Jaipur, Rajasthan, India — Leadership is a hot topic at the moment. As the coronavirus pandemic has challenged norms in practically every aspect of modern society, now more than ever it has become important that we are able to look to those placed in a position of leadership for security, direction and inspiration.
Leaders help us to identify, understand and refine our purpose. Through the stewardship of leaders, we are able to better align our thoughts and clarify the reasons behind our work. A good leader is one who facilitates the growth of those who follow them, greatly enhancing our potential for success and achievement by maximizing our ability to perform.
For Vik Bansal, as chief executive officer of the Australian integrated steel manufacturing and recycling company InfraBuild it is his job to be custodian of the organization’s values. “I think leaders set the tone of the company. I take personal responsibility for that. That’s my job to deliver. Of course I’m responsible to the board and it is my job and duty to show them what I’m doing, but I take full responsibility for the culture of the organization,” said Bansal.
With over twenty years of leadership experience under his belt, Bansal has said that he strongly believes there is no singular approach that will result in success every time. Instead, through time and experience each person must find their own style and approach that best aligns with their unique personality traits and the larger context of the business they serve. However, in reflecting on his personal leadership journey he does believe that there are core principles that provide a solid foundation for leadership that is effective, strong and built to last.
In all that he has learned over the course of his two decade career, Bansal has found that humility is an essential trait at the core of every good leader. In order to lead effectively one must be able to consistently learn and grow, admitting that no one knows it all and embracing this fact rather than resisting it.
“The ideal of the natural ‘born’ leader is nonsensical,” said Bansal. “It’s a naïve notion. You can be smart, you can be intelligent, you can be the brightest man or woman in the world – but without humility you can’t actually lead.”
According to Bansal his own leadership journey reflects this, as his approach to the role has matured over time and with experience. Playing sports as a youth in India, from an early age he had developed a good understanding of team dynamics and how to motivate people which naturally lent itself to his early days in leadership. However, it was the root of his own personal motivation that in hindsight Bansal wishes he would have had the self-awareness to check at the time.
“At the early stages of my career that was the driving force – it was me, ambition, my way or the highway. And as you evolve as a leader, evolve as manager, as you actually evolve as a human being, you understand it’s never about you. The product would still be successful without me, and quite often leaders just make everything about themselves,” said Bansal.
While Bansal was still able to get his teams excited and highly motivated in his earlier leadership positions, he has said that ultimately that style of leadership was not a sustainable, long-term approach. While wanting to succeed as an individual is natural – especially when we are young and early in our careers – focusing on delivering results and outcomes as a means for personal progress will inevitably not build strength for the organization as a whole.
As Bansal moved into the mid-stages of his career, he learned to widen his focus and consider the performance and positioning of the teams he was responsible for leading over his own personal ambitions. When you are put in a leadership position you are no longer beholden to just yourself, and a good leader must learn to make the success and wellbeing of those who they lead a priority. “A focused, high-performing team can achieve more than any individual can on their own,” said Bansal.
In his most recent positions as chief executive officer of large corporations, Bansal has come to understand that his leadership decisions and style now affect thousands of lives, with the web extending past direct subordinates to every employee, their families, customers, and the communities his company serves. As a result, his focus is now on the health of the entire organization. A leader sets the tone and culture for those they lead, and it is important to acknowledge that role and accept it with humility.
At no point in modern history has it perhaps been more important for a leader to develop the ability to change and evolve. The world has experienced a fundamental and accelerated shift as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ripple effect has stretched to practically every aspect of the modern workplace. “ESG” factors––how a business approaches its relationship with the environment, its social responsibility and its corporate governance––are increasingly being scrutinized as stakeholders seek a different level of returns from businesses.
“With the emergence of environmental, social and corporate governance, stakeholders are asking for different levels of returns from business,” said Bansal. “Employees are asking for different working conditions and leadership. Workers want more than just a pay cheque, and investors are looking for more than a financial return.”
A business is no longer simply expected to generate profits for its shareholders in order to be considered a good organization. Investors want to see a company’s ability to achieve longevity, and employees and workers have new needs that must be met. A paycheck is often no longer enough to motivate individuals––and there are questions as to if it ever really was––for a more fulfilled workforce they must believe what they are doing each day is having a larger impact and helping to achieve the greater purpose of the organization.
“As leaders we need to be mindful of the environment we create and enable in our workplaces. We want and need our people––truly the biggest asset to any organization ––to feel comfortable in bringing their ‘whole-self’ to work, said Bansal.”
When we think of leading a company or organization, we will often consider the business decisions this involves such as directing teams or setting and achieving goals. However, it is important to remember that it is people, not robots that are being led, and as such the mental health and wellbeing of employees must also be taken into consideration. The past two years have been a time of immense upheaval in many aspects of human life besides work––school closures, separation from family and friends––these may not directly affect the workplace, but they do impact the people within it.
“The cognitive demand and load on people––as they juggle employment, caring needs, emotional needs––cannot be underestimated,” said Bansal. “In hand with that, as people grapple and recalibrate their view on what modern work and life now looks like, is the very real potential for safety incidents to occur, as a result of distraction, disengagement or fatigue.”
Humility is required in order to effectively adapt to changes, as sometimes that means admitting you were wrong in a previous belief or approach to doing business. One example provided by Bansal was the concept of flexible work arrangements, which he admitted to have been cynical about prior to the pandemic. However, when the lockdowns occurred, working went remote and businesses were able to survive––and indeed often thrive–– with flexible and remote arrangements, he has since come to accept that it is indeed possible and a necessary evolution for modern businesses.
Without a dissenting opinion on flexible work arrangements, Bansal may have never been given the opportunity to change his viewpoint on the subject. This is why it is necessary for leaders to develop a culture in which it is encouraged that the people and teams within it feel open to challenging the status quo. Diversity of thought, open discussion and differing viewpoints have been proven to result in faster business outcomes and more effective strategic planning, and a leader with humility is accepting of this.
“Consultation and collaboration can catch considerations that may have been overlooked, and through participation and discussion all key stakeholders are provided the opportunity to contribute and develop a shared sense of ownership,” said Bansal.
For Bansal, he has learned that effective leadership is about facilitating a constructive dialogue in which ideas can be challenged and interrogated. He notes that these should always be directed at the ideas themselves rather than people, and through balancing this with the responsibility of sometimes having to be the one to make the tough decisions good leadership can be achieved.
However, the reverse side of this coin is that once a decision has been made, a leader must ensure that those they lead are committed and united in sharing the vision. Leadership means acting as a signpost to those who follow them within a company, as people look to both the words they say and the actions they take for direction. When there is division or a lack of cohesiveness when it comes to support for a direction decided upon, the entire organization can suffer as it becomes a domino effect of lack of engagement and buy-in.
“You should intellectually challenge ideas, you should intellectually challenge concepts, and you should intellectually challenge the direction,” said Bansal. “But once it has been agreed, if you can’t emotionally surrender to the cause, you are consistently letting the team down. If you don’t have humility as a human being you are consistently challenging everything because you are challenging for the wrong reasons.”
Name: Shailesh Kumar
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Address: New Sanganer Road, 47/195, Rajat Path, Mansarovar, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302020