Ram Kumar was the vice president of operations at a pharmaceutical company. His office door was open when Shiv arrived and he was at his desk working away on his computer.
“Good morning!” he said shaking Shiv’s hand. “I spoke with Dev earlier this morning and he says you want to make the transition from leading from the front to leading from the back.”
“Yes, I do. Leading from the front has taken me as far as it can. I want to move on to the next level of success as a leader.”
“Excellent,” replied Ram. “Let’s move to the conference room across the hall where there’s a board to write on.”
As they entered the room, Ram motioned for Shiv to sit at a chair opposite the whiteboard and asked, “What has Dev told you about leading from the back?”
“He said it’s a three-part leadership model and the first part is called How Should I Be?”
“That’s right,” said Ram. “It’s all about preparing yourself to successfully lead from the back and it has three components.”
He then walked over to the whiteboard and wrote:
Leading from the back
How Should I Be?
• Have an Open Mind
• Assume Ownership
• Be Detached
Ram continued, “Leading from the back begins with having an open mind. You must be open to new and fresh ideas, new technology and different ways of doing things. You see, the world is changing faster than it ever has. If you want to be successful, you must recognise, understand, and adapt to these changes and this requires an open mind.”
“Excuse me,” interrupted Shiv. “That doesn’t sound all that profound. Don’t most people already have an open mind?”
“Let me ask you this,” responded Ram. “Do you have an open mind?”
“I like to think so.”
“In the past, when team members approached you with suggestions on how to improve things, how did you respond?” asked Ram.
“I have to admit that I wasn’t all that open to their suggestions.”
“And why was that?”
“Because all the projects I had managed until recently had been extremely successful. I thought I knew what I was doing. Why would I be interested in suggestions for improvement?”
“This is the trap that so many people fall into. They experience a modicum of success and right away they assume they know what they’re doing and become closed-minded. The truth is that if you had been open-minded all along, you probably wouldn’t be here today talking to me,” said Ram smilingly.
“Are you saying that my success caused me to become closed-minded?”
“Absolutely!” came Ram’s reply. “As a rule, the more successful people become, the more closed-minded they become – because they’re convinced that they know what they’re doing. When this occurs, they close themselves off from all sources of new ideas, new thinking and new information.”
“That’s what happened to me, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” replied Ram. “You became stuck in a time warp where you were safe and comfortable in your own little world – oblivious to the changes going on around you. This caused you to believe that what had succeeded in the past – in your case, micromanaging – would continue to succeed in the future. But things did change. The number of people you are managing is larger and you are no longer the expert in all aspects of your project, so you are failing”
“What this tells me is that if you have a closed mind, you’ll get blindsided by change. On the other hand, if you have an open mind, you’ll be able to successfully adapt to change.”
“That’s exactly it,” agreed Ram.
“Let me illustrate the importance of an open versus a closed mind with a brief example. On May 25, 1961, the President of the United States, John F Kennedy, made an appeal to a joint session of Congress. He said, ‘I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.; Most of the people around the world had closed minds and said the idea was impossible. The project was given to a group of open-minded scientists and engineers and just eight years later, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center taking three astronauts to the moon. On July 24, 1969, those same three men splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean.”
“Wow!” exclaimed Shiv, “That’s a great example. What I hear you saying is that with an open mind, nearly everything is possible, but with a closed mind, those same things are not possible.”
“You’re definitely catching on.” Ram smiled, sensing that things were going well.
Excerpted with permission from Leading From The Back: To Achieve The Impossible, Ravi Kant, Harry Paul and Ross Reck, Penguin.