133. (11. Building Great Careers) Great Leader or Great Organization?

Rama Nimmagadda
6 min readOct 13, 2023
Photo by Prateek Kumar Rohatgi taken in 2023 at Kabini Wildlife Reserve, India

“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” — Seth Godin

Just last weekend, my cousin (much younger than me) commented on an article (Do I Quit?) I wrote in the past. Here is our conversation on whatsapp:

My Cousin: “Read your article on ‘To quit or not to Quit’. Your article was good and diplomatic. But we didn’t get the expected answer. Can we quit if our reason is not listed in ‘When not to Quit’?”

Me: “of course you can quit for any reason….”

My Cousin: “Ok anna. We need an article/ view on the following topic, if it is feasible — “Working in a great Organization or Working under a great leader?’”

Me: “super topic…. thanks for the suggestion. Let me think about this and then write.”

This conversation makes for the genesis of the current article. Like with most such topics as this, my answer is: “it depends”. The nature of the topics that I write on is such that I can hardly ever arrive at one generic right answer. A specific recommendation can only be arrived at as a response to a specific situation with specific circumstances. Thanks to my cousin, now I understand that my articles may come out as diplomatic to a few of my readers, but my intention is anything but that. I try to distill all of my direct and vicarious experience into these articles and try to provide a framework to think and make a suitable and appropriate decision in one’s context. It is my belief that good decisions generally tend to get made when one deliberates on various drivers and contributing factors, then tries to make sense of the corresponding (possible) impacts, while being very self-aware.

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”– Ronald Reagan

Who is a great leader? For few, it could be someone who is nice to them, talks positively, makes their growth path easy by clearing obstacles, etc. But for the definition of this article, I will count a great leader as someone who is invested in developing his or her team members. This means that a great leader does not hesitate to have difficult discussions — particularly with regard to negative performance feedback. A good leader knows how to give negative feedback — privately, objectively and in a manner that the feedback is getting through to the team member. A good leader understands that human resources are first, humans and then, resources. She appreciates that each member of her team is unique and brings different value to the team. So, each team member may potentially need a different path for career progress. A good manager invests time in understanding the aspirations and developmental needs of her team members. She assigns suitably challenging opportunities to team members which are aligned with their career aspirations. A good leader will be able to personalize her communication style for each team member such that very little gets lost in transmission. A good leader develops meaningful rapport with each team member individually. So, in essence, a good leader is fair, understands each team member, tailors opportunities in line with their aspirations, does not postpone difficult conversations and gives appropriate autonomy and accountability.

As it happens, a senior leader tends to be more of a coach by encouraging her team to self-reflect and create solutions by themselves, whereas, a relatively junior leader tends to be more prescriptive by giving detailed feedback and recommending options for corrective actions.

“A leader … is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” — Nelson Mandela

Coming to organizations, an organization can be great in many ways. For some, an organization that offers high pay scales is great, whereas, for a few, an organization that provides good job security could be great. For the purposes of this article, I would consider an organization to be a great one if it is able to consistently create opportunities for its employees’ career growth. Great organizations provide platforms where great leaders develop motivated employees towards achieving their highest potential and in the process, create extraordinary value for their customers and consequently for their shareholders as well. It follows that such organizations will be generally, sufficiently competitive in their compensation scales.

One should be circumspect if one’s employer keeps them in a comfort zone most of the time. Even worse would be a situation in which one is held back in golden handcuffs — for example, your employer outprices you by paying you way higher than the market rate just to be able to retain you for your unique skills. Only exceptionally is this situation a good thing. If you are being held back for your potential capabilities and you are challenged to continually develop them and in this process, you end up creating extraordinary value for your employer, then “golden handcuffs” work well for both you and your employer. In all other cases, your situation is analogous to a hen or a turkey that is being fed well so that it can be consumed at a future festive occasion (please look up “the great turkey problem, Taleb” online for more details).

“Good leaders build products. Great leaders build cultures. Good leaders deliver results. Great leaders develop people. Good leaders have vision. Great leaders have values. Good leaders are role models at work. Great leaders are role models in life.” — Adam Grant

Given that not everyone wants the same thing out of work, there cannot be one definitive answer when it comes to deciding between a great leader and a great organization. Of course, ideally, both should come together and that does happen, although very rarely. But if a gun were to be put against my head, I would go with “great leader”. A great leader can change one’s life for the better, permanently, whereas a great organization can provide a comfortable (or even luxurious) situation for a while. A good leader teaches you to fish — so that you never go hungry in your life whereas a great organization can, at best, give you the most delicious fish in filling quantities when you get hungry.

Bottomline

“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Great leaders and great organizations are rare, but I believe that great leaders are far rarer than good organizations. The contention is not really between great leaders and great organizations but between great leaders and good organizations. Great organizations are great because of great leaders in them — not the other way around. So, if you have the good fortune of working with a great leader, it is best to count your blessings and stick with that leader for as long as possible and gain as much knowledge and wisdom as possible. A great leader’s impact will go beyond just “work” — a great leader may fundamentally elevate your whole life’s trajectory. Good organization can always be found down the line. Choose wisely.

PS

I think it is best to get away from bad bosses as quickly as possible, even within great organizations. Bad leaders can make your life miserable while you are associated with them and many times, may leave enduring bad psychological scars that linger for much longer.

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Thanks for taking time to read this. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals. I try to share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile and if you do not mind it, please do consider sharing it with others.

A bit on my background

I help people make better decisions.

I coach people on “Making Better Decisions”, “Financial Intuition” and “Building Great Careers”. I’m open to run sessions on these topics in institutions — this will help me create larger impact.

I’m also an Investment Advisor (RIA) registered with the Securities and the Exchange Board of India (SEBI). As an RIA, I analyze and prepare financial plans to help people achieve their financial goals.

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