The UnLeadership Manifesto – making of the 21st century leader – part 1


Leadership of every hue and cry has been covered in over 437, 869 book titles available on alone (Search for Leader). Not to speak of countless blog posts, magazine and newspaper articles on the subject.

Judging from the reams of material that has been written and from personal experience, Leadership is a tough topic and it is clear that we don’t understand it that well.  Therefore, it is seductive to boil leadership down to a set of formulae:

  • It is also inspiring to read about great leaders and insights drawn from their experiences.  Therefore, you get to read the leadership wisdom of people starting from Sun Tzu to Steve Jobs.

It is all about the Leader

The one unifying pattern that emerges from reading the popular leadership press is that it seems to be all about the leader and his/her skills.  There is some wisdom bandied about – on choosing the right people , making sure you eliminate the people who don’t fit your vision, etc.  But for the most part, leadership is about seeking to become the ideal leader with all the N qualities depending on whose N you believe in.  With all this talk about the Leader,  if becoming a leader seems like a Herculean task, you are not alone.

The 21st Century Leader

Having been in leadership roles for the past 18 years, i don’t think it was ever about the leader 100%. Now, in the 21st century, with the latest and greatest communication and management tools, the leader is much much less important. Only those leaders, who grasp this counter-intuitive insignificance of themselves, are going to succeed. John Chambers, The legendary CEO of Cisco recently articulated this shift:

“The CEO role at Cisco going back over the last five to 10 years has been very much ‘command and control’ and I think we do it pretty well, and if we say ‘turn right,’ 65,000 people turn right,” Chambers said.

“That’s very effective when you’re in a couple product areas or one or two major cross-functional initiatives per year. It is not an effective leadership style or organization structure if you’re moving into a lot of market adjacencies and you have a lot of major cross-functional priorities.”

This whole obsession with, who the leader is and what his/her personality is, is a vestige from the command and control era of management.  The 21st century leadership will be marked by a totally different style – which i decided to call UnLeadership.

Developing the UnLeadership Manifesto

I would like to engage the community on this blog in developing this manifesto.  The community has delivered the goods many times before including the mission impossible – can passion be taught?

Here is what i propose we should do – build a set of rules for the UnLeader and in the next pass recommend the tools that will be needed.

That would be my first one on the manifesto – 1. Instill passion in your team.

No Asshole Rule

One of my favorite authors Bob Sutton has written a fantastic book called No Asshole Rule recently.  This is a must read to understand what one should never do as a leader.  This would be my recommendation for the second rule – 2. Never be an Asshole.


In order to inspire you all to the task at hand, i would like you all to spend 1 hour and 16 min watching this video from Professor Randy Pausch, famously known as the Last Lecture. I will guarantee you that this will be one of the best 1 hour and 16 min you have ever spent watching a lecture. [Sadly he passed away yesterday]


Now for the community to develop the rest of the rules – decision making, dealing with/developing expertise, empowerment, performance management (vision, goal setting, reviews etc) and any other category you want to add.  Numbered lists are seductive indeed, so let us keep our list to 10.  Most important thing to bear in mind – don’t be held hostage to existing models of leadership, let us rewrite the rules. I am also tagging bloggers that i know are passionate about leadership – Ganesh Vaideeswaran, Arun Sankaranarayanan , Ranjit Nair and Subba Muthurangan .  I am hoping other bloggers will also join in and help create the framework.


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said August 4, 2008, 10:35 pm:

    Thanks Shoba. I heard the Geese story from Chandra’s in-house blog on ch1. You can look at that. Yes, nature has a lot to teach us especially about emergent forms of leadership.

  2. Quote

    Great post Sukumar. Let me pass on my two cents. Hope they make sense.
    Here they are:

    1. Let the members rule the roost instead of the leader

    A very effective way of bringing about a completely different perspective to leadership could be to let the ones under you shine as bright as possible.

