Why Most Public Leaders Hit A Glass Ceiling And Few Break Through

By Shobhit Mathur, Co-Founder & Dean at Rashtram

Image Source: Vision India Foundation

This article was published in The Higher Education

The enemy of success is a success. In a world that is constantly changing, past successes lead to fixed beliefs and behaviors, which derail the potential for future success. For many successful people, as they grow in their careers, they hit a glass ceiling. They don’t understand how to break through it and achieve their true potential. This is most visible for those in public life and that is the reason we see the grand failures of public leaders. In the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world we live today, we need leaders who can constantly identify and break their limitations.

Let’s get into the shoes of a few public leaders. Start with an aspiring politician. The primary objective is to get elected in the upcoming election. The entire thought and energy are invested in getting elected by raising funds for the campaign, reaching out to the constituents, and differentiating oneself from the competitors. This requires interpersonal skills, public speaking, marketing, and physical stamina, among many other skills. A successful campaign gets one elected and hopefully in the ruling party. Once in government and possibly in the executive, the role changes to governing – law making and implementation. This requires a completely different set of technical skills and behavioral traits – policy, economics and law understanding, working with the career bureaucrats, addressing the media and international audience, and so on. This change is needed almost instantly. Old habits of making promises, mobilizing people and criticizing the opponent, do not help and could be detrimental in the new role. This is where most elected representatives hit a glass ceiling and very few make it through. For example with 1100+ MLAs and 300+ MPs, the world’s largest political party BJP finds it difficult to find good candidates for being the CM or cabinet minister. The same is true in academic leadership – skills needed to get a Ph.D. are very different from those needed to teach in an undergraduate class and guide Ph.D. students. Excellent researchers can become lousy teachers, pathetic guides and poor administrators. The top-ranked universities in India grant 2500 PhDs each year. Barely a few reach a stage of thought leadership in their domains. Similarly, not many UPSC exam toppers go on to become the best bureaucrats. Skills needed to crack an exam are very different from those needed in administration. The best bureaucrats in recent history – TN Seshan, Ajit Doval, Vinod Rai – were not batch toppers. More importantly, the behavioral traits needed in the new role keep changing as one progresses in their career. Unfortunately, there is little formal training for successful people on how to become more successful.

“A new role after the previous success is the time to be conscious that one has hit a glass ceiling and this realization will help one identify one’s limitations and the next step would be to break free of them”

Success in our previous role is often over-hyped. Success brings in money, power, status, and popularity. These increase self-esteem and self-confidence. If untamed, this delusional self-confidence prevents one from adapting to the changed reality. It makes one believe that the same skills and behaviors will lead to success in the new role. The worst outcome is that we keep trying the old methods of achieving success in the new role and don’t understand why it doesn’t work. This results in further negativity – clinging to the past, no listening, no expression of gratitude, making excuses, and more. This is a vicious loop and a recipe for a grand failure. A new role after the previous success is the time to be conscious that one has hit a glass ceiling. This realization will help one identify one’s limitations and the next step would be to break free of them. This is easier said than done. Breaking habits is difficult and gets more difficult with age. One needs to make oneself the subject with self-awareness. Here is where the science of the self and corresponding lessons for inner-management from the Indian traditional wisdom are applicable.

The inability to adapt to external changes amplifies its impact in a public leadership position. It potentially has negative implications on the lives of millions of people, state exchequer, and perhaps for a long time. There is an urgent need to build institutes that mentor the future and present public leaders. These leaders should be imbibed with self-awareness and the ability to adapt and lead in changing times. Rashtram School of Public Leadership in Delhi NCR is a novel experiment in this regard. It lever-ages the wisdom of the traditional Indian mind sciences and intends to apply it in grooming the future public leaders India deserves. We need a break from the current over-emphasis on technical skills. Technical skills are important, change with time and can be dynamically picked up as per need. Behavioral traits are stubborn, under emphasized and differentiate a great leader from the rest. It is time we bring them back to the fore, particularly in grooming public leaders.

India has struggled to produce great public leaders in recent decades. We need thought leaders, social leaders and political leaders who can leave a lasting legacy in the Nation’s history. Very few public leaders break through the glass ceiling they hit after their initial successes. To break the self-imposed limitations pre-requisite behavioral traits are self-awareness and adaptability. It is time to build institutions that can groom the future public leaders who can self-adapt, continue their successes and lead the world in changing times. The time has come.

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