'Don't try to change yourself; improve on what you have'

Prakash Iyer, managing director of Kimberly Clark Lever, is the author of two books on leadership: 'The Habit of Winning' and 'The secret of Leadership'. In an interview with Swetha Amit, he talks about his last book, and shares his views on what it takes to become a leader

Prakash IyerWhat inspired you to write The Habit of Winning and The Secret of Leadership?
I've always enjoyed writing and it's been something I wanted to do more of. I have worked with a lot of people, learnt a lot of lessons and I felt it was an opportunity to share some of those lessons. It enabled me to create a difference in people's lives.

And therefore it was this whole idea about being able to make a difference in my own small way by telling them stories which would help them and perhaps be a huge inspiration for them. That's how I looked at it.

Do you think a leader is born or made in the course of time?
It's an interesting thought. People often wonder that if you were not born with it, do you really have it in you. My answer is I don't think it's true that if a person who is not born a leader is finished. I think we can all acquire new traits, get better and learn to lead.

Having said that I feel in a way everybody is a born leader. There is a leader inside each of us. And the problem is we have lots of things that hold us back which prevents the leader inside us to emerge.

Becoming a leader is not just about learning new things but perhaps also unlearning a few things. Leadership is something that each of us can exhibit in our own way. In our mind, we think leadership is all about leading companies, teams, countries and an army. But we forget that we all lead lives. Eventually the quality of the life depends on the leader. So your life will depend on you if you are the leader and not on anybody else.

What according to you are the three most important qualities that a leader should possess?
I can think of several qualities and traits that leaders exhibit. But if I were to just name three, I would put that down to saying that all leaders should get a PHD.

P stands for passion which is an important requirement. I think leaders must learn to be passionate about everything that they do. They should do it because they derive fun and happiness from it.  It's also something that helps you to connect with other people and probably get other people to get as excited as you are about your goals.

H stands for hunger. You need to have that hunger for success and you need to want something badly. Only then you can start being the leader to attract that thing to yourself. And very often, when we say we want something, we don't want it badly enough.

D is for discipline. It's about following what you want to do and promising to get it done. It's not only about doing it when you just feel like it but also when you don't feel like it.   For instance there's a story of a gymnast who won a gold medal. The secret of that success was that she worked towards it even when she didn't feel like it. 

Most of us are halfway there and we practise only when we feel like it.

But I think it's important to push yourself out of your comfort zone which will ultimately help you be the best you can be.

Apart from that I think integrity is an important trait. That's about being honest to yourself and the people you work with.

Susan Caine has said in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts that such people are preferred as leaders due to their ability to introspect, listen and understand others better than extroverted personalities. What is your opinion on this?
Being a good leader is not only about being able to introspect, listen and understand others; it's also about being able to get other people excited enough to share your dreams and being able to communicate the excitement of where you want to be.

For instance, if you want people to sail the seas, don't teach them how to make a boat but tell them about the joys of venturing into the unknown. They will eventually learn to make the boats themselves.

It's not for me to suggest whether being an introvert or extrovert is better. I think the mistake many of us make is to change ourselves. For instance if we are extroverts, then we believe that we need to be introverted to be a good leader and only then people will take us seriously. Or if we are introverts, we believe that unless we become this backslapping kind of a person, people will not see us as a leader. That's not true. I think people eventually look at the real you and that's what they learn to respect.

According to me, it doesn't matter if you are an extrovert or an introvert. You can still be a great leader. But do not be someone you are not as that is unlikely to make you successful or powerful.

You have drawn interesting analogies of leadership with sports and the animal kingdom. Do you see this book being enjoyed by several age groups?
I have used analogies with the animal kingdom and sports because for all of us ultimately, stories are very powerful.  If you merely tell someone not to do something or tell them the way to do it, the message doesn't register. However if you tell them a story from some sport or the animal kingdom, the message suddenly rings clear.  It stays in their mind, becomes a metaphor that they can use later and something which they are able to relate to.

It cuts across age groups. As children we were told grandma stories which we still recollect.  So I have tried to use stories and have written them in a simple manner which makes it easier for people to read and relate to it.  There have been a lot of people from the corporate world who have read it and said they have given it to their fifteen-year-olds to read it as they felt the book could make a difference to their children.

You have mentioned an inspiring line in your book 'Don't just run with your legs, run with your mind'. How would you rate mental strength as a tool for a leader to overcome adversities?
I rate it very high but not just to overcome adversities. I think mental strength is about believing in yourself and not letting limitations come your way. I think sometimes we give up long before we should be giving up.

Our fuel tank seems to indicate its empty long before when it's actually empty and in reality there's loads of it left. This is a line which I heard from an army man and I thought was fantastic.

If you think harder you will discover strengths which you didn't know existed, to do things better. And it's not just about running, but anything you want to do in life.  I think that's the message out there.   If you're strong, you will not only overcome adversity, you will discover that in good times you will push yourself more to achieve what you want.

