Friday, September 2, 2011

Leadership begins with Followership

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. ~Max DePree

My understanding of leadership has undergone a huge change in the last couple of years, thanks to the guidance of my mentor, and the little humility that I have to accept what life has to teach me. The change began with my renewed interest in value-based leadership that came from my study of Buddhist philosophy, but was really set into motion by a series of challenges at both personal and professional levels.

At a professional level, I found myself being called upon to provide leadership to a large team of people at my erstwhile place of work through a difficult corporate transition, where ownership had changed, and the new business philosophy was significantly at variance from what had been applied for over a decade. As I strove to help my co-workers focus on the benefits of the new reality, I found myself hard pressed to convince myself of the correctness of what I was saying.

At a personal level, I was faced with the reality of facing false criminal charges and subsequent financial bankruptcy arising from enormous legal fees, bond money and a servicing the ever-growing debt. As if things were not bad enough, I was repeatedly relapsing into acute substance abuse that led to my being unable to function normally. As things went from bad to worse, at home, at work, at what pass off as treatment centers for addicts and alcoholics, in prison and at the courts, I was forced to re-evaluate what I wanted to do with my life.

I am fortunate that in all of this madness, the one thing that I did not lose was hope and faith. (Though charity had been wrested from me, I still believe in it.) I reassessed what my core values were. I listed them down. I looked at what my core skills were, and listed them down too. I asked myself whether I was willing to go to any lengths to stand by these values. The answer was a resounding yes. The trouble was that I lacked courage to execute my decision.

What did I fear?  I feared the insecurity that would arise from deciding to make a fresh start at this point in my life. I feared the uncertainty of being able to meet my family's material needs. I feared if I were adequate to meet the challenge of carving out a place for myself solely on the strength of my skills, since I had no support system to fall back upon, and no resources to help me see the initial months or years through.

I decided to define my reality. I drew up a balance sheet of my life as it was at this point in time. I realized that no matter what, the only things of value that I still had which could be taken from me was my integrity and the love of my family, since in all other aspects, life had ensured that I stood at a negative balance. I reached out to the people to whom I was financially indebted and explained that I would not be in a position to honor the timeframe in which I had promised to repay them, as well as the reason for my doing so. Though many of them did not agree with my logic, all of them (save one) agreed to consider a deferred payment.

With this in place, I launched out on a path of leading by example, using my communication and language skills to lead people to happiness and meaning. I quit my job since I was no longer able to see value in what I was doing. I started reaching out through my writing, stressing on the urgency of building up a community of right-thinking people who are committed to value-based sustainable lifestyles. I started documenting the steps I had been able to take in my own life to move towards a life of frugality, simplicity and minimalism. As I wrote about this new direction that my life was taking, I found people from all over, from all walks of life reaching out to me, using their networks to share what I was writing, and sharing with me what they have been able to achieve.

I have had my share of lessons in this too. A large amount of the user generated content available online, even in a "spiritual" niche like the one I write for, is driven by commerce, and the focus of the content is to generate traffic and revenue. I too fell into the trap, telling myself that an increased readership only led to greater dissemination of my message. But focusing on quantity of readers resulted in my compromising on the quality of the content, a lesson that my professional life had taught me but one that I quickly forgot. However, I was soon able to realize that while a low bounce rate made my blog stats look good, I was getting traffic based on style and not substance. I reaffirmed to myself the reason for my writing - to change the way people think about life, and reverted back to focusing on the quality of what I wrote. (My bounce rate went right back up without hesitation!)

Has it been a smooth journey? It is too early to pass a judgement on this, but it has sure been extremely instructional. I have come to learn who my friends are. I have found friends that I did not know I had. I have had to face my own insecurities and weaknesses. I have learned to be grateful for the lessons that have come my way. I have learned that my struggles and losses are often much smaller than those of others who are courageously battling their circumstances. I have had to redefine reality. I have learned to say thanks each day for all the people who have helped in their own way, some by standing by me, some by standing against me, and some just by standing and doing nothing, to teach me all that I now know and live by. I was reminded of the quotation I read over at Mark Shead's blog, that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality, and the last is to say thank you.

It is my great good fortune to have encountered my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda and his efforts to propagate the teachings of Buddha and Nichiren Daishonin in this lifetime. My deep and sincere desire is that my experiences and insights will help others to lead lives that are meaningful, and to become agents of change in an age where constancy and material comfort lulls us into decadence and stagnation, if not ultimate ruin.

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