Category Archives: Leadership

An ancient failed leadership story from the bible


Let me re-tell a story that happened about three thousand years ago. The Israelites at that time occupied present-day Israel or a little more of the land and they had a king named Saul. Saul was the very first ‘king’ of Israelites. They have always trusted in a certain theocracy up until that time, meaning that a religious leader would be their material leader as well. Saul was a tall and handsome young man when he was made king by the religious leader at that time, Samuel.

Saul was invested with kingship with a certain mandate. Israel was surrounded by enemies all around who were far more advanced in military weaponry than themselves. For instance, the Philistines had thousands of chariots and numerous swords and shields and iron implements. Israelites, by contrast, had only a couple of swords, which belonged to Saul and his son! It is hard to believe, but that is how it seems to have happened. Samuel made the mandate that Saul should defend Israel from its enemies. That would have been the condition of appointment as king. The benefits of being a king, of course, were as numerous and far fetched as can be. King is above the rule and all the subjects and all the property are available to him to use or misuse as he pleased, and there would be no question about it. Obviously under such inordinate powers, all kings would cavort like crazy and amass wealth. Any dissenting voice would be silenced by execution!

However, King Saul doesn’t seem to have gone through these predictors of kingship. Worse still, he didn’t defend his country against the enemies at the crucial moments. He would wait when action was needed and carry out animal sacrifices for days and days on end when enemies were attacking them.

A few years down the road a bizarre incident occurs. I will quote the bible here.

Just as Saul was finishing with the burnt offering, Samuel arrived. Saul went out to meet and welcome him, but Samuel said, “What is this you have done?” Saul replied, “I saw my men scattering from me, and you didn’t arrive when you said you would, and the Philistines are at Micmash ready for battle. So I said, ‘The Philistines are ready to march against us at Gilgal, and I haven’t even asked for the Lord ’s help!’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering myself before you came.” (1 Samuel 13:10-12 NLT)

Philistines are ready to march and guess what Saul is doing! Little wonder Samuel immediately divests Saul of his royal position and starts looking for another leader, who eventually turns out to be David!

To quote:

“How foolish!” Samuel exclaimed. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you. Had you kept it, the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom must end, for the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart. The Lord has already appointed him to be the leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord ’s command.” (1 Samuel 13:13, 14 NLT)

This was the end of Saul’s leadership. He didn’t rise to the occasion and act. A leader should be proactive. Saul would have done well to have efficient weapons and chariots. A leader should lead the action from the front rather than hide or tarry like Saul did for days and days on end when the enemy was getting ready to march on them.

Leadership by competitive advantage


“Everyone is tested by life,but only a few extract strength and wisdom from their most trying
experiences. They’re the ones we call leaders.”

Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas

The above quote from the Harvard Business Review Sep 2002 article leads me to call the ‘wisdom’ as a competitive advantage.

Let me bring in a few other classical reference frames from religious texts.

Quoted from Sanskrit Hindu literature “God’s songs’ circa 1st century AD: Whenever the balance is broken, restoring force springs forth.

Story of Gideon from the Bible, circa BC 1100 : ‘Gideon rises from the ranks and file of Israelites and takes charge as their leader. He and his modest motley band of warriors annihilate 120,000 enemies in no time.

To use a principle from finance, perfect competition marks a certain stasis and results in very low returns. Incentives for doing business disappear, until – this one is important – someone comes up with a competitive advantage in terms of technology or cost savings. The competitive advantage sets up a monopolistic condition that generates what is termed as ‘abnormal profits’, which are what people actually want!

I am trying to draw a parallel for the above phenomenon in sociology: whenever stasis becomes too boring or protracted, abnormal things happen and challenge the status quo. New balances will be restored in hitherto unimaginable ways. However, significant changes will have happened in the process. The protagonists in leading such changes have an intellectual competitive advantage.

I think this is becoming way too serious matter! Let me leave the theorizing here. Actually I am trying to simply say that leaders emerge from most unexpected quarters with novel ways of solving vexing issues. These leaders emerge in every situation, big or small.

Leadership and money


Globe and Mail reports huge earnings for S&P 500 CEOs, the average is in the vicinity of $10 million per annum. Larissa Meyer, until a couple of years ago worth only a million a year is laying claim to close to $60 million this year.

Is this food for thought?

