Read time - 4 minutes
You might say that I'm a bit of a self-help fanatic.
In my last nine years as an entrepreneur, I have been scanning social media for nuggets of wisdom I can use to propel myself forward. My focus has been on tracking down that set of skills I need to be a great leader. The problem with my method is that everyone has a different view of what constitutes excellent leadership.
It wasn't until I watched a short video about one man's journey to clean up an environmental disaster that I found out what being a leader means.
In October 2015, a lawyer named Afroz Shah decided that he could no longer sit idle as a 5-foot layer of plastic and garbage lay strewn across Versova beach outside of his apartment in Bombay. It was a far cry from the clean beach he played on as a child, and he knew that it was poisoning the oceans he loved. With a pair of gloves and not much else, he started cleaning the beach. Before long, his neighbour joined, and then others, and Afroz soon found himself the leader of hundreds of volunteers working every weekend to clean the beach.
After over 100 weeks, Afroz and his dedicated volunteers had removed nineteen million pounds of trash. If the story ended there, it would be an actual show of leadership and a triumph of human ingenuity. Afroz took his passion and motivated others to work towards a common goal. He didn't do it for money or fame but for the intrinsic need to succeed in something that truly resonated with him.
The Versova Beach Cleanup was a big story that received a considerable number of views on YouTube. Still, it's not where the story ended.
Shortly after the original story aired and viewers had been sufficiently moved and motivated, something happened on Versova Beach. As a result of abuse of the volunteers and what was termed "bureaucratic lethargy," Afroz decided to halt the beach cleanup.
Could a man who quits in the middle of such a noble and worthwhile endeavour have any leadership skills to pass on? To be a true leader, wouldn't he have had to complete the remediation of Versova Beach and then lead the charge for other cleanups?
Afroz's willingness to stop the cleanup is what makes him such a talented leader. When asked by a reporter as to his reason for quitting, Afroz stated
"..the issue is about what I set out to do on my personal journey. Beach cleaning was a consequence…but we were working on people's minds and hearts. When there is a failure staring right on your face, I am bold enough to tell that I failed"
When the reporter pressed the issued and queried as to who was responsible for this failure, Afroz answered emphatically,
"I am, I am, I am."
It's in those few small statements by Afroz that the real lessons in leadership were taught.
Afroz was openly willing to admit that he failed. Being a leader does not mean that you have all the answers. You have achieved your position precisely because you have failed over and over again. It's in those painful moments that you learned what was needed to succeed on your next attempt. You understand that failure is a very human trait, and embracing those human traits makes someone a leader. Trying to be infallible or perfect will not endear you to your followers; it's not attainable. If that is what you strive to achieve, the people you are trying to lead will eventually drop away due to frustration. That's not to say that you shouldn't expect high standards from your people, but realize that your people will fail at some point. You need to understand that, be empathetic and coach them to success. Having a zero-tolerance for failure will, ironically, fail.
Afroz was also willing to take full responsibility for the failure of the beach cleanup. No one likes to fail, especially when it's a very public failure. It would have been easy for Afroz to blame the lack of volunteers or the government bureaucracy that hindered the operations or the element that verbally criticized the workers, but he stepped up and took accountability.
How did his acknowledgment of responsibility make him a better leader? Well, it's most likely because that trait is so rare these days. A study of US college students shows that vanity is on the rise. Data shows a dramatic increase of students who feel they are above average in academic ability, drive and confidence even though actual test scores show lower results than students in the '60's. (https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2257715/Study-shows-college-students-think-theyre-special--read-write-barely-study.html)
Quite simply, we seldom see people take responsibility these days that we immediately hold them in higher esteem when we do. Confidence is a great attribute, but if it's not partnered with modesty and the ability to self-reflect, it just turns into narcissism.
I've only taken the first step on my journey to be a great leader, but I realize that the route and lessons will be different for all. What Afroz Shah has taught me will be the cornerstone of my growth.
As far as the Versova Beach cleanup, after a short-term stoppage, it was resurrected and continues to this day. Recently, the beach saw the return of baby Olive Ridley turtles after decades of disappearance due to beach pollution.
Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
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