In that instance of a frog which was deaf and reached the top of the TV tower, you have emphasised on the fact to turn a deaf ear against people who are discouraging. How easy or difficult is it to do that if the people who do so happen to be your kith and kin?
It's a very real world question and one sees deceit happening all around us.  To me the story of the frog was an extremely powerful story. I think we need to believe in ourselves, our dreams and believe strongly enough to be able to disregard the cynics or naysayers. I think it's important not to get swayed by others' opinions irrespective of who they are. 

If you become the person who will start listening to twenty different voices then you will fail to accomplish anything. If you believe in something, do not allow cynics to stop you. We often like to be the frog which disregards others who says it cannot achieve its goal.

But most importantly we forget that at times, we ourselves are the people who tend to discourage our friends / colleagues from doing something based on our judgement or prior failed experience.

And we allow our own limitations to transpose on to other people. 

In the story of the boy who swapped marbles, you have stated that trust is very important. However in today's world where there exists a lot of backstabbing for selfish gains, how easy is it for a leader to place complete trust and faith on his team members?
If I go back to the story, the girl is happy having traded her best candy. But the boy on the other hand is restless, wondering if the girl like him has hidden her best candies for his marbles. It's tempting for us to feel that the problem lies in the other person. If we all carry this attitude, then it becomes difficult for us to trust other people.

I think we all tend to worry about how other people are. We want other people to be trustworthy and stay honest. But we think they are not because somewhere in our hearts we ourselves do something which other people will perceive to be different.

But if we tell ourselves that we want to become the person that we want other people to be to us, then slowly trust will start getting built around the world. So maybe it's a good idea for us to be that kind of a person who helps other people.

For instance if you get into an accident on the highway, you will want the next car which passes by to stop by and help you. But we have to ask ourselves whether we stop every time we see that happening? We don't necessarily do the things we want other people to do. But if all of us started doing it, there's a good chance that someone else may stop by and help us in the future.

In the example of the porcupine story, one sees a pertinent line which says that 'Getting away from people is easy, surviving alone is tough.' What should a leader do in such a scenario where a team member chooses to walk away instead of dealing with his / her incompatible members?
Yes we do see this happening all the time. It's not about what a leader should do in this case, but what the team member should do. The problem here is that we quickly take for granted the good that we see around us. For instance you might be in a team where people are actually helpful, competent, make you feel valued and help you to deliver great results.

But there will be that one negative thing which makes us feel people are envious and are waiting to put us down. That will make us want to quit and go and join another team because of that one strong thorn. So we end up going to another team where people may not be jealous but they may not be as good or competent. And that might lead to another set of dissatisfaction.

So it's important for all of us to remember that the world will always be a mix of some good and bad. There is a temptation to focus on what's wrong or what's missing. But I think it's important to look at things with a sense of balance. I think as a leader it's important for us to accentuate the positives and work around it rather than reminding ourselves about what's not working.

If we do that then the problem will grow bigger than what it will actually be.  We imagine the quick fix will come if we move from one place to another because people will change.  It's not about finding another team or place; it's about bringing change within ourselves rather than the others. The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.  But if we water it and tend to it with a little more care, we will have greener grass as we have taken full control of it. It's about empowering and putting the responsibility on to you, because you now need to ensure that you're doing what it takes to get it right. 

Going by the saying 'the older one is, the wiser they get,' does age play a crucial factor with regards to effective leadership?
I think age is probably in some sense disconnected from being an effective leader. A lot of the traits that define great leaders today are increasingly age-independent. It's not necessary that one will be more passionate about what they do just because they are older. One sees a lot of changed situations in home and work environment. 

At home, when parents speak to their kids with equal stature, they find that the kids will turn out to be better and respond to them better. Even at work, hierarchy has become a thing of the past. This whole aspect about the seniority factor and listening to the leader blindly has become out-dated. It's not about who is right but what is right. 

You will find several such examples everywhere, be it in sports or industries. If one looks at the young generation today they are ambitious, fearless and far surer of themselves. We need to recognize that and encourage such traits. For instance, South Africa was led by Graeme Smith when he was 21 and was one of their most successful captains.

I think Dhoni is another good example as he represents the current generation of youngsters which is fearless and does what it think is right.  If you see the team he led against England recently, it comprised youngsters who did really well.  Age is only a number and it's got nothing to do with how good a leader you will be.

What is your next book going to be about and when do we see it on the shelves?
Hopefully you should see a new book next year.  That's coming from the fact that it's something I enjoy doing. When I see the response from the readers and get emails from them, it really makes my day.

If I have the chance to do something I enjoy and make a difference to other people's lives I like to do a lot more of it.  I have got a couple of ideas in my head, so I will probably work on that and see what will look like a good concept. I want to ensure that it's something people find easy to relate to and that it's something that will enable them to change the way they think or change their lives.