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Responsible Leadership: Airport lounges and leadership lessons

Time to read: Five minutes to gain a different perspective

/// Airport lounges

Over the last 12 months, I have had the luxury of travelling to several different countries—often quickly exchanging one travel bag for another and regularly buying Toblerone bars, much to the annoyance of my family (especially the wife—and rightly so). I have convinced myself that the stacks of chocolate bars will be called upon over Easter.

Business travel and the associated nights away from loved ones are part of my working life—especially as I have spent half my professional career working within consulting organisations such as KPMG and Cognizant. It all evens out over time. Well, that is what I tell myself. I suspect, given recent events travel for the majority of us will be suspended for the foreseeable future.

Despite the travel, heavy workload and multiple demands of my chosen career, I feel hugely privileged to engage with inspiring industry leaders, colleagues and partners. This is not to say that prior to the last 12 months, my interactions and relationships were not inspiring—they absolutely were. All golden nuggets of wisdom that stem from interactions and relationships contribute to my life’s value bank—a repository of wisdom and value that I can deploy to better myself and those under my care and counsel.

/// The power of chance encounters

It was mid-week in late February 2020, and I was sitting in an airport lounge awaiting my plane home from a business trip, relaxing and reading through my notes from an executive coaching session I had attended earlier that week. Over the years, I have invested in professional and executive coaching, which allows me to gain from external perspectives and develop holistically.

As I was revisiting my notes, I noticed that a fellow passenger had dropped her passport.“Excuse me. You dropped your passport.”

The passenger glanced back with a smile of relief and reached out her hand, saying “Thank you. That was lucky.”

I returned her smile and placed the passport in her hand.

“You don’t mind if I sit next to you, do you?” she asked.

“No, be my guest,” I replied.

She sat next to me and started a conversation.

Well, that’s the end of my reading, I thought to myself. So, I placed my notebook into my bag and faced the passenger to learn something new.

It was one of the best decisions I had made in a very long time.  

The passenger—let’s call her Amanda—was a retired sports teacher who spends time in Sri Lanka teaching young children empowerment through basic self-defence. Amanda was captivating, her passion for her trade was utterly contagious.

Amanda’s motivating drivers were super-simple. She had a clear vision (a passion for people and people-based outcomes) coupled with a duty of care that motivated her to execute the hell out of that vision, despite all challenges. I attentively listened to her story, a story that encapsulated all the textbook characteristics of inspirational leadership, including vision, sacrifice, bravery, integrity, responsibility, humanity and creativity.

Amanda had my full attention. She was a naturally gifted storyteller who championed her vision and its value, return and benefit to those within her care and counsel in a manner that was personal and overpoweringly genuine.

Amanda’s delivery of her story was so attractive that other passengers were drawn to it. I could feel their presence whilst I maintained mine in the moment—a moment of re-education.

“Oh, is that the time?” she suddenly exclaimed.

Amanda gathered her belongings, but before she left to board her plane, she looked at me and gifted me some unsolicited advice.

“Ambrish, caring is a strength, not a weakness. It really matters what you care about.”

With that, we bid each other farewell.

I reflected upon the encounter and recorded my thoughts, some of which I share with you through this post.

// The paradox of caring in leadership

I relearnt an important lesson that day:

Wisdom and insight are only a chance conversation away, and a simple act can deliver a return that adds significant credit to your value bank.  

I recall that during the early days of my career, my mentor was energised by the fact that leadership for him was simply empowering people to do amazing things. I am privileged to be exposed to brilliant people doing brilliant things in brilliant places. This privilege is made possible by those around me—clients, colleagues and partners.

I was trained at an early age that investing time in building credits within one’s personal bank is tremendously important. All too often, we look for structured inputs (such as executive coaching) to add these credits. However, chance encounters can be equally enriching.

Amanda’s leadership approach was oriented around caring, which some leadership commentators would describe as a power trade-off, a sign of weakness or an impediment to making difficult decisions.

It is generally believed that there are contradictions among power, leadership and caring. Supporters of responsible leadership, however, believe that caring is a strength. Caring as a leadership attribute allows leaders to empower others, as it engenders trust, develops and maintains high performance levels, and acts as a behavioural model. Reflecting upon recent events (e.g., the Coronavirus pandemic #covid19) our collective duty of care has never been greater and how we respond (e.g., internationally, private and public sector, local communities, and as leaders and individuals) in the short to long term will be hugely important. I welcome your views on leadership.

What does leadership mean to you?

Is caring a leadership attribute that inspires you?

Wishing you safe journeys at this time, Ambrish

// About Ambrish: Digital Leader, Keynote Speaker, Thought Leader, Customer Obsessed

Ambrish is an accomplished, well-rounded financial services director with a 20-year career in shaping and delivering business outcomes. He is an executive board-level advisor working at the intersection of business, technology and digital transformation. He is the owner and founder of the Banking Strategy and Digital Transformation Finextra group and a thought leader with several publications.

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