful framework that helps explains the tactics is the triangle with results, people, and processes. Leaders typically influence or directly control all 3. While they are always held accountable for results, results are a lagging indicator. By the time they appear, it is too late to do anything. So, the way to manage is to take control of people and processes – both of which are leading indicator. The assumption here is that if your people are happy and productive and if your processes are thorough, the chances are high that results will go your way.

The place to start here is with processes. This is because people problems are often process problems. An example I think of is vacation policy. Let’s assume you work in a company where customer support is critical. If you don’t have a simple shared calendar process that enables your team to coordinate vacations, you could end up with a situation where every person wants to take time off at the same time. In the absence of a process, you play “bad cop” asking one of them to cancel their vacation. This, soon, becomes a people problem. Good system design enables the systems to be tough and the people to be nice.

Most team processes involve setting expectation around the norms of the team. A great place to start are the processes around team meetings and communications. Example processes are 100% mindfulness (no cell phones or laptops), 100% transparency in communication around key decisions, candor in meetings – “the worst is discussed at the meeting and not outside” and a decision process where we debate till we decide but lend our 100% support once the decision is made.

One of the biggest challenges about creating team processes is that you will occasionally have a team member who refuses to follow your processes. It is not uncommon for managers to make exceptions when their results are outstanding. But, it is critical we understand the trade-offs and be transparent about why we make the exception.


Finally, the most nebulous piece – building culture. Culture, to channel Seth Godin, is when we say “this is how we do things here.” Culture is built intentionally – one small action, one day at a time. There are 2 parts to building culture – building culture and sharing culture.

You build culture in 3 ways –
1. The leader’s personal culture. The single biggest factor that influences a company is the culture of the leader or founder.
2. Who you hire/fire/promote. One principle here is that you get what you tolerate. So, if you don’t stop behaviors you don’t want, you will get more of it. The other part is that when you hire or promote, you send a strong signal about the kind of behaviors you want to encourage. Promote a jerk and you will get more jerk behavior.
3. How you make decisions. Decisions tell us how teams work. Whether it is by consensus, debate and discussion or simply issuing directives, our decisions go a long way in building culture.

An often overlooked part of building culture is sharing culture. Sharing culture involves sharing stories of people who’ve demonstrated key cultural tenets. This is why companies with great cultures (Zappos, Netflix) create handbooks. While it is useful externally, it is much more useful internally to explain to new employees that “this is how we do things here.”

One final note – there needs to be alignment between the culture you seek to create and the processes you use to govern the team with. For example, if your decision making process is to hoard information and make decisions yourself, you can’t expect to have transparency in communication.


So, how do we use all this? My sense is that this is best used as a reflection sheet. It is, perhaps, one of those things we might look at over the weekend to ask ourselves – how did I do on all these fronts last week? And, what should I aim to do on these fronts next week?

If there’s one insight I’d like to go back to to wrap up, it would be that it all comes down to deep care. At the end of the day, people will likely not remember what you say or do, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Thanks to: every person listed in the bottom for contributing key insights and frameworks for everything on this sheet. In truth, the number of folks who’ve contributed to this synthesis would be much longer than just a page. Thanks to the many authors who’ve written books on management, leadership and related topics and a big thank you to every team I’ve been part of, or lead.

I hope you find it helpful. This’ll undoubtedly evolve and, hopefully, get better. Looking forward to all thoughts/feedback.

Leadership, management, culture – definitions

There are many great definitions of leadership, management and culture. My favorite, and most actionable, definitions are as follows –

Leadership: Doing the right things (effectiveness)

Management: Doing things right (efficiency)

Culture: This is what people like me in this team/organization do

Are these complete? No, there definitely are more complete definitions. But, definitions, in my book, should help point us to action. There are many hundred things leaders should do. But, there’s none more important than leading the team to working on the right things – i.e. being effective. Similarly, there are many things a manager should do. But, the role is about efficiency. And, culture has way too many complex definitions and metaphors when it should simply get at the fact that it defines the default behavior for a person, team or organization.

Hat tip to Stephen R Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and Seth Godin (Change the culture, change the world) for the definitions.

PS: I am working on a 1 pager synthesizing everything I’ve learned about these 3 – more to follow in a couple of weeks.

Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos

I’ve never met or interacted with Ben Horowitz but I have deep respect for his thoughts and work. His book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” was fantastic. In his book, he frequently spoke about the influence Andy Grove’s “High Output Management” had on his management style. A few weeks back, he shared the foreword he’d written for the latest edition of Andy’s book on his blog. As is the case with Ben, there’s a lot of value in reading that foreword alone and I shared with a group of friends while also buying the book.

Half way through it, there have been a lot of interesting nuggets. My favorite one so far has been – “Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos.” As leaders, chaos is a given and being anything other than accepting of it is foolish. However, it is our prerogative to build systems that help us rein in chaos.

I thought of this as I was learning to ski today. A big part of learning to ski is being comfortable with losing a bit of control (especially as a beginner) as you pick up the speed required to make frequent turns. But, it is vital you then do what it takes to get back in control. As time passes, I’ve come to observe that deep lessons tend to be basic principles that, in turn, tend to transcend context.

This is definitely one of those. Thank you, Andy. And, thank you, Ben.

chaos, andy grove

I am leader

The more you find a leader stressing his title, her opinion or simply the fact that he is in charge, the more you can be sure that the team or organization is suffering from a failure in leadership.

When that happens, you also know that the leader in question is operating under a false assumption that the people she leads work for her ( I call that “the boss paradigm”) . That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Your only job as a leader is to create an environment for everyone on your team to be their best selves. At every step, you work for them. True leadership stems from what you do and how you do it. And, a big part of what you do is to help everyone working with you. Things that help this cause are consistently playing janitor, cleaning up, never being the bottleneck and just being helpful. Things that don’t are a continuous propensity to show authority or take credit.

If it isn’t obvious as yet, it is, of course, all about the process. Great leadership isn’t about what you achieve with your team. It is how you get to where you go.

And, great results follow great processes.

A friend sent me this image (thanks Pixshark) a few days ago. Thanks RB – this sums it up.

Cattle leadership

On one of Mandela’s long morning walks, he turned to his biographer and said – ‘You have never herded cattle, have you, Richard?’

Richard Stengel said he had not. Mandela nodded. As a young boy of eight, Mandela had spent long afternoons herding cattle for his mother or some others in the village. He explained, “You know, when you want to get the cattle to move in a certain direction, you stand at the back with a stick, and then you get a few of the cleverer cattle to go to the front and move in the direction that you want them to go. The rest of the cattle follow the few more-energetic cattle in the front, but you are really guiding them from the back.”

He paused. “That is how a leader should do his work.”

The idea Mandela wanted to convey that day is that leadership at its most fundamental is about moving people in a certain direction – usually through changing the direction of their thinking and their actions.

If you’re waiting for the opportunity to move people in a certain direction, look no further than yourself. Do you feel you are moving in a direction? Do you feel you changed the direction of your own thinking and actions? If so, why did you do it? Nelson Mandela’s greatness was not just because he succeeded in moving people in the right direction – he was, of course, outstanding at doing that. It was because he did so while living these principles himself. How else do you forgive those who kept you in prison for 26 years? It is that integrity – the consistency his words and actions – that made him an incredible leader.

Leadership begins within.

The behavior you expect

(Before I begin, I apologize to all of you who read this on RSS for going MIA on you over the past 4 days. The RSS feed was broken and I didn’t notice there was an issue. I got that fixed this morning so you should receive 4 days worth of posts today. It is an annoying problem that I run into every months – the encoding system seems to take issue with the occasional apostrophe / single quote as it is interpreted as code and that, in turn, ends up breaking down the system. Thanks to those of you who let me know. Apologies for the trouble.)

A team I am a part of organized a meeting yesterday for our “extended” project team. I was planning to sit in the back and get some work done. But, I noticed the attendees were joining me in the back instead of sitting near the presenter (also a team mate) right up front. So, the presenter asked asked everyone to move forward. I urged them to do so, too.

To that, one of them just said – “I’m just following your example.”

I realized I was the problem, not them. So, I moved ahead, shut my laptop down and got ready to engage. Things got much better.

One of the funny / difficult things about leadership is that we often forget that our behavior is always noticed. That’s just the nature of the job.

And, it is a reminder that the most powerful way for us to lead the way is to simply role model the behavior we expect.