Monday, February 18, 2013

Effective Subordination

I’m sure most of us youngsters have been told that we should live our lives by noble values like courage, humility and integrity- that the leaders of tomorrow must be grounded in these values. Society tends to do that. I’m not going to say this is a wrong view. If anything, it is perfectly correct and I can verify that having gone through an intense year of leadership training. A leader simply cannot be effective unless he is grounded by these strong values.

But society forgets to teach us an integral trait about being a leader- which is how to be an effective subordinate. Having gone through leadership training, I have come to realize that it is as important to be an effective subordinate as it is to be an effective leader. And the skill of effective subordination is in a way much more subtle than the skill of effective leadership.

Being an effective leader requires a combination of many values and factors. Some examples are very much what society advocates- courage, humility and confidence. From my own experience, a bit of arrogance and stubbornness is required too- to put down irrational people who doubt you without proper reasoning. But that’s it really. My point is- to be a good leader the skills needed are obvious. There is nothing really unknown or subtle about it. Note: I’m not saying it’s easy to be an effective leader, I’m just saying it’s easy to know what is required of an effective leader.

But this is not true when we talk of being an effective subordinate. I mean how many of us know outright what is required of an effective subordinate? It’s not exactly common knowledge like the values jargon that comes along with effective leadership.

So anyways, here’s the gist of what I’m trying to say. The subtle skill that an effective subordinate possesses is empathy. To me, an effective subordinate is one who can place himself in his superior’s shoes and understand what makes or breaks him. Based on this understanding, he engages his superior.

When I was still in OCS, there were so many times when my subordinates (by role only, we were all still cadets) came to me with their problems (some exaggerated). They complained and complained about their problems but never found a solution for themselves and expected me to find one for them. They didn’t put themselves in my shoes- I was facing problems of greater magnitude and not being able to solve even my own, couldn't possibly solve theirs.

This is mostly the case with subordinates. They come to superiors with problems but with no solutions. Though this is instinctive- almost like when a child runs to his mother for protection- it is not right. A subordinate-superior relationship is not the same as a mother-child relationship as the subordinate and superior are after all partners in the larger organization and must work productively and progressively instead of complaining and coming to dead-ends.

A superior in my current unit once told me- “An average subordinate goes to his boss with a problem but no solution. A good subordinate goes to his boss with problems x, y and z and possible solutions a, b and c. The best subordinate goes to his boss with problems x, y and z, solutions a, b and c and his personal recommendations, based on pros and cons, of which solution is best.”

To sum it all up, an effective subordinate is empathetic and realizes that his superior is also a working individual like him. Therefore, when he encounters problems he goes to his superior with solutions in mind and not with the intent of complaining to him and wasting time. Thus the art of effective subordination is in behaving in a way that you would want your own subordinates to behave. It's all about empathy.

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  1. So so true. I can relate to everything you have said with my experiences in corporate life. That you know at 19 what I learned at 30 is just amazing.

  2. This is really awesome. It shows this stint in the army has enriched you in many ways. Expressed very well.