Home/ Opinion / Columns/  One’s happiness quotient could enable legacy-leaving leadership

In the last three years, a course taught by Professor Laurie Santos at Yale, popularly known as the ‘happiness course’, became the most subscribed programme of the world. Titles and advice on the subject of attaining happiness have ballooned across books, podcasts, documentaries and Ivy league colleges. In sheer volume, it rivals material on how to become successful. It is ironic, though, that the parameters of being happy have little in common with those needed to be successful. The elements that go into attaining happiness have a far more introspective emphasis than the outward orientation of success. And there is a reason for that.

Success, by definition, is driven by an external scorecard: how well you did in studies, which Ivy League college accepted you, where you interned, which firm gave your first offer and how rapidly you progressed in your career. These and its material surrogates like the houses you live in, cars you drive and holidays you take are all scorecards created by society to foster competition and growth. They are not customized to suit what an individual seeks internally. Take, for example, the world of sports. The world’s top-seeded badminton player may observably have far less wealth than even the 10th seeded tennis player, despite the fact that all elements which go into making a world-class player, such as talent, hard work, passion, etc, are at par for both within the competitive arena of this sport. So, when it comes to success, at least as society defines it, a substantial portion of the associated satisfaction emanates from external valuation, validation and peer acknowledgement.

However, once a basic threshold of hygiene has been achieved, other elements that create happiness kick in and these are largely introspective. How healthy are you? How much of your life is in your control? Are you able to balance your responsibilities and relationships? Do you look forward to coming to work because you will be happy, or do you view a typical work day as drudgery that has to be undergone to achieve professional goals? Does your day end with a sense of accomplishment or frustrated exhaustion? These measures of satisfaction are much more internal.

Last month, I visited a deep coal mine with a cohort of senior leaders. It was an arduous 450-metre journey into the bowels of an ageing mine which took two hours to reach the pit. The air was stale and laden with coal dust. It was hot and workers were stripped to their waist drenched in sweat. The machines and conveyor trolleys were deafening and helmet lights painted surreal shadows in the tunnels. Mining was clearly a hard and dangerous way to make a living.

We were shown around by a shift engineer in his mid-thirties who had been working with this state enterprise for 11 years. He was a graduate from a premier Indian engineering college and considered to be at the top of his work. When one of the visiting leaders asked him whether workers had night shifts, the lad smiled wryly and said that inside a mine, it doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night outside. Talk about a room without a view!

However, despite the lack of material levers, the young leader exuded palpable command presence. The work gangs were cheerful, yet alert. There were minimal instructions being given and everyone seemed to know exactly what they needed to do. This was a well-oiled elite team at work with their leader at its core. We saw no posters of mission statements or core company values. There were no financial incentive schemes advertised for better performance and no screensavers that reminded employees how cherished they were by their organization. Instead, there was just pure personal leadership at display half-a-kilometre deep. The leader seemed to know his job as well as he knew each member of his team. He led from the front with a smile and stream of encouragement, especially for high-risk excavations, with the gruelling work environment rendered irrelevant. This can only be done by leaders who are inherently happy. Not because they will get more money or a promotion. They revel in the joy of leadership, a feeling that comes from being happy, and not necessarily ‘successful’.

Firms drive leadership behaviour and organizational culture by using two principal scorecards. Some use external scorecards, with financial incentives, rewards, overseas junkets, job rotations and faster promotions. Others focus on the internal satisfaction scorecard, underscoring camaraderie, psychological safety, and a sense of purpose and belonging. While both are not exclusive to each other, a company’s DNA usually gravitates towards one of the two. Success-driven levers are more popular, no doubt, as they are easier to create, deliver, communicate and measure. However, it is internal scorecards that develop leaders who can lead without material incentives alone. Importantly, it is only leaders secure enough not to need external validation who tend to delegate decisions, mentor others and create a succession line of leaders better than them. Those who rely on external scorecards are more likely to prioritize personal stakes at the cost of organizational success. Successful leaders may leave behind success stories, but it takes ‘happy’ leaders to leave a real legacy.

Raghu Raman is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of ‘Everyman’s War’.

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Updated: 06 Feb 2023, 11:29 PM IST
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