Leadership Development Secrets for Mid-Level Managers: Secrets from the Lion Pride

Once, while I was visiting a Kenyan national park in the company of my family, I encountered an intriguing scene in which a pride of 9 lions had just killed a buffalo. With us was a professional wildlife photographer, who did a good job of explaining lion behaviour and answering our many questions. Among lions, the photographer said, the rule is that while the females do the killing, the pride male - who is the unquestioned leader- gets to eat first.

Within the pride was a young, two-year-old male. Ignoring the pecking order, this lion rushed to the dead animal and began to eat. Now that was a mistake! Within minutes, the leader, now baying for his blood, went for the young male's jugular. One lash of a powerful paw and the young male could not wait for the inevitable. He ran off - fast - never to return!

Some years later, I ran into the wildlife photographer. "I am curious," I told him. "What became of the young male lion after he was banished from the pride?"

Grinning, he replied, "Actually, I have been following that young lion for about two years now. He went on to start a successful pride of his own. You see, something inborn within the male lions makes them act in ways that inevitably get them expelled. They may attempt to mate with the king's females or they may try to get the first serving at the dinner table. That young lion now runs the most successful pride at the national park: His pride of 16 lions now controls prime territory and has the most experienced female hunters, which ensures that they never run out of prey."

What is leadership and how does one become a leader? A simple definition of the verb "to lead" is found in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English: "to take someone somewhere by going in front of them while they follow, or by pulling them gently."  Essentially, a leader is a guide and a source of inspiration for the followers; he or she is someone who shows the way to one's followers, or even better, inspires them to find the way. A fact that leaders quickly learn was stated by former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who said, "The price of greatness is responsibility."

Clearly, there can be no leadership without responsibility. Responsibility is that tedious thing that both leaders and followers cannot escape - what must be done and accomplished, alongside the many dangers that must be bravely borne. The consequence of painstaking dedication and risk-taking is often awe and admiration by onlookers. As the ancient Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu noted, ultimately, "When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally."

To make it as a leader, one must have the following five critical attributes. These are the secrets of leadership that are never taught at MBA schools, now laid bare in this article.

1. The innate conviction that you were born for more:

Like the young lion who just won't accept to play second fiddle, the aspiring leader senses that something within oneself is superior, and cannot settle for the ‘normal’. Spurred on by this unyielding belief, the emerging leader works systematically to rally others behind oneself and to attain set goals. For leaders, the hardest part is perhaps the start when the resources are lacking. Even in the face of hardship, leaders do not lose heart. It is hardship that defines leaders.

A good example was set by the 2004 Nobel Prize winner Prof. Wangari Maathai. In the face of wanton deforestation and a lacking political will to change the situation, Wangari Maathai started small by planting trees. She also used activism as a weapon. Later, she would teach her strategy using the hummingbird analogy:

A large forest was being consumed by a relentless fire. All around, animals watched, shaken, but did nothing. Among them, the small hummingbird decided to be proactive. It rushed to the stream and fetched some water in its little beak, flew and threw this into the fire, and kept repeating this.

Observing the act, the other animals laughed: "What do you think you will achieve with that small effort?" they asked.

"I am doing the best I can!" replied the hummingbird.

Soon, the world noticed and the hummingbird got all the support it needed. If you want to be a leader, feel like one, act line one, and be one, every day, and soon, the world - your world - will open its doors for you, because the world is looking for leadership.

2. The realization that organizational skills are superior:

One day, a motorcycle's parts went into heated argument about which of them was more important: The clutch said, "Without me, the rider wouldn't be able to change gears, so I am more important." Hearing that, one of the cogs in the rear wheel said, "And who gets to move the chain so that the bike propels forward? We the cogs are more important." In its place at the top handlebar, the handbrake said, "Without me, the bike would not stop and you all guys would go crashing to your end. I am more important."

