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The Common Sensical Leader

Rohit Bhuta
Rohit Bhuta
CEO, Religare Macquarie Private Wealth
With over 20 years of experience, spanning 7 key markets globally, Rohit is a thought leader in t... more>>
Core ingredient of a good leader – Common sense
There are enough and more articles, publications, university courses, seminars plus more covering the inherent nuances of what makes a good leader. Google search the word “leadership” and one will be inundated with a myriad of theories on what makes a good leader. Foresight and visionary aptitude, empathy, coaching and mentoring and integrity are all mentioned in one form or another. Interestingly, technical ability does not even rate a token mention, perhaps because that is something that is taken as a given. But what of common sense? Common sense or street-smartness is the single most important pivotal criteria in the creation of a great leader.

Street-smart leadership
Obtaining technical knowledge, mastering a collection of facts and being taught what to do to solve complex problems, while a critical element, only provides one with factual information. There are enough and more sophisticated technology tools that provide a wealth of technical information.

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.”

Obtaining an enquiring mind coupled with the know-how of how to process the data and putting it to effective use is common sense.

“Common sense is knowing that you don’t put a tomato in a fruit salad”.

Both knowledge content and process is ultimately critical. There is a significant difference between “what to think” – knowledge based and “how to think” – process based.

A good leader has the right combination of knowledge and process skills. A great leader has a significant bias towards process – common sense. The ultimate dilemma however is that while knowledge can be obtained, common sense is not a skill that can be learnt through books. Common sense is a life learning process and the ability then to fine tune one’s inherent sub-conscious mind to ensure one is aware of how one reacts to certain situations.   

A street-smart leader is one who has already made mistakes in his / her career and then learnt from them to fine tune not only the way he/she reacts to certain situations or scenarios, but also to learn to train his/her sub-conscious within to be aware of the mind’s natural tendency to particular situations. The common sensical leader also learns very quickly not to make the same mistakes again and understands that new mistakes are a part and parcel of the growing and learning process. This is the evolution of the common sense leader.

Common sense and people leadership
Daniel Goleman in his seminal book, “The New Leaders”, demonstrated the connection between leadership and emotional intelligence (EI) based on the research done by co-writers Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee. It established that Empathy was a key ingredient of competence in all leadership styles; that the “soft” skills of Humility and Empathy were vital for good organisational leadership. Goleman defines empathy as “sensing others’ emotions, understanding their perspective, and taking an active interest in their concerns”. It is important not to confuse empathy with sympathy, which is described in the Oxford Dictionary as “sharing another person’s emotions; to have compassion for”. Empathy is not about agreeing or sharing emotions, it is about understanding. It is also sometimes confused as weakness in particular in India where leadership models in certain sectors / circles are still defined by paternal, hierarchical organizational structures.

While empathy will remain a core competency of a successful leader, it is common sense that enables the leader to establish how to change the approach under certain circumstances. A street-smart leader is able to very quickly identify the people that may have confused empathy for either sympathy or weakness and adjust his / her approach accordingly.  That is the difference between a good leader and a great leader.

Gone are the days of leadership by fear. A good leader will focus on bringing the best out of his/her people, not through enforcing a subservient behaviour but through actually adding value and working on plans to further strengthen the strong skills and to constantly drive to improve on skills that require a tweak. Applicability of common sense enables an appropriate read of the situation with a tailored approach as the situation demands.

Common sense and humility
Not so long ago, I had the pleasure and opportunity to work in South Africa for a few years. There I had been exposed to a company where the key aspiration of the staff was to have a cabin – to them, getting a cabin was the ultimate perceived success, irrespective of underlying talent. In fact, the bigger the cabin, the better, as that personified progress up the chain.

A street smart leader knows respect is not a right just because he / she has the largest cabin. In fact, the new world order baulks at profligacy. A street smart leader is able to establish a fine balance between extravagance and parsimony because common sense tells him / her what is appropriate.

Common sense and adaptability
Tactical and/or strategic adaptability is a critical competency in particular in these volatile and uncertain markets that we operate in. Vision, mission and underlying strategies for execution of the vision and mission are basic core competencies of any business. A leader works towards achieving this and reviews progress on a regular basis. A great leader will review progress and will have the foresight and vision to refine and redefine strategically or tactically to ensure success.  

The common sensical leader is able to extract oneself from the day to day activities to get on the “balcony” on a regular basis - balcony time refers to the ability to extract oneself from the normal and think through the journey with a helicopter view. Consider yourself on the dance floor - gyrating to the sounds of “Sheila ki jawani”. Thinking to yourself how much better you are than Katrina Kaif...........then consider yourself going up to the balcony to watch yourself dance on the floor and realising how you actually have two left feet.

A street smart leader will constantly be looking for ways to improve.... a street smart leader is able to critically review the way he / she is “dancing” with every intention of achieving excellence and beyond.

Domain knowledge, servitude, humility, empathy, adaptability are all key competencies of a good leader. All this combined with common sense is the makings of a great leader.

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