By Srivatsa Krishna
In all the larger shaping of a life, there is a plan already, into which one has no choice but to fit.
— Malcolm Muggeridge.
The eternal conundrum confronting both leaders and those who study them has been whether leaders are born or made. The correct answer is obviously a bit of both—something like the nurture versus nature debate. However, the nuances vary enormously and often it is the circumstance which brings out the leader in even ordinary people, who rise to lead during extraordinary circumstances.
David Rubenstein is one of the most remarkably successful private equity leaders ever in human history, especially given that he had a background in law, and not investing. He wasn’t born into wealth but was born to lead. His new book How to Lead is an astonishing compendium of what it means to lead, a compilation of deep conversations with leaders across the spectrum of human endeavour. As Rubenstein says, the book is about “specifically, what individual leaders can accomplish by the power of their intellect, level of their unique skill, force of their personality, or effectiveness of their ability to persuade.” Having had the privilege of learning about leadership from Warren Bennis, a coach to many US presidents, in a PhD seminar, and Ronald Heifetz, a trained psychiatrist, musician and scholar whose teaching of leadership is one of the most profound ever, I found Rubenstein’s soul-searching interviews to be an amazing way of teasing out the essence of leadership from various successful ones. My gripe with the book, which I hope he corrects in a sequel, is that it deals only with leadership in the United States whereas there are leaders working and producing astonishing results in far more challenging terrains around the world. He might also want to think of a sequel on those who failed and have had the courage to admit that they failed to learn from those experiences.
Rubenstein’s explorations into leadership bring forth some key takeaways, which have abiding value universally. First and foremost, almost all leaders, without exception, have struggled to get to where they have reached, not even one came with a silver spoon in his mouth or billion dollars in his account. Their zeal to make a difference and win propelled them to become leaders and make a meaningful impact on the world around them.
Second, persistence, persistence and persistence—the ability and the wisdom to pick oneself up after falling down, not hold grudges but hold lessons and move-on to do better and bigger things is yet another key trait of leadership that comes out of the interviews. Grit, a rare trait in leadership studies, is brilliantly chronicled through his conversation with Justice Ruth Ginsburg, who despite topping Harvard and Columbia couldn’t land a job! Now, she is an amazing story of grit and a life dedicated to upholding public causes. The other quality related to persistence is humility, which gives one the ability to learn while keeping one’s ego at home.
Third, it always makes sense to do one thing well, become a global guru in that, and then pivot to other things. Don’t try to be everything to everyone at all times. For example, Jeff Bezos of Amazon was not the first one to invent selling books on the Internet, but he now sells just about everything after shaping the selling of books and music better than anyone else ever did in the world.
Fourth, the overarching primacy of purpose to do something of substance is yet another hallmark of leadership. In other words, having the ability to use one’s skills of persuasion to make a difference to the lives of others—and not really focus on earning billion dollars for oneself—has been a common trait of all the super leaders he chronicles.
Fifth, the other insight which some of us practice in our day to day life in the complex tapestry of government, is to unfailingly give credit for success to others and always appropriate all failure to oneself. In my own career, I have tried practising this, and it works remarkably to inspire a team if done authentically without actually appearing to do so. Soon the realisation will dawn on the team to in-turn do so in their spheres, and this is what leads to high-performance of teams.
Lastly, the huge intellectual and leadership challenge left for Rubenstein to do is perhaps to turn his undivided attention to conquer India—something I have myself urged him to do on multiple locations. India has been somewhat of a stepchild for Carlyle (according to an insider), unlike China. Carlyle and Rubenstein have put all their eggs in the China basket, which Trump will likely empty out. While he often visits China, he last visited India perhaps a decade ago, and lots of personnel issues have come in the way of Carlyle India not succeeding as much as peers like Blackstone and TPG. Perhaps it is time to correct that anomaly, something that only Rubenstein can with his indelible leadership skills to conquer one of the most complex markets. If you can win in India, you can win anywhere.
If you stack up three parallel bars next to each other and label them as actual performance, expectations of performance and projections of performance, leadership in one way, is the interplay of each of these with the other. Wise leaders always under-promise but over-deliver and keep expectations in check. But what Rubenstein has done with this groundbreaking book, that only he could have pulled off, is to allow expectations of his many admirers to gallop away with the fond hope that his actual performance can once again surpass it in a sequel. Either one focused on global leaders outside America or his autobiography, which can be a lesson in itself.
The author is IAS officer. Views are personal. Twitter: @srivatsakrishna