Who is a leader? One who holds the group; One who owns the group; One who carries a group.
‘A team may have members with varied backgrounds, thinking ways, and cultures. But a leader is someone who despite the difference, is expected to maintain cohesiveness and lead the way to the success of the team. The quality of a good leader is being fearless, able to face challenges, and remaining unshaken.’ This is what we would define, and every other personality development trainer would teach.
But are we ever taught to think that like all members of a team, a leader is also human? Are we made to think about why even the best leader can fail? Are we taught to ask the leader if they had a good day?
To answer these questions, I would like to take the reference of my personal experience in this aspect and break the discussion into two parts. First, I would like to list the aspects of leadership I have learnt by taking on a role of a trek leader since 2019. In the second, I would like to discuss the realizations made while reflecting upon the situations that were created that brought me closer to a meltdown in 2022.
Part 1: Being a trek leader
There were times when I had to adjust. Once, while on our way to Kodachadri, our bus broke down. In the middle of the night, I had to stand on a highway and wave at every other bus that came our way which could accommodate the entire group. finally, when we managed to find a bus, there were two seats. I, being a trek leader had to adjust and sit on a crammed floor of a traveler just so that the rest of the team had the comfort of the seats so that they all could sleep well and save energy to complete the hike successfully on the following day.
There were times I had to carry. When a team member fell with an epileptic attack, when someone sprained their ankle or a bunch of new trekkers was all bogged down by the weight of their backpacks right in the middle of a trail, I have had to support them.
There were times when I had to convince others. The worst thing that can go wrong on a trip is to have all four tyres of your vehicle flat. With a group of thirty people, it was no joke to be stranded on a village road at midnight. When all attempts to find alternate transportation was futile, it was a leader who had to convince the team to agree into taking a tractor ride to the destination.
There were times when I had to hold the team together. When a murder took place right in front of the team, the morale of every member was shattered. Nor was I, being a trek lead prepared to face something like that. But I had to hold them all in decent spirits let not the visuals and the fear take over the minds of the remaining members.
I have had to control. Control the schedule, control the people who deviated from the rules, channel conversations and involve everyone to participate in the group.
I have had to assure anxious parents to trust me with their daughters’ safety while traveling with me and I had to assure unsure solo travelers about their apprehensions to backpack with a leader who was unknown to them. All to only come back after the trip and receive positive testimonials about me.
Being unbiased with the age, gender, caste, and economic strata with whom I interact, I have been told that I inspired people (in many ways that I do not know). My no-fuss, no allergy, and ever-willingness to try any food that looks new and the ability to snooze in any space when I am sleepy solves half the problem and makes it easy for people to connect with me, I have been told. I have been confident in my ability to adapt to absolutely any environment and figure out a way to make it a memorable journey. I have always believed that my ability to adapt and connect to people on an individual level has been my strength.
I have always believed that successful people should be able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. No human is perfect and without shortcomings. But a true leader will work on the weaknesses and not let them bog him/her down. With an awareness of what makes him/her weak, it allows one to be better prepared to oversee a situation that might arise posing the same threats. This self-awareness is vital to being a confident leader.
Part 2: When a leader is shaken
What does it look like when the confidence of a leader is broken, when the leader is made to feel that he/she has always been wrong about himself/herself? How does it feel when the leader is made to feel that he/she was never correct?
A recent personal experience of a series of events dragged me to the edge of having an emotional breakdown. When I sat back and reflected upon the decisions, I had made in the past year which had finally gotten me to where I was at the time of this meltdown, there was a lot of self-realization I made. None of which pointed towards any evident wrong decision-making ability of mine but to the situations that were created for me to act.
Cut to August 2022, I was on an overseas business trip to a country which is considered to be on the conservative side compared to the rest of the world. I had been accompanied by a team of seven men and one girl. Despite being with such a large group, I was hit by a feeling of abandonment. It was a feeling of being unavailable for and by the people of my tribe when I needed it and of being restricted from physically going out to do things that made me happy.
It had shaken me so much that I used to have emotional meltdowns at the drop of the hat. I had begun to reanalyze and doubt all my decisions made in the last year, the on-goings, and the future ahead created by my own decisions. The situation brought with it, my inability to trust human beings in the same way that I did until stepping into the new land. I had failed as a person and all my leadership skills learnt over the last few years felt void, if it needs to be put in that perspective. All I needed was an anchor to bank myself in a land unknown across the ocean.
To me in this case, it was my boss at work who put on the hat of a leader. After spending a few weeks by then in the new country, it was the first ever interaction I was having with my boss. It was the first face-to-face interaction between us and the most basic question for any conversation to begin, I was asked about how I was doing in the new country. The most basic and simplest of questions had me shaken and the accumulated dam of emotions was broken. A word of assurance that there was someone to look up to was all I needed to get back on track, and this was one such. It was an interaction post which, I was alright and back in form to continue with my regular duties.
Lessons learnt from a leader: The first two may be generic, it is to have a good personal relationship at work or off work. The third lesson is specific to the workplace.
• A leader should be available for his team always. Whether or not related to work, it is essential to build a relationship of trust with the teammates.
• Keep clear and timely communications within the team. Whether there is a work update or not, communicate to stay connected.
• Assign clear work roles, and expectations, and follow up on progress.
Takeaways on a personal level:
• Any leader can be shaken. They too are human.
• In the end, nobody but only you will remain to care for yourself.
• Whether you see a person happy or strong, a greeting and a smile at a stranger cost you nothing but it can heal a person.