    The norm is that soldeirs are the ones who do the majority of the work in a warfare but at the end of the day, its their leader who gets the credit. Instead of following the norm, if the ones under the leader are allowed to assume leadership positions (coupled with designations)given full credit for their work, it would go a long way in enhancing the performance of the team.

    The leader just needs to convey one simple message to the team-members, “Hey, this is your space. Now do whatever you want to in order to decorate it in the best possible manner. Your space, your responsibility. I’m out of it. In case you are stuck up, I would again be in. Till then, you are the boss.”

    The idea is to let the ones under you stroll as free as possible. Let them do the work in their own way instead of imposing strict guidelines. Let them come up with their own innovative methods. Every person has his/her own strengths and if the person is allowed to work to his strengths, results are bound to be fantastic. If the same person is restricted by pre-adopted means, in some ways it cuts down the innovation quotient. Moreover, its worth noting that people always get charged up when they are given power. Let them feel in power and they would automatically act in a responsible manner.

    Of course the leader would always be there to regulate the flow of process but let the ones under him decide the working of the processes.

    I hardly have any corporate experience to comment on leadership in the biz sector but till date whatever leadership roles I’ve assumed at any level, I’ve found this approach to be highly effective. In almost all the cases, the team has perfomed at full-throttle thereby delivering amazing results.

    2. A leader should avoid getting into too many details

    Focus on the minutest of issues is a great thing but not necessarily for the leader. I guess a leader should basically overview whats happening under him. Being involved in every single activity would not only lead to wastage of time but would also be an indirect message to the team members that the leader doesn’t have confidence in them.

    3. Let the team-members take the credit but the leader should always take the criticism

    I guess this helps the members build a sense of confidence in the leader as the members know that they have a protective shield in front of them. This helps build a sense of security in the members. Even if if you feel the team-members have gone wrong, as a leader you shouldn’t criticize them in public. And then as they say, appreciation should be public but critism should be private.

    Simple Example

    This is not quite a typical leader-member scenario but could still be apt. I run a blog .Every once in a while I have a guest blogger contributing an article to the blog. I never try and impose retrictions on the guest blogger when it comes to topic, content or for that matter handling comments. The guest blogger is given full freedom to make use of his own space in the manner in which he wants to. Yes during criticism (as was the case during this particular post I do try and defend my guest-blogger even though I myself may not concur with the guest-blogger’s view. I guess this approach works very well and ultimately its my guest bloggers who end up attracting more attention (in the form of comments). Ultimately its the entire setup which attracts traffic.

  3. Quote

    Hi Sukumar:

    I’m reading a lot here about characteristics. A person might have all these characteristics and yet not be a leader.

    Who is a leader (or unleader!)? Who are the kind of people whom we recognize as leaders? We always seem to connect success with leadership. The people we call strong leaders are people who accomplished and saw success — Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, etc. Hitler was also a great leader. He had done a fantastic job in mobilizing the whole of Germany behind him and almost conquering the world. But he is not often among the top in the world’s list of leaders.

    A leader, in my opinion, is the person with “the vision”, and the ability the channelize his workforce towards the vision. To apply this in smaller contexts, a leader knows the goals and steers his team towards the goals.

    A leader should be like the captain of a ship. He is not necessary in the front of the ship. However, he knows his destination and constantly steers the ship towards the destination. A good captain (and leader) should know when to take control of the ship (during a storm) and when to leave control with the crew.

  4. Quote
    Ramesh Ramaswamy said August 6, 2008, 1:55 pm:

    Great post Sukumar.

    I read an article in hindu business line some time back – Leadership lessons from cricket.

    Author talks about two successful Indian captains and their leadership style – Sourav Ganguly and Pataudi

    Key traits observed are
    1) Meritocracy
    2) An eye for talent
    3) Nurturing talent
    4) Insistence on continued performance
    5) Indifference to criticism
    6) No personal insecurity

    In the end author brings up an interesting point – Problems with authority
    Both these captains had problems with selection committee/coach. Does good leaders need complete independence?
    What is your opinion?