Earlier this year I confronted a question in graduate business school classroom. ‘Why is there a proliferation of leadership literature in google searches in recent years?’

Neither the students nor the elderly professor mentioned astronomical bonus earnings of CEOs as a possible lure. The standard business school version is that leadership is not only about creating shareholder wealth. In reality, though, that is the paramount question.

I remember President Obama taking up issue with Wall Street for what he thought were excessive bonuses in 2009 when the US and global economies were struggling to recover from the Lehman Brothers collapse.

The companies were giving away $20 billion in bonuses at that time! Unconscionable? Well, in the light of economic theories that we learn, I think not! Why do I think so? It is the theory of why picking up a hypothetical $100 bill from the road is not advisable! Paradoxical as it might seem, this theory is the core of corporate finance theory that in a mature market there are no arbitrage or free money opportunities. It is well night impossible to find free money, so the question of picking up $100 doesn’t even arise!

However, free money, or ‘abnormal profit’ as it is called, is available when a company enters a monopolistic regime with a competitive advantage either in innovation or in cost savings. The CEOs and business leaders are supposed to be bringing in this cutting edge and the compensation for generating such a competitive advantage has to be really super high, don’t you think?

In other words, there is no super company that churns out profits unless someone is paid super bonuses as sufficient incentive to innovate.

The bottom line is, the leader creates wealth for the shareholders and takes away a sizeable chunk for himself or herself. Everyone is happy. Only the outsiders who are neither the shareholders nor the CEOs themselves will complain. Unfortunately, Obama is in that group.

Seek to understand and then be understood


It is surprisingly easy to read, repeat, speak and even pass an exam on complex topics and then totally be unmindful of it. We all do that all the time. Any doubts?

The example that comes to my mind is a scene from a humorous movie where the wimpy heroes have the mandate to find a stolen golden crown. They pass by the crown in the road as it literally rolls in in front of them, but they only run away from its path! The audience would always have a laugh. Little do they realize that most of us do the same thing in real life.

Steven R. Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Successful People states my title as one of them. I have read it, memorized it, talked about it, but for years little did I realize that it is about me making a change. Seek to understand what we see and then make sense of it before ever opening the mouth to speak about it is a conscious decision many of us have to make, with me at the top of the list.

Speaking about this book, a very interesting anecdote comes to mind. A very devout Salafi muslim professor, who thinks his religious way is the only way for the world started reading this book. He was so thrilled that he told me that if he had ever got this book in his early youth, life would have been different for him. I don’t think he ever meant leaving is fundamentalist world view and embrace a more inclusive world view. Far from it. He meant that he would have been a more successful person in terms of money and fame.

Come to think about it, it is hard to miss Covey’s very important points in the beginning. Everyone will be fascinated by a picture of a lady there, which he calls as either an old lady or a young lady, depending on how you look at it. Most people see only one perspective, not both. I have tested it on many people and verified this fact for myself. Seeing different perspectives of a question requires one to move the frame of reference, which is very difficult without conscious effort. Different perspectives just do not apply to the professor, there is just one correct perspective!

Another thing that goes as background material in the book in the first few pages is about, what Covey calls as increasing the circle of one’s influence. My salafi friend has the world view that everything happens to him, people are out to get him and his religion, that the only course open to him is to protest in all possible ways, etc. He would never even think that he, not others, is the only author of his own future.

So much for the difference between the theory and its practice. The theory may be so very simple and clear, but people practice the opposite of it, while also happily reciting from the theoretical text.

A new HR Model to look at


Tim Ferris author of various popular books on lifestyle design has made this observation about himself.

The number of people he employs? Zero.
The number of employees working for his company? 200 -300.

He also points out that he has transcended the two differing management styles – participative and authoritarian – by eliminating the human component in the management of business completely.

Just think about this.

We are being told that it is not good to say bad things about your boss or company to the new employer. It is also true that the new employer will value reference from the current employer very strongly. Therefore, an employee facing discrimination or harassment at work is more likely to remain silent about it than ever speak out.

The above condition is now accepted in Human Resources market as the de facto norm. However, a cursory look at the above paragraph makes it clear that this cannot be a good model.

Tim Ferris’s alternate way of using internet to build a virtual company where everyone is accountable to himself is a great idea of the future.

Where have all the leaders gone?


