Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Less Known Leadership Qualities

We all know that Leadership defies formulas – despite the myriad books and articles that keep trying to sell us the newest and latest.  Personally, I'd rather celebrate the great variety of leaders and leadership styles.  For, just as I am internalizing the great qualities of one leader, comes along another, who has anything but that.
Do we celebrate Gandhi’s consideration for his fellows or ‘Neutron Jack’s toughness? Narayana Murthy’s softness and humility or Steve Jobs’ near-cruelty? (tempted to add a dozen more here, but let’s leave that for the list makers).
Precisely for this reason, situational leadership has held me in its sway for a long time.  History is replete with the failures of celebrated leaders, when presented with a different set of demands – often of their own seeking.   ‘Rebellious’ political leaders have often found it difficult to govern the same people they have led to victory.  Great start-up entrepreneurs have struggled to manage a mature enterprise... (list, please!)

Expectations and Change Management
Another dimension to leadership is the expectations of those they lead, or even those that stand and watch.  Consider the failures of successive leaders at companies such as Yahoo! Or HP.  Obviously, if the measure of success (KPI) in such situations is the turning around of a “sick” company, arguably, it is not leadership that is needed but a mere viable value proposition.  I would argue against equating the two.  I can understand the argument that a great leader should be able to develop and implement a value proposition for an ailing business.  But that expectation suffers from a very idealistic, even wishful, definition of leadership.  I could make a case that an ingenious product developer could well dream up a powerful value proposition and, given pre-existing internal steam put in place by a previous ‘leader’, well succeed in turning such a company around.  Who, in such a case, would the real leader be?  I suspect the market, having kicked out the previous ‘failed’ leader, would not hesitate in embracing the new comer as a visionary leader.  I would pause and reconsider.

Span of Leadership Influence
Somewhat on the edge of leadership, is a leader’s grasp of the span of his reach.  He needs to realize that he alone cannot influence the entire target population directly.  He needs to develop a whole hierarchy of leaders to reach all the way to the grass roots.  I have seen any number of organizations, where good leadership stops at level two.  That is, the big leader picks a good team that has the intellectual understanding of the task on hand, but not the EQ to be leaders themselves.  They fail to initiate change at their level and below.  The real failure here is that of the big guy in his inability to understand the span of his influence.  He needs to understand that his direct influence can (at least in most cases) reach at best two or three levels below him.  Unless these 2-3 top levels can pick up the signals and amplify them to reach further, noise is bound to kill the signal.  Gandhi, had leaders like Nehru, Krishna Menon, Sarojini Naidu and Patel to amplify his signal to reach across India.  Jack Welch had his famous winning team, Immelt, McNerney and Nardelli, among others, to carry and amplify his message across a huge conglomerate. 

Such development of leadership is often discussed as part of succession planning.  I want to make the point that this is not about succession planning at all.  This is just being an effective leader today.  The leader needs a realistic appreciation of the strength of his signal and the extent of background noise.  Only then can he breed the right kind of leaders and the depth of the hierarchy that is needed to reach the grass roots.

Hanging in There
Here’s another: The ability to stay in the position of leadership.  One may look at it as hanging on to power.  It often is.  But, one does come across situations occasionally, where it is important for a leader to hang in there for the change he has initiated to take shape.  If by his own actions or due to lack of political acumen he is unseated, it can be a loss for all concerned.  Chandrababu Naidu, the ex-Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, in India comes to mind.  He initiated so many positive, powerful changes that he forgot he also needed to appease his voters (read customers) and was booted out by the electorate.  

On the flip side is the Dalai Lama.  A reporter wanted to know why he did not stay back in Tibet and launch his anti-China movement from there.  He responded: if he had stayed back, it would have taken no time for the Chinese to capture him; and that would likely be the last the world would have heard about him.  
Quality Leadership - Dalai Lama with world leaders
Importantly, he would not have been able to carry on the kind of campaign he has been waging against China -- essentially becoming a one-man thorn in the side of a global super power.  My point is that, it is part of Leadership to be able to position oneself for maximum impact.  If this means taking a step back or making a seemingly cowardly, even unethical move, that could well become part of the tactics and strategy a leader may have to adopt to achieve the goal.
Cause-based Leadership
Finally, I have recently come across a very different type of leadership that has perhaps not been studied adequately.  Resisting the temptation of naming it, let me describe it.
A situation calls for change.  The current leader either doesn’t read the signal or is clearly incapable of addressing it.  A "common man" reads the signal.  But he is “leader” enough to understand his own limitations and strengths.  He is also able to conceptualise the kind of leader needed to make it happen.  He goes on a hunt to look for the ‘appropriate’ leader; finds one after several attempts; “sells” the idea to this 'appropriate’ leader; positions himself as a 'side-kick', providing back-office support and brain power to this ‘appropriate’ leader.  He does not hesitate to call the shots, or even to take the heat when called for.  To cut a long story short, he ends up making a nationwide movement by driving another ‘visible’ leader to launch a campaign designed by him!
To me, this is an amazing example of leadership.  In fact, I’d rate it even higher that ‘direct’ leadership that we see most often.  To be passionate enough about a cause, to be able to know oneself enough to understand that a different kind of person is needed to ‘front’ it and then stay behind and guide the movement, takes the kind of maturity and leadership that’s seen extremely rarely.  I would like to call it Cause-based leadership.  (Yeah, admittedly a lame name.  Feel free to suggest a batter one!) 

Kejriwal burns a copy of the Lokpal Bill at a protest near New Delhi
Team Leadership.  Kejriwal: 40 winks with the team
The man I am talking about is Arvind Kejriwal, the man who managed to shake an entrenched and corrupt political establishment on both sides of the political divide in India.  Here is a short abstract from the Indian magazine The Caravan, on the man I am talking about.

This man was Arvind Kejriwal, a 43-year-old social activist from East Delhi. Though (Anna) Hazare is the recognised face of an anti-corruption campaign that began with his fast on 5 April, Kejriwal is the architect of the movement—the man journalists swarm to, seeking an interview. At press briefings, he often sits next to Hazare and helps the self-styled Gandhian handle tough questions: Kejriwal whispers into Hazare’s ear or scribbles key points on a piece of paper lying between them. When questions are posed to Kejriwal, he responds like an impassioned professor explaining a complicated problem—piling detail upon detail with the supreme confidence that his answer is the correct one. His essential message never changes: only a powerful independent anti-corruption agency, with wide-ranging authority and minimal government interference, can cure the plague of graft—and anything less will fail.
(Read more here)
The hallmarks of “Cause-based” leadership are:
•    The only thing that matters is the cause.  Even the leader is an instrument for the cause. 
•    The visible leader may not be the real leader
•    Rather, the real leader is the driver and he may well be at the back of the vehicle, among the passengers!

All this tells me, we are a long way from understanding leadership, much less training leaders.  But then, part of leadership is to make do with inadequate information!

- Sri