Leadership Lessons from Everyday Life

By Vinita BaliSpring 2011 | Print
Alot has been written about people who shape and change companies and other organizations and what makes them who they are and do what they do. Equally, there are larger numbers of people who lead everyday exemplary lives but who go unnoticed. What leadership lessons can we learn from such people? What makes them disciplined and empathetic, with an unwavering focus on the end goal, as they strive for excellence and perfection?

Leadership is a capability that each of us has within us. It is formed as we take on the opportunities and challenges of everyday life, and it is measured by our successes and failures. It is my belief and experience that the leadership lessons we learn in our everyday lives can and should be carried with us into our work environments, and that they can help us become better leaders of our people.

As I have reflected on leadership over the years based on my own experiences across several countries and continents, I have been inspired by people everywhere, irrespective of their country or their socioeconomic status, who exemplify the true qualities of leadership. And they do so by the strength of their character and their authenticity—by the way they live their lives every day. I admire and respect them because their motivation is pure, and they live on the strength of their conviction.

Across all domains and disciplines, leadership is about the human spirit and human endeavor, underpinned by core values that define character. It is this spirit and endeavor that makes the difference in the form and quality of accomplishment. Howard Gardner has talked about leadership as the capacity to continually create. That capacity, infused with the relentless drive for excellence that is inspirational, creates enduring success—whether we talk about successful sports people, successful artists and composers, successful companies, or successful professionals in any field. 

In the sections that follow, I explore some of the key lessons from everyday life.

Character and Authenticity are Core to a Leader

More than anything else, leadership is about character and authenticity. It is about taking ownership for changing something and making it better than you found it. And when that change operates with responsibility, it earns respect. Leadership is exercised every day—in schools, homes, and other institutions. In this article, I look at it from the corporate lens, though its central premise holds everywhere

The word character comes from an ancient Greek verb that means “to engrave,” and its related noun meaning “mark” or “distinctive quality.” General Schwarzkopf said, “The main ingredient of good leadership is good character. This is because leadership involves conduct and conduct is determined by values.” Simply stated, character is about doing the right thing and not letting anything get in the way. Examples of “doing the right thing” abound in the world of business, art, sports, medicine, and many other fields. The common thread of human endeavor and human spirit is what defines leaders. I believe it was Elvis Presley who said that “values are like fingerprints, nobody’s are the same, but you leave them all over in everything you do.”

At a time when CEO tenures are shrinking to an average of six years across the Fortune 500 companies, management educators and the corporate world must necessarily reflect on the quality of leadership, for that will determine the quality of the world we are all going to live in. Tony Hayward lost his job at BP , not just because of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (oil spills have happened before) but because of the way he handled the situation and the lack of leadership and ownership he displayed for addressing the problem once it had occurred. 

The interesting thing about leadership behavior is that it must be displayed in major moments but is created in the small ones over time. Reputation is based on the integrity and consistency of words and actions—repeatedly.

Leadership is About Handling Adaptive Challenges

Despite the general convergence of views that technical and functional skills are essential but not enough to succeed in any field, management education continues to place great significance on precisely those aspects— analytical and conceptual abilities, critical thinking, and problem solving—and not enough on adaptive skills. What distinguishes effective leaders from others is not just their technical or functional expertise, but their ability to handle adaptive challenges, that is, those situations or circumstances that cannot be predicted but can occur at any time in the course of business.

Contrast the handling of the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill with the dialysis filter crisis that confronted Baxter in Europe in August 2001, when approximately 50 deaths were reported in Spain and Croatia following the use of the company’s dialysis filters.

Even though, at first, all investigations were inconclusive as to the cause of death of these patients, the commonality was that these filters came from the same lot and were manufactured by Althin Medical AB , a company that Baxter had acquired in March 2000. Harry Kraemer, the CEO of Baxter, immediately owned up to the situation, apologized for the malfunctioning of these filters, took full responsibility for what happened, asked the Board to reduce his bonus, and put in place standards and processes to prevent a repeat occurrence

True Leadership Calls for Alignment Between Moral Compass and Behavior

One of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi, changed the course of history—not just for India but for many other parts of the world as well—by the courage of his convictions and his authenticity. 

He epitomized what successful leaders do: he created a sense of purpose and shared vision, he challenged existing ways of thinking, and he energized purposeful action. His moral compass, purpose, and behavior were fully and always aligned. Gandhi is perhaps the only transformational leader in recent times who held no public office and who has not been given any formal award—either in his lifetime or posthumously. Yet he is one leader who, even six decades after his death, continues to inspire people globally. He did something else that effective leaders do—he listened empathetically to people, even as he fortified his resolve to transform the reality of India. He formulated his ideas of independence, and the broad strategy for getting it, by first traveling extensively around the country to see and hear about the problems and issues faced by ordinary people. He neither delegated nor outsourced that work to anyone else. He was always there, in the midst of his people, inspiring them to action through the sheer brilliance of his strategy and the sense of purpose he instilled in what he said and did.

The story of Gandhi is multifaceted, and a key facet of the story is his indomitable will and character—the endurance to hold to his purpose without vacillation and with thought and action always aligned. In this, he carried with him everyday people, molding and shaping their thinking.

