ICAS President, Indy Singh Hothi CA: What charity taught me about leadership
In his first column for CA magazine, new President Indy Singh Hothi CA talks about the experiences and influences that have honed his leadership style
What is leadership? And what makes a good leader? I remember once studying the profiles of different business leaders to see what, if anything, they had in common. I learned something interesting. According to one study, around 20–25% of FTSE 100 senior executives had a CA qualification. That was the common denominator: before becoming leaders, they were finance professionals. That makes sense. With that firm financial footing, they had a good understanding of the intricacies of how business works. The CA is, you’ll agree, a fantastic and versatile foundation, which is what makes it the business qualification of choice.
But there’s something else, too. I’m a firm believer that business is a force for good. My family and faith have always been very important to me, and the basis of the Sikh faith is one of selfless service – thinking of your community and the welfare of society above all. I grew up with that and, even when I wasn’t sure about the career path I wanted to take, that ethos was always central to any decisions I made.
Later, while working in the corporate world, I discovered that conversations that had once revolved almost exclusively around profitability and accountability to shareholders began to undergo something of a sea change: businesses wanted to know how they were contributing to society. Where charities had traditionally learned from business, that was now being flipped around.
This was a heart-warming discovery – as are the results of numerous studies demonstrating that dealing with people with compassion and understanding can be a significant driver of business results. Empathetic leaders elicit higher levels of innovation, productivity, engagement and retention from their employees.
Meanwhile, a study published in Evolutionary Biology has found that empathy in decision-making increases cooperation, fostering more empathy in turn. It helps to create an environment in which people feel comfortable being their real, authentic selves. As a recent Forbes headline put it, “Empathy is the most important leadership skill”.
My own humanitarian work has hugely informed my style, teaching me the value of empathetic leadership. It’s taken me all over the world: from Bosnia in 2015, following significant flooding in the country, to Nepal, where there was an earthquake that same year. I’ve been based in Iraq, and on the Iraq-Syria border, to support the Yazidi community that was being persecuted by Isis. I’ve also supported relief operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and on its borders, and in Zambia. I think one of the things we all have to remember is that any of us could be a victim of conflict. It really is down to fate. And that is something that informs my worldview and is a priority for me, both personally and as a business leader.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that of stakeholders coming together to support one another. When you strip back the humanitarian aid industry, and look at it from a structural point of view, it’s a supply-chain and distribution business, subject to the same pressures. How can you operate in an environment with very shaky supply chains? With acute demands for specific items, such as food, clothing and medical supplies? And how do charities get those goods to where they’re needed in a very short space of time while fostering and building relationships with governments, other NGOs and local businesses? It’s a lesson in agility.
I also co-lead a number of equality, diversity and inclusion networks, specifically around race and faith in the workplace. We found that art and culture was a softer entry point to talking about more personal or challenging issues – they helped us break down some of those social barriers. So experiences like these can’t help but increase your cultural competence and emotional intelligence: you’re speaking to people from all walks of life – different backgrounds, cultures, faiths, ways of working and thinking – and you can’t do that without empathy.
Ultimately, while there are many aspects to our decision-making, one of them ought to be a social responsibility to the world in which we operate. As business leaders, CAs have a huge role to play in making their industries greener and more conscious of their employees and the communities in which they operate. And by acting consciously, and with empathy, I believe we’ll make much better decisions as a result. Good leadership, then, should be about helping to empower people. It should be about looking beyond borders, and beyond our differences, both visible and invisible. And to see instead the common denominator of humanity.