A leadership skill I watched in a thief

Have you been woken up around 7.45am by a burglar? It happened to me. I was away with family and friends for our prized winter break in the last week of December. We were sharing a holiday home, nestled in a residential colony and secured by a tall compound wall with only one main entrance to the house. It must have been around 7.45am, I heard someone push open the door with a force. I had secured the door with a latch the night before but it must have been easy for the barrel to slip down with the brute force applied on the door.  The first thought crossed my mind was of my daughter who was in the other room and I jumped out to check that door when I saw this man walking up the stairs to rooms. The holiday home has a couple of rooms on the ground floor and a lovely, wooden staircase going up to the rooms on the first floor.  The man paused in his steps, turned around and gave me a stare and I thought how rude this housekeeping guy was! 

Later, almost an hour after this, we slowly came to realise that the man was a thief, had walked up to the bedroom on the first floor and taken out laptops from one room and then stepped into the other room and took some more gadgets and a laptop bag. In one room one person was sleeping and another one was inside the washroom. In the second room two people were sleeping when their devices were swept off. Work and school from home means we travel with our computer devices. That man had a big haul of gadgets in a matter of a few minutes that morning. The irony is, he not only saw me briefly, he met another guest on the first floor who asked him for a housekeeping errand as she walked out of the house for her morning stroll. This guest had a few seconds of exchanges with the thief. CCTV cameras on the property have recorded him walking in through the main gate, towards the building with rooms, getting inside it, coming out with a water jug following the guest, walking back in, walking out again empty handed may be to check on the guest’s whereabouts and walking back again into the holiday home and eventually coming out with a laptop bag full of gadgets and walking out of the main gate into one of the narrow lanes. There was no vehicle waiting for him. He had come empty handed and walked out with a backpack full of devices. 

My memory said he wore a white shirt which the CCTV confirmed. The other guest’s memory said he was in red trainers, again confirmed through CCTV footage. He wore a mask, as expected during these times. 

I am not narrating this story to bring to your attention that uncertainties are an everyday phenomenon and that uncertainties come in various forms. I am also not going to talk about how we dealt or how one should deal with such events afterwards. 

Every time I think about the incident, it reminds me of this man’s courage. The courage to walk in broad daylight, the courage to continue on his mission after meeting two adults on the way. But courage doesn’t come alone. We don’t know how he would have reacted if the person would have come out from the washroom while he was packing gadgets in the bag. Courage doesn’t mean absence of fear. 

In the first week of 2021, I am bringing your attention to a leadership skill that Nelson Mandela spoke about in 1994. He said,

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

TIME’s former managing editor Richard Stengel outlined the world leader’s eight leadership lessons, starting with, “Courage is not the absence of fear–it’s inspiring others to move beyond it. Stengel wrote- 

In 1994, during the presidential-election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of Natal and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic. The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to the rally, he turned to me and said, “Man, I was terrified up there!”

Mandela was often afraid during his time underground, during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment, during his time on Robben Island. “Of course I was afraid!” he would tell me later. It would have been irrational, he suggested, not to be. “I can’t pretend that I’m brave and that I can beat the whole world.” But as a leader, you cannot let people know. “You must put up a front.”

And that’s precisely what he learned to do: pretend and, through the act of appearing fearless, inspire others. It was a pantomime Mandela perfected on Robben Island, where there was much to fear. Prisoners who were with him said watching Mandela walk across the courtyard, upright and proud, was enough to keep them going for days. He knew that he was a model for others, and that gave him the strength to triumph over his own fear.

Often, during business decisions, leaders crumble not because they do not have the courage to take the decision but because they get crippled by the prospect of failure. New project decisions, a new product design, a new market exploration, a new important hire… there are many decisions that the business leader has to make during his tenure. Most decisions require logical thinking and are supported by data but there are some decisions, decisions that have a consequential impact, that require courage to move forward. Sometimes it is not the data, it is the fear of failure that holds the decision from becoming a reality. 

Like intuition, fear is also an integral part of thinking like we face fear of failure, fear of being judged as indecisive etc. Fear is like a package offer with courage, buy courage, get fear free! Sometimes it is in insignificant form but sometimes it takes a larger space.  This fear takes the path to safe decisions instead of bold, courageous decisions. In business decisions, there are multiple paths that vary in degree of boldness and outcome. Some bold decisions have bigger chances of failure. Safe decisions are decisions that do not deliver spectacular outcomes but these also are not the reason for any failure or may fail only with limited damage. Leaders take safe decisions,well, to remain safe. That is why we see less change in culture, lesser innovations because staying in the safe territory requires less or no courage. 

Courage overshadowed by fear for any leader becomes visible to the team. Nelson Mandela was conscious as a leader that his expression of fear will have an impact on his followers. 

It is an important leadership lesson that while courage is an individual’s experience, it is being watched. So is fear. As a leader, it is important to remember the following:

1. Courage is not the absence of fear.

2. Bold decisions have chances of getting overshadowed by fear. If the decision maker is conscious of fear, he can address it logically and not let fear overshadow bold decisions. 

3. Leaders are watched by team members. At times, it is imperative to display courage and keep fear under wraps. 

If the man in the holiday home would have displayed any fear, maybe, one of us would have sensed misdeed. It is ironic that a burglar, in bright morning light, in a house full of people, brought our attention to the fact – ‘courage is not the absence of fear.’ He enacted it. It takes negative circumstances to show us lessons, it takes a pandemic to teach us many values, it takes a thief to remind us that courage and fear co-exist and managing the balance between our courage and fear is the key to our success. 

One thought on “A leadership skill I watched in a thief

  1. 👌👌…it reminds me of the Harshad Mehta series…Ishk hai toh risk hai. Courage also means taking risk for what you want to do

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