Lessons from a Journey: What makes good leaders

Author: Shoaib Naik

On a trip to Turkey, I met Master Khalil. Meeting the master potter and his art inspired me to think about what makes good leaders. 

On a recent trip to Turkey, I participated in a pottery workshop led by Master Khalil. We were told that it takes years of hard work and practice to understand what kind of clay can be formed into what kind of artwork to become a “master.” And this is often done under the guidance of an experienced master who took years of learning. The ability to surpass one’s mentor and to know what kind of clay will eventually result in what kind of artwork makes a true master. 

Becoming a leader is a similar exercise that takes years of patience and hard work to master. As a leader, you might end up shaping the careers of people directly or indirectly. Leadership is often thought of as a right, a position of power, but it is more of a responsibility. Responsibility because a leadership position means you can influence the course of a person’s career or even life. Just by the fact that that person may look up to you or be part of your team. Leadership doesn’t come from having a title, it starts the day you think, how do I build great people or teams? 

But is it easy to build individuals or teams? Is there a framework a leader should follow to ensure this happens? Is there a certification or workshop one can take to become a leader? Perhaps there are specific questions we can ask to unleash the leader within us. If I must answer all the above questions, it would be a big NO! To become a leader, you have to understand yourself well and be comfortable in your own skin. You have to know your limits, constantly improve, and be humble enough to apologize or accept when you are in the wrong. And, of course, you have to learn to make promises you can keep. 

Surprised? You could argue that leadership is about getting others to be better and grow. But to do that, you have to be secure of yourself. We all know that the nature of a great team is such that one team member’s weakness can be another’s strength, and that’s how you spur and push each other to be even better. This is an environment where the team feels comfortable expressing both positive and negative emotions and supporting each other rather than viewing each other as a threat or competition. Such a team can only be built by someone who is secure and understands that the true essence of leadership is to inspire, not intimidate or dominate. 

Leaders who create a safe environment can win and fail together with their teams. They never blame anyone when things go wrong, but rather are solution-oriented and want to move forward. They praise publicly and also give individual constructive feedback. They mentor when needed and give plenty of room to learn from mistakes while making sure you improve. They don’t have a habit of pigeonholing people, but give them the confidence to think outside the box. For them, the focus is always on results. The success of such a leader can best be gauged by how their influence plays out, even after they are long gone. 

Master Khalil had a profound thought to share with us at the end of the workshop, “Pottery is an art where you project your inner thoughts and feelings onto the clay you are trying to shape. If your mind is clouded, the piece may not come out right. A clear mind with a vision of what you want to shape makes the difference between a masterpiece and an ordinary piece.” 

At the start of my career, I was confused and not sure what I wanted to do with my professional life. My initial years at work exhibited an unclear mind which almost led me to switch careers. What I missed at that time was someone to mentor and push me in the right direction. When I look back at the years which saw me grow exponentially came under leaders who exhibited the qualities highlighted above. Leaders who showed confidence in me and had the trust that I would be the right fit when I myself was not sure if I was up for the task. Years ago, Ronald Reagan said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Words which hold true even now! 



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