Courtesy: Prawny from
Leadership,  Success Strategy

The Essential Qualities of Leadership – Examples from My Grandmother and Other Situational Leaders

What are the most common traits among successful leaders? What process did they all go through? What’s the must-have quality of a successful leader? How my grandmother became a leader?
Leadership training doesn’t make leaders. But still, such training programs are quite common in the corporate world. Perhaps this is how they ensure a continuous supply of loyal managers, in the same way as the British colonialist power introduced English in India to create a new class of clerks.

Genghis Khan, Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, or my late grandmother, were all extremely successful leaders who crossed insurmountable barriers in leading those around them. They were successful in whatever they set out to do although none of them ever received any training on leadership or in the concepts of strategizing, marketing, business planning, motivation, succession planning, management reporting, or any of the modern management techniques we are exposed to today. Many were poor, coming from marginalized sections of the society. But they all succeeded in their respective missions. What was the common trait in all of them?

Each of them was able to earn the trust and respect of the people around them, who believed they were safe in the hands of this person. They believed she (let’s say it’s a female) was just like any of them — with all kinds of human failings such as fear, jealousy, anger, and emotions — but still, the best person to lead. They believed she was not out to harm or outwit anyone, and therefore trustworthy. Whatever skill or craft she had was to be used only for everyone’s benefit. She was frank and humble about her weaknesses and sought to build a partnership, where everyone was free to participate, for a greater good. She achieved this by showing empathy, taking responsibility, giving appreciation, accepting own weaknesses, seeking advice, and fostering mutual respect.
The same principle applies to this day.

Leaders can emerge from unexpected sources: A woman minding a souvenir shop in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
Photo by the Author

A leader needs to understand the business in hand, be it corporate, politics, social work, religion or whatever. She may excel in every KPI (Key Performance Indicator) and know how to deliver mission-critical jobs. She may be on top of all relevant issues through an elaborate system of reporting and monitoring. But despite all these, she may not necessarily become a leader. On the contrary, we might have actually aroused fear, mistrust, and wariness amongst her team along the way. She may, in the short term, achieve goals that impress her managers and she probably can call herself a manager, perhaps a good one at best, but still a mere manager. Leadership needs something more.

Leaders cultivate empathy, wisdom, trust and mutual respect, not cold-blooded apathy or mistrust. Leaders don’t necessarily need razor-sharp memory or high IQ, but they do need that special trait called humility. A leader earns respect by setting examples and working for the good of her team, not herself. She, more often than not, is only a catalyst, a facilitator, encouraging everyone to come together and give their best for a common goal. She is guided by wisdom and vision, and seldom by ambition.

Hardly any, perhaps none, of the great leaders ever set out to become one. They merely wanted to achieve a few goals and persisted until they accomplished those. Along the way, people started to follow them. They were often discouraged, frustrated, intimidated, ostracized, abused, or even tortured, but never gave up. Their leadership skills attracted people to them who were prepared to give their all because they believed in their leader. This support encouraged them to continue on their causes allowing them to envision even higher goals and scale far greater heights.

Maimuna Khatun, my illiterate grandmother, in the heart of the British Bengal in the 1930s, became widowed, with eleven young children to raise and several minor in-laws as her wards. But she not only stepped up and survived, but also left a flourishing family of almost a hundred descendants, in prestigious organizations, independent businesses, and elite schools. Needless to say, she didn’t have the inkling of any such achievements, but only wanted to carry on. In the process, she instilled into the extended family a strong urge to survive. No doubt, at times she almost gave up in the face of enormous obstacles but never did. She became a leader.

A friend of mine is a well-known name in a start-up business and financial inclusion in Bangladesh, whose journey from a rough start to where he is today is quite interesting. Early in his career, he took the job of a junior accountant in a small town in Bangladesh. He, however, strove to improve his skills, worked hard to prepare himself and traveled at nights to the big city for a series of professional exams. His life took him to places, and every time he improved himself in more ways than one. Eventually, he founded and lead one of the first venture capital companies in Bangladesh. Along the way, he has also become a guru for start-up enthusiasts and an avid social worker facilitating education for underprivileged children, especially girls. He is a leader, albeit a silent one, as he is showing the way to young men and women with big dreams and those slum kids.

Leadership examples in everyday life are aplenty. Think of the millions of mothers all over the world working hard to lift their families out of a vicious cycle of poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. When we all learn to manage wealth, they excel in managing poverty, without any formal training. This is the ultimate in leadership.

Leaders grow from real-life exposure and selfless behavior at critical times. Their followers find their wisdom, sense of purpose, empathy and humility to be greater than their weaknesses. Mutual trust grows, despite human failings on both sides. That’s how they become leaders.

The essence of leadership is perhaps best summed up in (excuse my poor translation) “We all are Kings in the land of our King”, a Bangla song written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1905 in the backdrop of a tumultuous period of history, using “King” as a metaphor. Tagore, in his distinctive style, aptly linked motivation, empathy, sovereignty, mutual respect and humility with leadership. Bill Campbell, Silicon Valley’s legendary coach, summarized this as “Your title makes you a manager. Your people will decide if you’re a leader, and it’s up to you to live up to that.” This should be the guiding principle for an aspiring leader.

About the Author
Sayeed Ahmed – Consulting engineer by profession. Writer and traveler by passion. Interested in history, culture, education, and people.

This article was originally published on medium

Title photo courtesy: Prawny from

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