    – Ramesh

  5. Quote

    Those are great insights. I saw the first one in response to Meenaks’ ch1b post on this subject. I really liked the first rule you have – let the team members rule the roost. The 2nd one is also a good one. The third one has been covered by Ranjit nair above already. he has also gone one better giving some specific tips on how to make that happen. Please let us know if you agree with Ranjit’s tips or not?

  6. Quote

    You are absolutely right. Vision or as Shoba puts it – Purpose is a critical success factor. The only mod i would make in the context of unleadership is that the vision/purpose is a shared one – developed jointly by the team.

  7. Quote

    Thanks Ramesh. Long time no hear. Welcome back.

    Those are great points from the Hindu article. I agree with all of them.

    As for the independence, i think leaders need to be empowered by their management. Without that it is hard to excel as a leader. But then you have to play with the hand you are dealt. Sometimes your management may not be supportive of what you are trying to do. It is still incumbent upon the leader to manage the management in such a way that it does not infringe on the team’s ability to get things done. I know this is easier said than done. Hope you agree?

  8. Quote

    @ Ranjit

    I completely agree with your thoughts when you say that a leader must prepare the ones under him to replace him some day.

    However, when it comes to making way for a junior to replace you, I feel it should be done in very well thought-out manner. You talk about working under your team-member because you feel he is smarter than you but don’t you think with the kind of experience you would have already gained by then, you might well prove to be far more useful to the organization in a leadership role rather than working just as a team-member. In such a scenario, the best option would probably be to move on to tougher leadership roles (of course if approved by the ones senior in the hierarchy), roles where you would further be able to test your leadership mettle against the very best and roles where you would be facing far more challenging situation than in your previous stint. This approach should not be misunderstood as one of ego, prestige or selfishness rather all I want to convey is that moving up a notch could probably be the way to go. After all at the end of the day its all about the extent to which you are able to contribute to the organization.

    Out of the four tips that you’ve mentioned, point 1 and 2 are simply superb and could do wonders if followed sincerely. However, I don’t quite agree with point no. 3 which says that the ‘why’ of the problem should be postponed for at least a week. If all the issues related to the problem are solved then and there, don’t you think it would help avoid further confusion? Moreover, not involving the person who committed the mistake might not go down well with someone who is seriously dedicated towards his work. This would make the person dwell on whether the leader has lost confidence in him and there couldn’t be anything worse for someone than the feeling that the leader doesn’t find him capable enough of rectifying his own mistakes. Even a hint of this would completely shatter the individual. Instead it would be better to tell him on the face “Hey, you could have done better.” The ones who think logically would take it in a very positive manner. In the end its all about how well you have been able to judge the one under you. If you are able to find out the pulse of the ones working under you and deal with them accordingly instead of dealing with one and all with the same approach, team management would be far more effective.

    I also beg to differ on point no 4 which states that a leader should forget that he has a team when things go wrong. I guess this would be like being too good for no reason. Yes, a true leader should definitely take the entire responsibility when things go wrong but not in exchange of losing everything everything he has. Being too good might be an excuse for the ones under you who are not very sincere towards their work. There is a thin line between creating an open work environment and providing excess freedom.

  9. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said August 13, 2008, 6:48 am:

    Thanks for the detailed response to Ranjit’s 4point formula. Upon rereading the whole thing again, you are right, we do need to involve the person who committed the mistake. However, to Ranjit’s point, you may want to consider the nature of the mistake and the nature of the mistake-maker to decide whether to include him/her in the discussion. A one-size-fits-all may not work.

    As for this point no.4, i don’t think Ranjit meant it to be taken literally. his tip no.4 is just to make it clear that ultimately it is the leader who is responsible for the mistakes committed by the team members. Again, this should be done based on the type of mistake and who has made that mistake.

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