The one where I make a complete fool of myself

In my last post I talked about Leadership and to manage your expectations right up front, in this post, and in countless more, I will again. It’s a topic that fascinates me not just from a work perspective but in life in general.

Again in my last post I shared the device I use to start a conversation about what makes great leadership – I ask people to bring a picture of someone they consider a great leader. Much to my relief, it really works but on one occasion worked to make me look very foolish and as it seems to be global culture anecdote day let me explain….

Picture the scene, it’s the summer of 2010 and employee relations are definitely high on Willie Walsh’s agenda. Being a loyal British Airways customer whore for tier points/BA miles I had opted to fly BA to India despite the strikes. This actually worked to my advantage as the flight was crammed and I got bumped from Cattle Plus to Club Class – happy days.

Sat next to me was an Indian gentleman somewhere in his 60s and from the moment he got on board he was agitated and the staff were clearly aware of this. Just before takeoff Cabin Services Director (such a grandiose title I think) came over and patiently explained that his company had cancelled his 1st class ticket and by the time it was rebooked only (only!) Club class was available and they did not have space to bump him. He was not happy. He complained about the food (strike meant reduced service), demanded a drink whilst someone else was being served and was generally not a happy camper and with no trouble showing it, hence the name I gave him in my mind “grumpy guy”. With hindsight it should have been “rude guy”

So we ate, we drank and eventually everyone settled down to try and get some sleep, me amongst them, at which point he rummaged in his bag and pulled out an iPad. To give this some context iPad was only about 10 days post release in the UK so at the time this was flash and distinctive. Why should this bother me? With only perspex (or similar) between us he seemed to have a great knack for timing his change of app/page and it’s ensuing flare of light with my almost reaching sleep with the consequence that it took me far longer to get some sleep than planned. His name was now revised to “grumpy guy with iPad”

[Stick with it there is relevance I promise]

On landing in India he was up and gone almost as soon as wheels hit tarmac and the lady sat behind me made a comment to which her neighbour (who it turned out was BA staff travelling home) remarked that he was one of India’s most famous businessmen and a ‘high up’ (her phrase not mine) at Company X. On reaching the hotel, restless and bored, I checked out Company X and wouldn’t you know it, there he was, on the website, Chairman and Chief Cheese (or similar) “Grumpy Guy with iPad”…

The following morning now feeling jet lagged and stood in front of 15 of our Indian Managers I was feeling tense and anxious a feeling I could see mirrored in their expressions too, so I did what I often do in such circumstances, I told an anecdote – to relax them, me and most importantly to make the Senior person from the UK stood in front of them seem just that bit more human and less intimidating. I told the “Grumpy Guy with iPad” story. The response was engaging but with some looks in the room I didn’t quite understand…

Moving on to the ‘picture of someone you consider a great leader’ exercise, the looks became absolutely clear to me. Of the 15 people in the room, no less than 4 of them had brought….you’ve guessed it – “Grumpy Guy with iPad”. To give this some context M.K. Gandhi (yes THAT Gandhi) only appeared once. On a scale of 1 to 10 how big an idiot do you think I felt? Yes, 12.

An aside on the choices that day – of the 15 pictures on the wall, not one of them was a non-Indian. The only country that has chosen only people of their own nationality. I couldn’t resist asking the question and the response which really made me smile was “Why would we consider anyone who wasn’t Indian?”

Anyway, this man, who I had written off as a cranky show off, is one of the most respected businessmen in India, has built a hugely successful business, is on the board of a globally renowned business school, has been honoured by more countries than you can shake a stick at (including ours) and yet I had dismissed him and given him a cheap nickname…but was I wrong?

I don’t know…

Having reflected on this encounter and told the story a few times (its better with wine, trust me) the following things keep coming back to me:

1. Despite his achievements in life, on the day in question he was rude and made life difficult for people trying to provide him with a service

2. Was it fair of me to judge the human being sat next me in the terms of the global business leader he was being considered the following day?

3. Can we really expect anyone great leader or not, to be great 24/7? (especially in Club Class). Do “we” (the little people) hang too much of our hope, expectation and destiny onto this notion that these people are really great?

4. When will I learn not to lead with my chin?

5. Argentinean red wine really does help me sleep





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3 responses to “The one where I make a complete fool of myself

  1. Fascinating story Rob, a good thinking one. I’m a bit torn between this being about Leadership or about judgements or first impressions. It’s interesting to hear that you had no idea who the guy was, but still made a judgement about his character. Equally, would I know who the CEO of Italy’s biggest bank was if I was sat next to him? Unlikely. so should they behave according to the high standards they’re perceived to have?

    In your previous post (see I did read that one) you mentioned leaders are born, and certain qualities can be developed. I’m in full agreement with this. I think the difference is when these highly respected leaders act in ways which seem incongruous with how they should behave. Management theorists are so fixated on writing books about Leadership styles and how to be the best, we forget that this is all within a certain context.

    As Neil Morrison wrote on his post (yep, I been reading all them blogs), the stories told tend to focus on the Company X’s of this world (mixing up blog references now). Anyway, what this means is we don’t allow for the fact that when we’re outside of the context provided, we are allowed to act differently. Does this make the Leader is less great? No, I don’t believe it does. I believe what it does, is present a very sobering aspect of Leadership.

    Our Leaders we hold in high regard have fashioned themselves into their roles by doing what they know well. They’ve managed to bring people with them in some form and ultimately made a success of themselves. And, they’re just as fallible as the rest of us. They swear, drink, argue, anger and laugh just like we all do.

    That they are successful business leaders is a different aspiration to hold ourselves to. Where Neil mentioned they are slightly unhinged, I think this is interesting. If you want to be a successful business leader, I do not think it is possible to do this without some form of narcissism, ruthlessness or selfishness. Discuss.

  2. Oli Moore

    The cream of the crop are not always nice people and I’m sure they can hold an element of distain for others, this can be on the basis that they demand such high standards of themselves, team-mates and/or employee’s when they don’t receive this outside areas of their control they will still kick off.

    Combining this post and your last one (as Sukh has done and agreeing with Sukh’s comment here) one of the downsides of leadership can be selfishness, or as I phrased in my last comment- single-mindedness. Take for example Michael Schumacher, Maradonna, Eric Cantona, Fernado Alonso, Sebastian Vettle. Sir Alan Sugar. (I can’t right now think of any other non-sporting examples).

    I experienced this in my working life in 2 forms, a new Regional Director who walked around like he was King when visiting branches and he gave the distinct impression you were something grotty he stepped on. And in another way a clerical employee who was incredibly successful. The clerical employer never rose in to management because he didn’t need to. He was earning more than the managers (we’re talking doubling his salary) through bonus’s and had half the stress. He was cut throat and an absolute hard-nose seller.

    I don’t think you should be concerned by judging someone, it is an innate human reaction, no matter who the subject is. Just because someone has achieved monumental success does not mean they can be let off common decency and politeness.

    PS: I feel sorry for the person that booked ‘Grumpy guy with an ipad’ ticket

  3. Pingback: The where its personal not business | Masters or Bust

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