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Author Q&A on Leading without Authority

Tathagat Varma, Founder and CEO of Thought Leadership, recently wrote a blog on “Learning to Lead Without Authority”. He shared his experience of working as an individual contributor at a deeper leadership level. He refers to this as an "Individual Leader".

"Individual Leader" is someone who doesn't need a hierarchy, department or budget to make an organizational impact. An individual contributor operating at organizational leadership level is like a cross between Greenleaf's concept of "servant leadership" and Maxwell's 5th level of leadership. People follow you because of who you are and what you stand for.

Tathagat explains leadership as:

1. Leaders are hired for change - An individual leader offers a great alternative to a more "human" and "humane" face of change by bringing authenticity to the employees, and inclusivity in representing them to the organization in order to raise trust - which is the key ingredient for disruptive change.

2. Leaders are measured by impact - Real leadership impact is measured by the ability to cut through the organizational red tape and institutional mental models.

3. True leadership is servant leadership - Individual leaders don't require direct reports to create an impact. They build their networks, and use their passion to recruit volunteers from across the organization. 

InfoQ interviewed Tathagat Varma about the leadership.

InfoQ: Please briefly introduce yourself for the readers.

Tathagat: I have been developing software products since 1991, and feel blessed to be a part of such radical evolution of our industry from serving backoffice and maintaining old applications to developing world-class new products and services from out of India. After working with some wonderful global companies all these years, I started up my consulting and coaching firm "Thought Leadership" last Oct that specializes in strategy, agility, innovation and leadership. At the moment, it is just me, which is great because I don't need to worry about attending lots of mind- numbing meetings, late-night calls or sending useless status reports, and I am enjoying working with some great global clients who are looking at some of these challenges at enterprise level. Thought Leadership was created to solve hi-end problems that require interdisciplinary approach relating to culture, creativity and complexity inside organizations. It is a work in progress, and I am looking to build a network of like-minded people to advance our collective knowledge and thinking in this regard. 

In addition, I spend a lot of time and effort in pro bono community work with fantastic people at Agile India and several other agile communities like Agile Leadership Network and AgileNOIDA, just to name a few, Google Launchpad, Sandbox Startups, IEEE, First100Sales, etc and mentor and coach entrepreneurs at bunch of other startup, innovation and product communities. I also teach at Institute of Product Leadership and have recently also taught students of UCLA Executive Program. Finally, when I have time, I also blog at, which is now almost ten-year old and I enjoy writing there, though unfortunately not as regularly as I would like to.

InfoQ: Your post is about leading without authority. Please explain the concept and why is it important in today’s world?

Tathagat: Most people don't realize that the role of a modern manager is very recent - it started in response to specific problems of supervising work shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. Two people were key in developing this role - Henri Fayol, a French coal mine engineer, and Frederick Winslow Taylor, an American engineer at a steel mill. They were both independently trying to solve the problems of managing work and improving administration in what was essentially an industrial context. This was perhaps for the first time that outside the military, the role of a manager was being institutionalized. Remember, that was the advent of mass production with the knowledge and skill level of an average worker on a shopfloor or a coal mine being rather low. So, they needed a system wherein the supervisor had all the right knowledge to get the work done. This meant taking away all decision-making powers from the hands of workers and placing them in the hands of their supervisors.

They ended up creating just the role - and the theory around it - that was not only extremely effective in streamlining the decision-making and execution, it also allowed industrial enterprises to scale-up their operations, which was extremely important in ensuring that production capacity could be scaled-up without compromising the standards in different plants across a company. However, it didn't take too long for workers to get disengaged in that model. Even those blue-collar workers back then who were not much more than an elementary-school dropout (and in the case of US, recent immigrants too) did not like the autonomy being taken away from them. So, they voted with their feet! In Henry Ford's plant in 1913, he had to hire 52,000 men just to maintain a workforce of 14,000. Of course, Henry Ford was able to manage it by doubling their salaries, effectively buying them out of the market, but the seeds of worker empowerment and autonomy had been sown! Imaging yourself in Charlie Chaplin's "The Modern Times" and you will know what I mean.

