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Leading leaders: A reflection from Rotary Club of Madras East

Leading Leaders: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I have been privileged to be a member of a prestigious club, Rotary Club of Madras East (popularly called RCME) in Chennai. The club with more than 170 members stands out in the Rotary district and is considered a role model for other clubs.

More than 3 decades old, the club is reputed for not just it’s social contribution, but also the way it conducts itself. The club is regularly entrusted vast sums of money by donors to execute projects with high social impact in the areas of education, health and vocational training, amongst various other avenues. The club executes projects in excess of a million dollars every year, with clockwork precision and highest standards of accountability.

However, my article isn’t about the projects, but the way the organization leads itself.

A rotary club is very different from traditional organization. Members are here by choice and are leaders within the organization. There is no hierarchy, the president of the club is first among equals and has a one year tenure. The organization mandates consensus and members can be quite vocal. More importantly, unlike other organizations, there are no leadership models in operation and each president brings his style during his tenure. The organization is guided by only one principle, the Rotary’s 4 way test;

· Is it the TRUTH?

· Is it FAIR to all concerned?


· Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

At RCME, the club functions smoothly like a clock work. There are no visible discords, succession is superbly managed, and no prima donnas exist. The club is known for very high ethical standards and integrity, borne by the fact that donors are ever glad to donate vast sums to the club. All this combined with great efficiency and effectiveness in delivering socially meaningful initiatives.

I reflect on the leadership in this elite club and what others can take away from it. While the senior and older members credit this success to its founding fathers, I believe that a lot of the credit also go to the way the club has been led and managed year after year. There have been plenty of institutions that have fallen prey to power grabs, cliques and other not so pleasant things. To not fall victim to any of these for over 3 decades is not merely the result of goodness of people, but to something more than that.

The first thing that struck me at RCME was constancy of purpose. For over a decade now, I have seen that the club leaders have committed themselves to the same avenue of services and expanded their service projects in those core areas; health, education, community service and vocational excellence. Every President has followed this principle and continued with existing projects. A result is that many of the service projects have become institutions themselves.

The second remarkable aspect of the club has been succession planning and the way future leaders are groomed. A potential future President of the club is selected 3 years in advance and is entrusted with a massive club service project of organizing one of the premier cricket event in the district. This responsibility ensures that the future president works closely with not just the club members but with every club in the district, builds his network, identifies his wise counsel for the job he has in 3 years. He/she is part of the board for a good 2 years and signs up for the agenda of 2 previous office bearers. A remarkable way to build future leadership vision and program! As there is a fixed tenure for every leader, there are no anxieties, insecurities and fears for them.

Another wonderful aspect of leadership I have noted is the continuing support and counsel of previous leaders (Presidents). No President retires, they continue in leadership roles, managing critical avenues of service and projects and providing wisdom to the new leader as well future leaders. A new office bearer knows that his back is covered. The cricket carnival is a wonderful example, it’s a massive event with more than 250 participants and run over 5 weeks in January. However, the machinery kicks in automatically in August of every year to plan and execute the project.

However, by far the most remarkable aspect of leadership at the club has been the way the individual leadership style of the President is accommodated. I have seen presidents who have been laid back and delegate. Some have been great planners, meticulously planning their year in advance and executing it with precision. There have been leaders who have been domineering, getting themselves into detail of every task at the risk of being overbearing. And there have been leaders who have been combinations of these traits or fall between these traits.

Seldom have these leadership styles created friction in the club though. I have seen that members step aside when they are uncomfortable and allow the leader to lead according to his style. I am sure the past presidents must be coaching them behind the scenes, providing wise advice and feedback to avoid the pitfalls and the potential flares. However, there has never been disgruntlement and disengagement of members. Other members contribute what they are passionate about and what they believe is their social duty.

What could organizations learn from all of this?

The top learning is very clearly that you need constancy of purpose and it’s continuous reinforcement and organizational engagement. Without organizational engagement at the purpose level, leading the organization becomes a major task.

Organizations, must have a clear succession plan. Can organizations create a leadership council and fix a tenure for a leader amongst them to lead the organization for the tenure? At the end of the tenure, the leader can continue to be part of the council in driving his area of expertise, while passing the baton to the next leader. Churn at the council level can happen based on performance, age and career ambitions of people. Having leaders to lead for life or for very long tenure has the risk of ending creative thinking.

It’s important to have multiple personas at leadership level. If everyone leads in the same style, you will probably create an inflexible organization and a dull one too.

Finally, you need strong mentor’s and advisors to the counsel the leaders. So often we see that there is none to provide feedback and coach the top leaders. No one is perfect and if there is none with the backbone to provide critical feedback, the leader will simply fail.

I hope you found these insights useful. Do reach out to me for a discussion on this topic.

Krishnan Naganathan

Krishnan is a leading innovation consultant and focuses on helping people and organizations innovate and build capabilities for innovation. He brings over 25 years of experience in the industry and consulting. You can reach him by phone / WhatsApp: +919791033967 or email:


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