The word “Boss” conjures up different images for different people. While growing up, my first exposure to positions of authority and bosses I saw in action were my father who was a doctor and my aunt who was the headmistress of the school that I attended. My father was a tall, medium-built, starched khadi shirt and khadi pant-wearing loving person. He was a paediatrician who was not afraid to become one of the kids and lighten the spirits of worried parents. The kids loved him, the nurses fussed over him, and the patients revered him. My aunt was a tall, sari-clad firm administrator who knew each student and their parents and was often even involved in arranging the students’ marriages. She was known for her discipline, yet loved by all the teachers. I also saw her don the domestic hat and be an exceptional cook who made the best pickles during summer and joked around with my dad and hung out with us on most Sundays.
In the tech industry where I started my career in Portland, no one dressed in formals and no one cared about the cost of the outfit you wore. It was our ideas that were ripped apart mercilessly if they were not good and applauded if they were good. So, there were no “typical” role models for a leader and I did not need to be one anyway. I transitioned to a new job within the company every two years, learning a new technology or a new trend. I was the forever “newbie” and I loved being the new kid on the block. It was all new: no old baggage, no preconceived notions, and you got to reinvent yourself to work with a whole new set of people. It was wonderful learning something new and climbing up the steep learning curve as fast as possible. Through the years, I never got over the “new kid on the block” enthusiasm.
When I started my own company in 2007, I wanted to reinvent myself again. And my role model this time was Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. A beautifully dressed, confident woman striding down the hallway, striking fear in her subordinates and being the “boss lady”. I wanted to be THAT kind of a boss. How cool it would be to know the answers to everything, run a powerful empire, to know that someone’s fate would change just because they are noticed by HER. She was tougher than any male businessman that was portrayed on the screen and I wanted to be like that. In my mind’s eye, I could see Lakshmi clad in a well-cut suit, getting off the limo that pulls up in front of a skyscraper where the driver runs around the car to open the door and her feet swing off the seat, setting foot on the street, striding confidently into her office, going through piles of projects efficiently, answering all the questions and being respected. To me, that fear was respect.
I felt that one is a “leader” if one remained a little aloof and distant. I would tell myself before meeting a person that I would extend my hand and say a curt hello and impress them with my data and my brilliance. But then, the minute I met someone, no matter what I had decided ahead of time, I would turn into this smiling bundle of a huggy bear. The Meryl Streep-esque Lakshmi I imagined would walk into a room, wow everyone by a fast-paced talk, and close the deal with the customers who would not even know what hit them. I imagined she would globe-trot in private jets, stay in a swanky apartment in a New York high-rise, close deals worth millions of dollars, and break all barriers. But the Lakshmi—the boss that I actually turned into, takes future employees for a walk in the park to decide whether to hire them or not, cries on stage if something touches her, and jumps with joy if a deal comes through. I definitely do not match up to the boss lady of my imagination.
And then it dawned on me: The cheerful nature of my father and the nurturing side of my aunt are embedded in my nature much more strongly than any doctored image that I would like to have of myself. Even the men in my life were not like the men that the business world painted for me.
There is no one image of a “boss” and in fact, there is nothing called a “boss”. We learn from each other constantly and we each make our success in our own way. In reality, I am a forever “newbie”, always learning and never feeling like an expert at anything. I spend time with people half my age to learn their skills in tech and hang out with those much older than me for their wisdom. None of the people who work with me is scared of me. I have come to terms with the fact that I would never be a “boss” as represented in popular culture and media. The Lakshmi that I embody goes around hugging people, cries while watching the silliest movies, makes mistakes, and often misses business projections. The Lakshmi that I am comfortable with, wears pressed cotton saris and is happy to shelve the Prada-clad person of her imagination. But she does have friends whose stories of making magic she gets to tell, whose private planes she gets to ride in, whose high-rise apartments in New York she gets to inhabit, and she gets to enjoy all this without having to manage the money or the apartment. How cool is that!
When my father passed away, a large crowd trailed the truck that was carrying him to the funeral ground, filling the entire main street. When my aunt passed away, her students from all over the world paid their respects, and retired teachers showed up. If I can be a fraction of the humans they were, I would consider myself super successful.
We women often pressurise ourselves to be the leaders of the past, or be a fantasy character conjured up by the media. If we can let go of expectations and be honest with who we are, we can create a whole new image of a leader who is unafraid to fail, learn or even stop and ask for directions.
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The author is founder, INK, a platform for cutting-edge ideas and inspiring stories.