At his place on the driver's seat, the bike's owner listened, amused. He knew how hard he had to work to keep each sub-system working well so that the entire motorcycle system would function flawlessly. Such is the nature of leadership: the leader must take centre stage even as the individual movers of the sub-systems remain engrossed in their secondary operations. Undoubtedly, each sub-system is critical to the overall functioning of the larger system. But the role of each individual sub-system controller remains worthless unless all units are synchronized to produce the desired end-result.

This is why, to grow as a leader, you must work towards honing your skills as an organizational manager rather than as a professional in a narrow area of operation. As a leader, you must master the larger picture. You must see the forest, without losing sight of individual trees.

3.A willingness to learn what you do not know:

What every seasoned leader quietly knows is, as John Baldoni stated, that "Leadership is an active, living process. It is rooted in character, forged by experience, and communicated by example." One of the best experiences by which leadership is forged is learning. Learning can be formal or informal, brief or long-term, simple or complex. As an organizational leader, one of the greatest lessons I have learned is to delegate prudently and then to wait.

Over the years, I have discovered that I cannot quite predict the exact nature of the results or the trajectory that a certain initial action might take. Often, I am anxious as I delegate something. But I have learned to let go, to give up control over the exact manner in which a task will be executed. Ultimately, my willingness to learn to manage emotion and to learn as I go has boosted my skills as a leader.

If you are to grow as a leader, you must be open to learning formally and informally, experientially and by chance, effortlessly and painstakingly. There is no shortcut. But always remember, as leaders, we mainly learn by doing! So, go on, make that tough workplace decision today, and the next one tomorrow, and don’t worry if later you realise the decisions did not lead to what you anticipated - instead, count your lessons, celebrate them, over a beer if that is the way you like to celebrate; at the end of it, you will not say that you failed, you will know that you have ‘experience’.

4. The wisdom to attract the attention of senior corporate leaders, all without being a nuisance:

If you work in an organizational setup, you must have noticed that, to achieve meaningful change, you need the support and blessings of the senior-most directors. Indeed, without these people, chances are slim that you would even hold a leadership role. How, then, do you attract the attention of these senior leaders without alienating your immediate supervisors by seeming to ignore the usual chain of command?

There is no escaping the fact that every time you attempt to go to the senior-most managers directly, you may somehow aggravate your supervisors, depending on your approach, and the character of your supervisors. Organizational wisdom, however, dictates that, to succeed, you must nurture the killer instinct in you, all without committing career hara-kiri (suicide).

'Leadership is an active, living process'

In other words, you must learn to zigzag, to walk on hot coal. Go to the decision makers directly and ensure that they know of your existence and your value to the organization. At the same time, remember to appease your supervisors. After all, if you are seen by the senior-most directors to be antagonizing the very people they have entrusted their organization to, your days at the corporation may be numbered.

5. The courage to face challenges head-on:

In the wild, elephants lead by walking towards danger. A herd of elephants usually comprises the large males, their females and calves. The moment they sense danger, the males immediately position themselves between the rest of the herd and the perceived danger. Such is the nature of leadership. The great leader understands that there can be no advancement without confrontation with risk. Indeed, the greatest achievements have been made by persons who calculatedly risked everything. Of course, risk is just that-it is risky! When you take a risk, you stand to lose your shirt as well. When you take a risk, tomorrow you may either be celebrating or weeping.

Whatever you do, you must always bear in mind that, as a leader, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore,” as William Faulkner noted. How do you handle yourself during those moments when you must wait to discover the consequences of your daredevil, risk-taking pursuits? Be like a duck. On the surface, remain calm and composed. Beneath the surface, paddle like hell. Whenever I look at a duck gliding in what appears like an effortless move along a muddy stream, I stop to imagine how much thrusting and pushing the bird must be doing.

Such should be the persona of the leader: Every time, you find yourself anxious, seek comfort in the words of Paul Brunton: “Every test successfully met is rewarded by some growth in intuitive knowledge, strengthening of character, or initiation into a higher consciousness.” Welcome to this higher consciousness - it is where you belong, if you choose to!

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