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Questions for Aspiring Leaders

Bavidra Mohan, Acumen’s India Fellows Manager, attended this years Aspen IDEAS festival as a Scholar. The Scholarship program was established to invite guests from around the world to bring a diverse set of experiences, voices and perspectives to the rich conversations that take place at the IDEAS festival each year.

Numerous attendees, ranging from Presidential candidates to musicians, discussed the type of leadership that we need in the world today. I found myself in a number of these conversations, debating the indispensable characteristics of great leadership, many of which feature prominently in our Leadership programs at Acumen: empathy, storytelling, systems thinking, etc. I left these conversations often with more questions rather than concrete answers. Here are a few questions that aspiring leaders, especially those devoted to social impact, should pose to themselves:

Can you disagree without being disagreeable?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian Philosopher and Cultural Theorist, tackled the question of what is required to have meaningful conversations about moral matters across cultures – and do we necessarily have to agree on a universal value in order to work together? He pointed out that disagreeing is not a reason to stop talking, and that one can disagree without being disagreeable.

The notion of recognizing that two opposing sides of an argument represent two different truths, rather than a right or wrong, is essential to understand. In our efforts to constantly push for a shared value system we often impose our worldview – our “truth” – and strive to shift beliefs rather than focus on the real question of how do we work together as partners.

To navigate different moral ecologies without imposing one’s own worldview is a much needed trait for all us, not just those that lead.

Can you hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time?

Roger Martin, author of The Opposable Mind, suggested that great business leaders are able to hold two opposing ideas in their minds to create a third option that represents the best of both.

What Roger calls “Integrative Thinking” is more than just a business tool; it’s a framework in which to think about the world. Success in any sphere of life exists in tandem with messy comprises – you can’t build every product, save every life or live every dream. Great leaders understand these tradeoffs, and find energy and inspiration in those moments of tension. Great leaders don’t shrink in those moments of discomfort and respond with anger or frustration; they embrace them as launch pads and fertile ground for something new and different. Acumen itself was born of this same tension between market solutions and traditional aid.

Why do you want to lead?

Leadership is over romanticized. It is actually incredibly lonely, complicated and wrought with sacrifice.  As a recovering start-up founder, I can attest to this. Possibly the most important question you can ask yourself is why: why do you want to lead, and to what end? The importance of this question played out on stage when Walter Issacson asked Hilary Clinton the question that was on everyone’s mind, “are you running for President?” Hilary Clinton responded by saying:

“Nobody should run for President…unless you really believe that you have a vision for where our country should be heading and that you can lead us there. Otherwise, it’s just the same stale political debate, over and over again”.  

What struck me about her response was how she connected the driving motivation to the outcome – i.e. a misguided desire to lead without purpose and belief will result in more of the same. Truly understanding one’s drive for a position of leadership is deeply personal, but it is a reality that needs to be faced. The sacrifice required to thrive in positions of leadership is insurmountable without unwavering faith that the trade-off is worth it.

The Acumen India Fellows are faced with these questions everyday as they work to solve the country’s most intractable problems. Incredible Fellows such as Prerit, Manjushree, Abbas and Abhilasha are constantly faced with trade-offs, but hold a vision for the future of India that is more than worth it.

I’m certain that there are many other questions that aspiring leaders should ask themselves to lead full and purposeful lives. Events like the Aspen IDEAS Festival are a great reminder that it’s always better to have more questions than answers.

 

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