I have been through this situation:

Leadership is about excelling oneself and getting noticed. Then at some point, sooner rather than later, there comes a call to take leadership roles from someone with power. It is usually a call to action, directly or indirectly. Now the the decision is open to the person whether to accept the challenge or not.

It is surprisingly true that there are vacant leadership positions almost everywhere. It is not about filing an HR vacancy. It is about showing that you can do something particularly well, and lo and behold, there are powerful people out there who want to give you more and more responsibilities.
It is the courage to take the challenges and also grow that makes or breaks a successful leader.

More often than not, people tend not to take up responsibilities. It is easy to criticize, easy to be a pedant journalist writing about niche topics, easy to be a professor analyzing case studies..The list goes on. But the surprising thing that I notice is that many of these so-called experts actually refuse to take leadership positions. Or they don’t care.

That is the essence of Lee Iacocca’s question above, which I quoted elsewhere.

Leadership and change – SCARF way


Social interactions are developed according to the way our brain sees different situations as threats or rewards. If there is an anticipated reward, we go towards it; if there is an anticipated threat, we go away from it. These are known alternatively as toward responses and away responses. Personal development guru Tony Robbins uses this principle to advocate his method to change bad habits.

What are the drivers of the reward and threat responses? Dr. David Rock identified five domains that control social experience (3) and published the findings in the Journal of Neuro Leadership Journal in 2008.

These are:

Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness.

I have found that these principles are already contained in the ideas of Dale Carnegie’s celebrated book ‘How to win friends and influence people,’ which was published nearly 80 years ago without the help of any scientific research like Dr.David. Dale Carnegie was a theoretical psychologist -much like Stephen Hawkins is a theoretical physicist – and Dr. David is the scientist. In a way Dr.David is approving Carnegie’s hypothesis with his neurological findings.

I would elaborate the first of these five domains, namely status, today.

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:22 NIV)

Isn’t it interesting to read the above biblical verse? It always astounds me think that there is huge hidden wisdom in some of the biblical verses. What happens when you call someone a fool is that neurologically the status of the hearer is reduced and he/ she sees it as a threat situation, the response will be to avoid you.The unfortunate result is that you sadly FAILED the very moment you called this person a fool!

Deceivers know this technique very well. They don’t need to read any book or study neuro science. The principle is already hard wired into our brains already. Soothsayers abound in typical authoritarian leadership situations where most subordinates try to curry favour with the boss by falsely praising him. what they are doing is trying to raise the status of the boss, which is a reward for him. When he is happy, he will naturally help the soothsayers in return.

Now imagine a clever leader using the same technique for correcting wrong behaviour in the team.

He allows the team member to save face. He is aware that oftentimes a direct attempt to correct the behaviour will lead to stubborn denial and even evil plans. The subject may team up with other disgruntled workers to spread rumours, or set you up the leader for failure. Imagine that the clever leader points out the the mistake indirectly and even refers to his own similar mistakes, sometimes totally made-up! This approach has the effect of keeping the status of the offender in tact. He/ she even feels falsely superior to the boss for a time! Little does he realize that the leader is actually cleverly leading him to think like that. The denial and aggression do not show up in this case.

A clever leader will be also able to show the worker a way to improve. He may want to share some tips, but he may make it so subtle that the points will be ‘discovered’ by the subject and may even claim them as his own inventions!

Eventually the offender changes his ways with such an urgency that the team performance improves substantially. Now the clever leader has the last laugh! But he would be laughing to himself and will make sure to compliment the offender for his improvements in public, which is again a status booster for him/ her.

It is difficult to practice, but if you agree with Machiavelli’s principles of power, these are some clever possible additions to them, with a remarkable difference. You can openly talk about this leadership style as a virtue, whereas Machiavelli’s methods are pure evil.

I think some of the 48 tips in the book by Robert Green (1) are gems, but they all appear as evil. Nobody can talk about actually having to practice it, although strangely, everyone uses some of these principles in everyday life, knowingly or unknowingly. Incidentally Machiavelli lived some hundred years before Shakespeare, and guess what the bard of Warwickshire has to say about Machiavelli? ‘A bastard’.


1. Robert Green (1998), 48 Laws of Power, Viking Books

An amazing book that substantially improves our understanding of human behaviour.


I came across this link above that explains the SCARF model succinctly.


The original article by Dr. David Rock can be found in the above link. A must-read for those who like to know more.