Corporate cultures should make space for everyone to speak out

About 30 years ago, the aftermath of a basketball match taught me two lessons, one about individual leadership and the other about institutionaliing good leadership environments. I was a newly minted lieutenant barely a month into service, posted in Sangrur, then a remote town of Punjab. Our unit had just won a brigade basketball championship, which was followed by enthusiastic celebrations, as such occasions merit. Three of the five members of the winning team were from my platoon and they rushed up to me immediately after the match, requesting an outpass: i.e., a short leave of absence, usually given to soldiers whose homes are nearby. Since it was beyond my authority to grant it, I headed over to my company commander's house for his approval, quite certain that the major would agree. After all, we had just won the brigade championship and it was largely thanks to these three soldiers.

When my commander asked me their names and the reasons for an outpass for each, I narrated what they had told me. Two of them had sick family members and the third a legal dispute. The major stared at me for a few moments and then abruptly denied the request.

I was stunned. Here I was, after rigorous training at the academy, with wide-eyed dreams of 'commanding' a platoon and I couldn't even grant two days of outpass to troops under my very command. As I walked out dejectedly and informed the three soldiers waiting expectantly with their bags packed that their outpass had been denied, I felt powerless, demoralized and humiliated.

Later that evening, I was at the officer's mess when a server informed me that my company commander was on the premises and had called me to the bar. Though I was sulking, it was a summon and I had no option but to go. As soon as I entered, the major told the barman to pour me a drink. Still moping, I mumbled a perfunctory denial. That's when my company commander taught me two valuable lessons, both of which are worth their weight in gold.

He said, “The bar is a haloed place, where any junior officer can speak his mind to his senior, as if he was drunk, even if he is a teetotaller.” “Only three things can happen,” he continued, “either I will convince you that I was right, or you will convince me that you were right. Or the third possibility, that both of us will disagree, but because the buck stops at me, it is my prerogative to pull rank on the decision. However, this drink will be on me! So that when we walk out from this bar, we bury our differences behind us. Your dissent will be noted, but you will put your hundred percent behind my decision.”

He then proceeded to tell me that all the three soldiers who had asked for an outpass were in fact first cousins who wanted to attend the marriage of yet another distant cousin in their village. Had they managed to wangle the outpass based on their fibs, I would have been the laughing stock of the battalion. I would have been seen as a rookie taken for a ride by his troops. He added the second lesson wryly: “Better do your job and get to know your troops before becoming a rebel without a cause.”

While I am not advocating a bar, corporate cultures also need rituals and haloed spaces where juniors can disagree with seniors, advocate outlandish ideas and challenge status quo without fear of adverse consequences. Large process-driven organisations have many spaces for conferring, discussions, debates and intense competition, but almost no channels to defuse toxic situations, enable camaraderie or allow a sense of humour. It is a paradox that organizations create outcome- oriented metrics to pit their leaders, regions and functions against one another in fratricidal rivalry, and yet expect them to collaborate. Perhaps this is the result of an education system that teaches students to be hypercompetitive throughout their schooling and then expects them to cooperate at the end of it.

In a world that requires creativity and constant innovation to retain a competitive edge, building institutions and creating rituals of psychological security is not a 'nice to have' luxury. Instead, it is an essential practice to leverage the full potential of an employee's intellectual and emotional engagement. This is especially true in a multi-generational work environment, where even subtle hints of intimidation can wilt ingenuity.

Leaders will therefore need to shift from an authoritative style that relies purely on positional seniority to a 'gardener' style of leadership, where the job description is understood as including the role of a garden nurturer, responsible for ensuring adequate nutrition, sunlight, and, most importantly, distance between each plant, so that one plant's growth does not stunt another's and each grows to its own individual potential. And this not only requires leaders to know each of their team members closely, but also needs some self-effacing humility, a sense of humour and vulnerability, and an ability to create rituals that defuse toxicity and foster camaraderie.

The author is Founding CEO of the National Intelligence Grid