In addition, the unbridled power of a manager began to be abused and questioned over time. The industry sought to balance it with the labour union movement that allowed them collective power. A manager in this context had position power, reward power and punitive power, and in some cases the expert power too. But, by and large, it was all about an asymmetric power equation that had a diminishing value in an increasingly flat world. Authority was becoming synonymous with tyranny and not for purely innocuous reasons alone! Apart from being a remnant of the past that didn't matter much in the new-age collaboration-led knowledge economy, it was also beginning to be perceived too slow when it came to decision-making or execution for a "VUCA" world. The workers were highly educated, used sophisticated knowledge and tools to get the job done, and were more assertive about empowerment than their predecessors. They wanted to be treated as equals rather than "resources". In short, the traditional role of a manager had been served a notice period.

InfoQ: You talked about “Individual Leader” in your post. What do you mean by Individual Leader?

Tathagat: A traditional leader was all about power, title and hierarchy, and more often than not, it came to symbolise an incompetent and clueless manager, if not outrightly evil. I mean look at Dilbert cartoon strips. As the largest syndicated cartoon strip in the world, it gets published in over 2,000 newspapers and magazines all over the world, which goes on to prove that even if the Dilbert gang might be based out of the typical Silicon Valley workplace, the plight and ironies it highlights are almost universal in nature. I firmly believe that the role of a hierarchical leader is headed to irrelevance and eventual extinction. 

An individual leader is all about influence, expertise and networks. She is not worried about power or position. It is not about the corner office. It is not about having an exec admin who brings coffee every morning, and it certainly is not about a team whose capability is decided by its blind allegiance to its leader. An individual leader is extremely comfortable to be one of the team she leads - be it sitting in the same open cubicles or not having any special perks or privileges. While these symbols of power appear a bit trivial, they do have a big impact in how employees perceive the power distance, which in turn has a big influence on people's behavior. So, the individual leader goes systematically dismantling any barriers that might separate her from her collaborators. She is extremely comfortable in going to people's desks and chatting up rather than calling them her glass cave just to let everyone know who the boss is! She allows individuals to come up with creative ideas - even if they are sometimes crazy or ridiculous. She lets people volunteer for tasks that help develop their leadership potential, rather than be fed on instructions from her. She encourages people to freely disagree with her point of view till the group can come up with best collective wisdom possible. And she does all this without the trappings of a traditional leader.

InfoQ: What are the key skills to become a good Leader?

Tathagat: I would rate ability to connect with people as the single-most critical ability. Everything else is a functional skill that can be acquired with sufficient training and practice, but if in today's time and age, one doesn't know how to influence people without authority, their brand of leadership might only have a few takers!  Once you decide to build respectful relationships with people, all other secondary skills such as empathy, listening skills, collaboration, etc. come very natural. 

The other critical skills include risk-taking, or challenging the status quo, and finally being able to connect the dots and build a solution.

InfoQ: Would you like to tell something about your upcoming book – Agile Product Development?

Tathagat: Sure, and thanks for asking about the book.

Agile movement has been around for over fifteen years now, even though some of the agile methodologies and practices have been around even longer than that. Still, I continue to see product companies not really embracing all of those ideas. My entire professional experience has been in product development, and I wanted to link adjoining areas like creativity, innovation, design, product development, delivery and finally the optimization. 

Thanks for letting me talk about the book :) - is has been a long dream for me. I am in the process of giving the final shape to the book, so wish me all the luck!

About the Interviewee

Tathagat Varma is Founder & CEO of Thought Leadership. Tathagat has been involved with hi-tech software product development since ’91 with Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), and subsequently with Siemens Telecom, Philips Medical Systems and Philips Digital Networks divisions, Huawei Technologies, McAfee, NetScout Systems and Yahoo! prior to joining at [24]7 Innovation Labs in significant technical and leadership roles. Tathagat also holds the unique distinction of being the youngest member of 13th Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica, where he participated as scientist and spent 16 months at Antartica.

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