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Leadership: Roll Up Your Sleeves

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One of Mr. Ratan N Tata’s first assignments was the stewardship of the ailing electronics company in the Tata portfolio – Nelco.

Story goes that a team of senior managers from Nelco was driving to Nasik along with RNT. Halfway into the journey, the car had a flat tyre,  and as the driver pulled up, the occupants – including Mr. Tata – got off for a comfort break, leaving the driver to replace the tyre.

Some of the managers welcomed the forced break, as it allowed them a  much-needed chance to light up a cigarette. Some used the opportunity to stretch, and smile, and share a joke. And then, one of them suddenly noticed that Mr. Tata was not to be seen, and wondered aloud where Ratan Tata might have vanished. Was he behind some bush? Had he wandered off inside the roadside dhaba for a quick cup of tea?Or was he mingling with some passer-bys, listening to their stories?

None of these, in fact while his colleagues were taking a break, Ratan Tata was busy helping the driver change tyres. Sleeves rolled up, tie swatted away over the shoulder, the hands expertly working the jack and the spanner, bouncing the spare tyre to check if the tyre pressure was ok. Droplets of sweat on the brow, and a smile on the face.

In that moment, the managers accompanying Ratan Tata got a master class in leadership they haven’t forgotten. And that’s a moment that the driver of that car probably hasn’t forgotten either.

Questions to ask:

  1. When was the last time I rolled up my sleeves to do a task much below my hierarchy?·
  2. Do I wait for the big opportunity to showcase my leadership?
  3. Is that big opportunity ever going to come?
  4. Am I trying to manage upwards so much that I’ve lost the feel of the field?
  5. Ideas for action:
  6. Humility is the essence of success.  Be humble and even teach your children to be so.
  7. To reach the top and remain there, always start from the bottom, else your days at the top will  not last long..
  8. Practice leadership in small things instead of waiting for the big crisis or a major product launch.
  9. Seek to find opportunities to lead in everyday moments.
  10. Build your leadership skills one baby step at a time.
  11. When ones hands get dirty – The mind remains clean !!!

Lesson from life

 A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law and four year old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon on to the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth.


The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. “We must do something about grandfather,” said the son. “I have had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor”. So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. Their grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. When the family glanced in grandfather’s direction, sometimes he had tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still the only word the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food. The four-year-old watched it all in silence. One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with the wood scraps on the floor.

He asked the child sweetly, “What are you making?” Just as sweetly the boy responded, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food in when I grow up.” The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.

The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done. That evening the husband took grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the reminder of his days he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or a tablecloth soiled.