The magic that makes good to great: Sindhu, Chanu, Deepinder, Falguni

“She had tears in her eyes. I told her to think it was a gift for me,” PV Sindhu’s father lifted her spirits when the semi final defeat to Tai Tzu-Ying on Saturday weighed her down. 

“Through all your experiences of ups and downs, did you ever come close to giving up in all these 12-odd years?” asked the interviewer. 

“About a couple of times every week,’’ answered Deepinder Goyal, in his interview after Zomato’s IPO.  

The timelines are palpitating with sheer excitement and nervousness floating when history is in the making, whether in the Olympics stadiums or at Dalal Street. Both sports and startups personalities are weaving some magic in the air. It is filled with hope, with ambition and dreams and most importantly it seems achievable. Yes, we can do it. 

PV Sindhu won her second medal at the Olympics last week. It makes her the first Indian woman to win two medals at the Olympics. Also, in the same week Deepinder Goyal’s startup, Zomato rang the opening bell at the stock market. The event makes him the first startup boy, made-in-India, to reach this high level of success. Zomato’s listing is not only impressive because it is the first new-age startup, but also because it is the first company without profits in its books that has pocketed the likes of people. It doesn’t stop here, there are more names. Chanu Saikom Mirabai, Rani Rampal, Ravi Kumar Dahiya, P R Sreejesh, Simranjeet Singh, Savita Punia and the list goes on for athletes who have been shining bright at the Olympics. In a parallel startup world, being successfully listed at the stock market is almost equivalent to securing an olympic medal. Zomato is a new age startup that had its IPO recently. The next in the pipeline is Nykaa. Cartrade, Mobikwik and several others are waiting in the wings. It is just the beginning.

From Olympics to startups, the made-in-India story is not a story of fiction or mere skill, hardwork and grit. It is the story of leadership, leadership of not just excellence but where the ambition for the mission and institution, exceeds the ambition for the self. In today’s column, I bring to you an understanding of a leadership personality trait that takes goodness to greatness, in both sports and startups. It is called Level 5 Leadership. 

Level 5 leadership is a concept developed in the book Good to Great. Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.

As the events unfolded in both startups and the sports world, it became clearer that how the two worlds are similar in performance and delivery. Like an athlete is developed by a village of experts, startups are run by leaders supported by teams across all functions. An athlete digs deeper inside her for courage, so does the founder. The stories of sports and startups match. The leadership style matches. 

Grit and hardwork:

Mirabai Chanu’s  self-discovery of weightlifting started with carrying firewood from the jungle at the age of 12. To train she travelled 40kms everyday. “At times, she would hitch a ride on a truck or if she got lucky share a tuk-tuk, some days she would cycle, and some days she would come half the way and then walk back home. She never threw in the towel,” her mother Tombi Devi said in an interview. 

Deepinder Goyal’s childhood training was to save himself from terrorists. Here is an excerpt from his mentor and investor Sanjeev Bhikchandani: He was born in Muktsar – a small town in Punjab in 1983. His father was a teacher in a government school. For the first ten years of his life the family lived in the fear of terrorists. As a child he was tutored by his parents that if the terrorists ever came he should tell them that his name was Deepinder and he was a Sikh. That way they would spare his life even if they killed his parents. Thankfully the terrorists never came.

When he was fifteen his parents sent him to Chandigarh to study for the last two years in school. He lived in a hostel – ragging was tough but he survived. Academically he was totally out of his depth initially since the standard of study was far higher than he had ever encountered. But he tried hard and managed to clear the IIT entrance examination. From IIT he went to Bain and then launched Foodiebay which became Zomato later on.

Skill and speed: 

Sjoerd Marijne, the Indian Hockey girls team coach, talks about Rani Rampal’s skills in a story by Sharda Ugra. The secret sauce, he says, about her physical properties lies in the fact “that she is faster with the ball than without the ball.” With the ball on her stick, she turns into an elusive quicksilver with the most minimal feints and dummies, wrong-footing defenders, leaving them behind, earning her extra slices of time. During a training run, Marijne said he asked the faster players to hustle against Rani, press hard and fast around her, but still she slipped through. Later, she told the bemused Marijne, “She might be faster with the ball, but I am quicker with the thinking.”

Pandemic lockdown in 2020 had presented a problem for businesses. Falguni Nayar knew it would take some quick pivots and strategic thinking to keep the business rolling. And Nayar didn’t waste any time. With operations and logistics coming to a halt, she decided to sell everyday essentials online. “Overnight we pivoted to an essentials-only online store and to handle that we utilised our 70 offline stores across the country to do hyperlocal delivery,” says the 57-year-old Nayar. The hyperlocal focus was, of course, because intra-state shipment of products was restricted during the initial phase of the lockdown. “We would match the products ordered online with what was available at the store to deliver to the nearest pin code,” she adds, as mentioned in an article

Like hardwork and determination, skills and speed to execute is an essential path to being successful in both sports and startups. What separates the good to great is the level of leadership that they exhibit. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great illustrated that long lasting companies are built by level 5 leaders. Level 1 being a highly capable individual, Level 2- contributing team member, Level 3- a competent manager, Level 4- Effective leader, Level 5 – builds enduring greatness.  

Level 5 leadership trait that makes them good to great: 

It is not that level 5 leaders have no ego or self interest. Indeed they are incredibly ambitious- but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.  For Sindhu, who aspired to get a Gold at Tokyo 2020 faced a setback with the loss in semifinals. 

She gathered courage and focus to fight again to earn a bronze, for herself and for the country. 

Deepinder Goyal, continues on giving up: “It is about how fast you can pick yourself up and get back.” In another conversation he gives a peek into his thoughts while talking about delivery partners. He says, “We are always focused on doing more for them, doing better for them” showing his larger mission. 

