Hardik Pandya Notes   Interviews   Bio

The Lonelier Parts of Leadership

I’ve been leading the talented Design team at Unacademy for about 2 years now. I’m incredibly lucky to call such a talented set of people my team. They’ve made my job possible (and to a great extent, easy) in the 2 years. Everything we’ve been able to achieve as a team is all due to their collective effort and the mettle they’ve shown as a group.

Having said that, personally I have reflected quite a bit on the time that flew by. I used to think that you impart more of your personality onto the role of Leadership; that you mould the role to suit your own style. What I’ve learned instead is that it ends up changing a lot more in you. You go through a series of changes in yourself before you get to the point where you create your own style of Leadership. I call this the humbling down.

The humbling down is a journey you’ll take on your own. It will be difficult for others to relate to most of your experiences, challenges and troubles through this.

Let me summarise a few memorable experiences I personally went through, breaking down each one in detail.

Here goes –

  • Your words will matter. This is very powerful indeed. But at the same time, there’s no scarier thing than this. People will listen to you and follow your words to a tee. And because of this the burden of choosing the right words, articulating properly and adding an appropriate level of conviction in those words, is going to be on you. Words will matter and you’ll need to pick them wisely.

  • Leadership tends to become an All-Senses-on-Overdrive experience. You have to be okay with being hyper-alert throughout your day (and even at the end of it) pretty much all the time – pick up on subtle signals, read the room, say the right things, be expected to have answers to most questions, deal with ambiguity, know when a team member is feeling down, know when the team feels directionless and so on. It won’t stop. You’ll need to step up.

  • You’ll often get brutal feedback from top leadership on your team member’s work. You’ll have to package it in a constructive way and pass it down to the team member without losing time. You’ll secretly hope the brutality of the feedback never reaches the person who worked on it.

  • You’ll sometimes have a high-priority project usurped in favour of another one. You might even get the news that a project that your team invested a ton of time in, is shutting down. Be prepared to share a coherent narrative that makes sense and sit your team down to break the bad news. You’ll secretly hope they understand the circumstances.

  • Sometimes you’ll find people’s thinking inadequately detailed and half-baked. In that moment you can choose to be brutally critical, or introspect if you fell short in providing enough context and information. Either way, it’ll be your job to help them come up with a proper solution – no matter the number of conversations required.

  • You’ll typically have divergent people (people who explore well) or convergent people (people who decide well) in your team. Both are very valuable but you’ll have to learn to operate differently with them. You will make mistakes in assigning projects but you’ll secretly hope nobody finds out before you course-correct.

  • Your team will be full of people who prefer either high-touch management or low-touch management. Some will even be nearly self-managing. You’ll have to adjust your management style to adapt to each member. You’ll hope that the self-managing people don’t take you spending less time with them for you not wanting to invest in their growth.

  • You’ll often get the no-additional-context “Hey Hardik, I need to talk.” message from a team member. You’ll overthink it – “Are they unhappy?” “Is it something I said in the last meeting?” “Are they thinking of leaving?”. You’ll hope it’s something tactical about an ongoing project. And most likely it will be.

  • Your team members will care about their work to a very different degree. The thing is though, that you bear the responsibility for their work at the end of the day. You’ll be required to fill their gaps in order to keep the work going. You’ll need to then spend your own time coaching, giving feedback and helping them become aware of the gaps in expectation. You’ll secretly hope someone recognises the effort you’re putting into coaching your team.

  • Your standards won’t be the same as those of people working with you. You’ll have to either make peace with this or work actively in documenting and perpetrating them across to other people. You’ll hope that this does the trick but you’ll only know over time.

  • You won’t be able to solve everything - you’ll need to pick your battles that have high stakes, and solve the rest with extensible frameworks. But every once in a while, the parts that aren’t ‘solved fully’ will rear their ugly head to give you a fleeting moment of self doubt “could I have done better?”.

  • You’ll realise that it is extremely hard to transmit conviction effectively. Words will fall short. But you’ll have to do it anyway. You’ll find yourself repeating the same things over and over again to different groups of people.

  • You’ll often find yourself aligning people to ideas that aren’t grounded in pure objectivity – specifically ideas from top leadership that transpire through strong intuition, innate self-belief and privileged visibility of uncommon factors. Spreading these ideas as a lone wolf gets very difficult. You often find yourself wishing for more help but there won’t be any. You’ll have to do it yourself.

  • As a leader, anything and everything will be your job. A team member dropped the ball on something? You’ll need to get it done. Someone is not responsive or fell sick? You’ll get it done. The buck stops at you – and it always hits hard when you realise this the first time.

  • More often than not, you’ll find yourself needing to act the opposite of what the org sentiment is. Org is full of excitement and chaotic energy? You’ll need to stay grounded and exude composure. Org is feeling down and low on energy? You’ll need to generate excitement around ideas and possibilities and lead the way. You’ll secretly wish you could just relate with the org and join them in the sentiment.

  • You’ll frequently be torn between – trying to resonate with your team and their morale and their feelings in order to connect with them better, and – trying to become the offsetting force that calms them down in moments of chaos, or fills them with excitement in moments of doubt.

  • Ambiguity in certain high-stakes projects will remain unmanageably high. You’ll need to get comfortable with it. On most days, you won’t have the comforting ‘clarifying resolutions’ to take back home. At the same time, you’ll need to do everything you can to help the org deal with and resolve the ambiguity. Know that despite your best effort, things will take time and you won’t be able to force the issue.

  • You will inadvertently be the role model for your team. You will also not control what the team learns from you. This is why the burden of being exemplary is solely on you. You’ll end up demanding more from yourself. You’ll start analysing every act of yours against your arbitrary barometer of what leadership should look like. You’ll secretly hope people afford you occasional bouts of slack to just be uncompromisingly free.

  • Vocal appreciation & validation for your contributions will be rare. People in leadership are expected to show up every day, perform at the highest levels possible and get things done. You’ll realise the expectation defaults have changed. You’ll still hope people recognise you’re trying your best and giving your all.

  • Whether you like it or not, your personality will go a long way in shaping the team culture. To build a transparent, expressive, free-flowing and a diverse culture, you’ll end up needing to become such a person yourself. You’ll secretly hope people recognise how much you’re willing to change at a personal level in order to contribute to and shape the team culture.

When you become a leader, you gain sizeable control and influence. But you lose one important thing – the right to complain.

So that is what it’s like being a leader – a fundamentally life-changing experience.

The loneliest part about all this is that the number of people you can discuss these things with will be very few (if any) within your own org. You’ll most likely have to find help outside.

This is why founders and people in higher positions who go through these experiences end up forming close groups. There is a ton to learn from each other’s experiences and reflections. Furthermore, you derive a lot of comfort in sharing experiences with people who can relate to these if nothing else. I’ve been fortunate enough to find my own such group. A group that gives me strength, solutions and above all, invaluable perspective.

Leadership does take away the right to complain, but it sure gives you the power to change things. And that’s what wakes you up every day.


@hvpandya