When I worked at the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, I had the privilege of meeting Mohammad Ali, who, in response to a question on what makes a champion, said, “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision.”

Being Yourself—Every Day

The silent majority of people (the real champions), wake up every morning and bring their best to what they do. They don’t necessarily lead companies or countries (in a conventional sense) and they can be found everywhere—from the flower seller to the schoolteacher to the farmer, to moms and dads who believe in character and authenticity and who are driven by a set of values that provide the moral compass for all their actions. We don’t write about them often because they occur every day, but if we stop to listen and observe, we can see exemplary behaviors, not in search of recognition but manifesting what is right in the absolute sense and not contextually. It is this vast majority in every organization, in every nation, that can be harnessed to produce extraordinary results, as is empirically evident.

The culture and environment in an organization are influenced not just by top management but by the ability of top management to inspire and motivate people to take the right actions. According to Jim Collins, good to great organizations have three forms of discipline: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action, thereby eliminating the need for hierarchy, bureaucracy, or controls.

Warren Bennis said, “Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and also that difficult.” So the question is, how do we get there? Where do awareness and learning and training come from?

From a corporate perspective the demands of leadership are intense and the spotlight seldom leaves you. But the corporate world also creates a set of expectations that at times cause people to behave in ways that may not be truly desirable, either from a governance perspective or from a moral perspective.

The failures have less to do with strategy and execution and more to do with the judgment of people in positions of power, where they either make the wrong choices or make convenient choices because the alternatives are hard.

Making Big Ideas Real

In my experience, everyday people can become extraordinary leaders when they have a compelling vision to change the world around them for the better. But they don’t just have big ideas, they turn them into reality. I have selected three stories that embody the human spirit and endeavor I discussed earlier and that underscore the exceptional willingness and courage to change the rules. In each of the stories there is a profound leadership insight:

••The first story is that of Thimakka, an uneducated and poor casual worker who lives in a village in the south of India. Her story has moved several people and has been shared through prose, poetry, music, and dance. Thimakka is a true environmentalist even though she received no formal education. She and her husband started taking saplings from banyan trees that grew in the village and planting these along a road. From 10 in the first year, Thimakka planted 284 banyan trees along a 4 km stretch of highway. These saplings were planted just before the monsoon so they would get sufficient rainwater to take root and grow. 


Thimakka had no resources but she was resourceful and galvanized an entire village through a compelling sense of purpose and accomplishment. She led by example, undaunted by her poverty and not letting anything get in the way of this dream for her village.

•• Aravind Eye Care Hospital began with a dream to eliminate unnecessary blindness in India. With its humble beginnings in 1976, in a small town called Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India, Aravind Eye Care is changing the world of blindness through an insight that led to the creation of an exceptional business model that is sustainable because it is profitable. The unique insight was that, of the nearly 24 million blind people in the world, about one-third could be treated with a medical intervention. However, in many cases this intervention requires surgery, and there weren’t enough surgeons to cope with this requirement! So, Aravind Eye Care concentrated on increasing a surgeon’s productivity— and it did so by a factor of ten—by perfecting the technique of assembly line surgery. (The inspiration for this came to one of the founding members as a result of observing how McDonald’s ran its operation!) Remarkably, Aravind Eye Care has created a business model where 30 percent of the paying patients enable the remaining 70 percent to be treated free. The business makes a 35 percent operating profit, which in turn is plowed back into expansion.

The dream of an individual changed the lives of many. What began as an 11-bed hospital in the house of the founder (Dr. Venkataswamy, or Dr. V. as he is popularly known) is now a hospital that treats 2.4 million outpatients and performs over 285,000 cataract surgeries every year. Aravind hires paramedical staff from rural and backward areas, trains them, and gives them more responsibility than other institutions do. So it is not the education that is the differentiator—but the attitude, training, and trust that is invested in people.

•• Another well-known inspirational leadership story comes from Bangladesh: the Grameen Bank, founded by an individual, Muhammed Yunus, who believed that the way out of poverty was economic freedom and that the poor have skills that are underutilized. Therefore, if credit could be given to the poor, based on potential, through access to microfinance and technology, they would work themselves out of poverty. Grameen Bank has broken all stereotypes by extending micro loans to women and others who have no collateral that have consistently been repaid.

Grameen Bank’s success is in a large measure due to its unique structure, which while being formal also incorporates participatory and collaborative approaches, providing effective linkages with existing community structures and the government. These are pivotal to the entire delivery of savings and credit structures. Muhammad Yunus is a leader who has translated and crafted a practical business model that addresses poverty in a fundamental way, by developing and providing an important instrument called micro-finance.

It Is Not What We Do But What We Become

The common thread across all these stories is that they revolve around everyday individuals who did not occupy occupy any formal office, and yet who significantly affected the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of a large number of other people, to create something truly meaningful and profound. These leaders have not just fashioned stories but embodied these stories into their everyday life. In that sense they have demonstrated that leadership is less about what we do and more about what we become—and in the process—how we influence and learn from those around us. 


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