What it takes to be a leader

  • Kiran Bedi, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Feb 23, 2015 22:05 IST

While preparing my presentation on leadership for Warwick University, India Forum in the UK, my views have substantially evolved over the last few weeks.

Earlier I used to bunch together ideas on leadership as one group, such as the need for self auditing, trust worthiness, and so on. But it was not the same with this preparation.

This time, soon after the Delhi election results, when I got to know that I was not elected, and was hence free to be my own master and will have time to travel, I confirmed my pending invites, beginning with a talk at Warwick on leadership, women and social work.

As I got down to think and plan, I questioned myself as to which leadership I was talking of? Is leadership of only one kind? Is it not a set of different skill sets in different set of circumstances or positions? Dependent on the role, does it not need a specific tool kit for success? If so, which are those qualities?

And are there any common traits across all leadership positions? If so, which are the common ones that are absolutely essential?

It is amazing how one’s mind debates with one’s self. If only one would listen. I penned down my answers and thoughts on a white sheet of paper. I did not want any technology to come in between the thoughts and my paper. I had got hold of a packet of coloured sketch pencils to express the rainbow of my inner thoughts (which became my slides for Warwick).

For the first time I divided leadership in clear segments such as academic, corporate, civil service, social work and finally political (from my new hard-earned experience). It is this last learning which has expanded my thinking on leadership.

It also made me realise how different skills sets are needed for political leadership. I identified, based on my lifelong experience and observations, the key leadership qualities needed under each leadership head/ box.

I listed them down, and realised how each position was different in priorities and how vital it was to know the differences. But I also identified two commonalities across all kinds of leadership that are essential to be a leader — endurance and communication.

Without endurance, no leadership can be achieved and sustained. Endurance is a comprehensive sustaining power. It implies physical and mental tenacity which is learnt, acquired and practiced over the years.

Hence, if women who want to make it to the top in physically demanding fields have not played competitive sports as students, it will be exceedingly hard for them put to compete at the highest stressful levels, for the demands of the position will not be a level playing field.

It requires a reservoir of physical stamina and mental strength. (This applies to both, men and women). Second quality is communication skills. If a leader cannot communicate, he cannot survive. This means a strong voice with strong shoulders (robust health). Both these qualities of leadership are basic and essential for all forms of leadership.
But now let us look at other forms of leadership.


The main keys to stay ahead in this category are: depth of research and its communication. Without this, the educator would exhaust his ideas after a while and the students would stop following him.


The keys are strategy and vision, without which the business or the corporation will stagnate and perhaps go into losses.

Civil service

He is one who is selected on merit and is there till he retires. The key quality of leadership expected of him is, commitment and being self-driven since he has the most secure leadership position. He stays on in service even when performance is average.

Social Work

Key quality is to have a missionary zeal based on compassion. This is one service which one volunteers to do out of sheer love.


This category demands raw ambition and cultivated networks. All other skill sets follow. But no political leadership can sustain without ambition.

My aim of sharing these critical differences of youth leadership at Warwick was to help students to choose what they wanted.

And that if they make leadership switches they must do it with knowledge of the required skill sets.

And if they wish to cut across what are the essentials, they can ignore only at their own peril. Of course everything in life can be learnt. But how do you do it if you have no time, and at what cost?

At nation’s cost — when the quality of life and the time of millions is at stake? I wanted the budding leaders in Warwick youth to be conscious of these vital needs, to minimise mistakes.

But I began by saying that one is always a person first and then a leader. Ask yourself, who are you? What do you want to be? What do you think is the bigger purpose of your life? Have you thought it through?

Or will you grow up, get married, have children, earn well, grow old and die? If so, then why be at Warwick? Why not at a zoo? Because this is what all animals do. They are born, grow up, bear children, grow old and die.

India needs true leaders, who are authentic, focused, can self evaluate, remain creative, are trustworthy and more.

But other than the basics of endurance and communication, to be successful, every form of leadership demands a special skill set, while knowing yourself.

(The writer, a former IPS officer, is a BJP activist who unsuccessfully contested the Delhi assembly elections. The views expressed here are her own.)

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