Nykaa’s Falguni Nayyar has carved her own successful path operating in a highly competitive space with giants like Amazon and Flipkart. She has skillfully built the company in a capital intensive space, has made it profitable and brought it to IPO stage. 

The unwavering resolve, to do what must be done for the success, no matter how deep they have to dig inside themselves for courage and clarity, is what takes them from good to great. 

Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results. They are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decisions. 

That is how the leaders have performed and achieved, in sports and in startups. P.V Sindhu, Mirabai Chanu, Deepinder Goyal, Falguni Nayar. The unwavering resolve of a Level-5 leadership to dig to leap from goodness to greatness. 

Good to great

You need to know what connects Ginsberg, Bezos, and your leadership

“Don’t worry, you are not the only one. Most people have googled Ruth Bader Ginsberg,” read Malvika’s Insta story on one of this week’s mornings. That morning most Insta stories were of the lady in a black robe with her trademark white collar. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the iconic Supreme Court justice in the USA passed away this week making citizens in her country erupt on the streets and elsewhere in the world emerge on social media, irrespective of whether she was entirely known to them or not. In her death, she made the social media timelines look more intelligent. In real life, she altered timelines of people through her extensive work. So when I read Insta story of Malvika Mehra, a celebrated creative personality in Indian advertising, I couldn’t help but think- this is us, maybe less knowledgeable but not untouched by the personality. 


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, 87, a towering personality in her petite frame, the second woman to serve in the US Supreme Court died on 18th September, 2020. She is known for her landmark work, for 27 years in the Supreme Court, for her pioneer advocacy for women’s rights, for her several bouts with illness and comebacks, for her sets of push-ups in her 80s and for her collars, the jabot. 

‘The Fearless Girl in the lace collar at the Wall Street’ replaced the earlier posts a couple of days ago. Justice Ginsberg had started wearing a collar when she realized that the robe was designed for men to show their collar but not for the women. She started wearing a jabot during her court appearances. The collar became her identity and later earned a name. Originally given to her in a Glamour Women of the Year gift bag in 2012, she wore this Banana Republic embellished collar in 2016 when an incredibly divisive and contentious presidential campaign ended in the election of Donald Trump. That day, her collar took a name she had given – the Dissent collar. The dissent collar, now worn by the Fearless Girl as a tribute, then gave birth to body tattoos and a thousand memes along with regular merchandise of t-shirts and pins. And, the Fearless Girl is on Malvika’s cover page and other pages. We are now moved by the personality.

“Teach the word Dissent to your girl” were some of the social media posts that rallied around this week. A dissent as defined by the law dictionary is ‘the opinion of a judge of a court of appeals, including the U.S. Supreme Court, which disagrees with the majority opinion.’ Sometimes a dissent may eventually prevail as the law. Justice Ginsburg is remembered as much for her judicial dissents as for her majority opinions. One of my favorite of her dissents is Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007): Ginsburg wrote the dissent in the 5-4 case, which denied Lilly Ledbetter the right to sue her employer for gender-based pay discrimination. This dissent led the then-president Barack Obama to sign a Lily Ledbetter fair pay act in 2009. 

I Dissent” is a picture book that tells RBG’s story through the lens of her many disagreements–from the time she was a child disagreeing with the rule at school that said left-handers (like her) had to write with their right hands–and shows young readers that disagreeing does not make a person disagreeable; that you can change your life and even the world one disagreement at a time. Probably, this explains the posts on teaching the word dissent on the social media. We are now in awe of the personality.  

“I disagree and commit,” said Jeff Bezos to his Amazon Studios team, in a world away and unrelated from Justice Ginsberg. He had to make a decision about a production concept which he felt was debatable in terms of the interest quotient, complicated production issues, and business terms. Yet, instead of spending time on agreeing and committing, he chose to disagree yet showed his commitment. 

In this week’s column on Habits for Thinking, here we are learning from Justice Ginsberg’s impactful use of ‘Dissent’ and Jeff Bezos ‘Disagree and Commit’  and adding the potential of disagreeing to our leadership style. 

A dissent is powerful and empowering. 

So is, to disagree and yet commit. It is powerful and empowering. 

Dissents are futuristic.  “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time, their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” Justice Ginsberg had said in an interview. 

Disagree and commit prepares for the future. Bezos said in a shareholder address in 2016– “This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have a conviction in a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.”

This is one of the four tenets of high quality, high-velocity decision making at Amazon. The other three are- first, one size doesn’t fit all decision-making process, secondly, decide with 70% information, waiting for 90% information will be being slow and thirdly recognize misalignment and escalate them. 

As team leaders, we must agree to disagree, when the need comes. A disagreement has to be weighed with these perspectives: 

1 A roadmap for the future: Your disagreement should be voiced to open new thoughts for the future of the business. Like disagreeing in a data architecture discussion to protect future privacy issues is a roadmap for the coming days. It opens a dialogue to be addressed for the good of the business.  

2 Commitment is for the team’s ability: In case of innovation or new concept decisions, your disagreement should not slow down the process. When you disagree and commit, you show the commitment to your team’s ability. No predictions were made to suggest businesses would suffer in 2020 for reasons that are not under our control. Remember that firstly no future planning is full proof and secondly, the ability to drive strong depends on the team’s abilities. Commit to your team’s strength.

3 Failure is still yours. To disagree and commit is to remember there is no room for ego in making decisions. In the eventuality of the failure of the decision, the leader is still responsible.  

Justice Ginsberg’s ‘Dissent’ and Jeff Bezos ‘Disagree and Commit’ are different yet very similar. They both teach us that disagreeing is for the greater good if steered well.