Leadership? It’s about clearly and demonstrably putting the good of the firm first – even if this puts your personal agenda at risk.
My dislike of losing has possibly been a driving force.. It’s probably a legacy of going to MIT, aged 17 – the first time I went abroad; having to adjust from being comfortably among the top of the class at Karachi Grammar school to facing the reality that I was, at best, just average among freshman at MIT. I have never liked losing, whether it’s at cricket or in business. So whatever I do, I try to do it as well as I possibly can, whatever it takes (and it took a lot of work at MIT!). If I do fail – and we all do – I don’t want to feel it was because I didn’t try hard enough. But mostly, I want to know I learnt something serious from that failure and that the mistakes will never be made again.
If pay is your primary motivation, you are going to fail. My measure is always about success at what one has been asked to do or has chosen to do. Any financial gain came as a by-product of that success. I have always felt that what I really wanted was the firm to see I had done a spanking good job. For example, I believe there are inherent flaws in linking executive pay purely to stock options as this can give rise at certain times to highly inappropriate incentives.
It is the demonstrated set of actions of the person at the top that matters. The old saying “fish rot from the head” is all too true. Firms and organisations that ultimately fail or fail to perform are poorly led – and vice versa. My father, a pre-eminent lawyer of his generation in Pakistan, is a very principled man – unrelentingly so. The late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto once put him under house arrest because he was unwilling to act in a politically expedient manner, but he later defended Bhutto on the murder charge for the same set of principles – the murder charge was being driven by political expediency not by the facts. I always try to choose principles over expediency partly because if I don’t, I have failed him – and I hate failure.
When the road as you see it in front of you is clear, you put your foot down, but when you see there are bends you must hold back. It is the judgement of assessing these conditions, articulating them passionately and then acting on them that makes a true leader. Leadership is about being bold but it’s also about being cautious – but mostly it is about acting decisively, transparently and in the clear best interests of those you lead. The key is judicial, smart, risk-taking. You won’t always get it right, but when you get it wrong you must be able to stand up and take it.
Role models are over-rated. It is influence that matters. The legendary Ossie Grübel taught me many things when I worked with him at CSFB where, as a nerdy US-educated Pakistani, I was quite unlike others in the investment banking world of the 80s. When trades made money and if I boasted about it, he’d put me in my place and say we could have made more; but when trades lost money despite thorough analysis and diligence, he’d put his arm around me and provide support. This management approach is one I have tried very hard to emulate.
Equality for men and women was always normal for me. My mother was a Fulbright scholar and went to the States for a year in 1963, when I was nine, and my father looked after the family while continuing his work. It was an unusual move for a woman, both at the time and even more for the country. When I became CEO of a large investment bank, I made it a mission to ensure that women and men were treated equally, that we hired and promoted the best regardless of race, colour, creed or sex.
A lot of leadership is innate. It can be honed but by the time you reach an MBA programme your environment has shaped you to such a degree that your potential is already there and now it needs enhancing. Looking back, if I have let myself down, it is sometimes because I failed to act in my own best interest – mostly because I trusted that the world would always see success the way I saw it, not the politically expedient way.
I may have taken a much less intense approach to working life since I left the front line at the age of 57 but I am not sure that I am done. The idea of running your business from a satellite smart device on a desert island is a myth; most intensive businesses are now 24/7 and direct human interaction is key to good decision making. It’s time now to find ways for my generation to give back. I am lucky enough to be able to choose what I do and my involvement in the academic world is a way to contribute with my own time and effort. I find it a hugely enjoyable and, I hope, useful exercise. When I arrived so many years ago at MIT I realised just how many people were smarter than me in that academic enclave – now I get to help by showing how a nerd just like them can succeed in the “real” world using the same smarts applied differently.
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Sadeq Sayeed was recently a visiting speaker at CJBS as part of the Cambridge Leadership Seminars series for MBA students. Learn more about the Cambridge MBA