Friday, December 14, 2007

Practicing leadership in corporate world

Leadership is a much misunderstood concept in corporate world. Every CEO and senior manager is supposed to practice leadership. He is shown a role model of Jack Welch or Nelson Mandela and told to emulate their behaviour. It is a foregone conclusion that a person at senior level must practice leadership whether he is ready or not.

Trainers further add to the confusion by 'labelling' many of their programs as 'leadership development programs'. They go a step further by claiming that leadership can be practiced at any level: junior, middle or senior. This is the Western view of human development: you can do anything if you have the willingness and drive to achieve it. This view creates heroic individuals who may perform heroic acts, but can also create deputees who cannot even think for themselves.

The confusion is fed by reluctance of researchers who refuse to define leadership. Researchers interview and study CEO's and political leaders, decipher common traits and behaviour, and claim to discover the common denominator of a leader without defining leadership. In their quest to define leadership traits, they may even forget that many of the CEO's and leaders they interviewed may have been 'adminstrators'.

Rudolph Giuliani's resurrecation of New York after 9/11 is one such example. Reviving a city/institution after such a tragedy requires extraordinary capabilities to bring together all stakeholders, chalk out an action plan and execute it. But is this leadership?

Is 'removing terrorism' same as 'removing terrorist'? Is countering the practice of anti dowry same as passing the 'anti-dowry' law in the parliament? Is instituting 'secured transport' in a city after 11 pm same as instituting police practices to catch criminals in the city?

If you observe closely the similarity in the second and first act, you will understand the concept of leadership. The first act requires understanding of ' interrelated systems', while the second requires understanding of 'linear systems'. The first act requires a far difficult juxtaposition of different initiatives and weaving amongst different stakeholders, while the second requires a 'one dimension action' against the dissidents. The first act requires dealing with dynamic complexity while the second act is dealing with static complexity.

In short, the first act requires the ability to deal with 'Systems'. ( please do not confuse system with department or process. It is a word which has precise definition, derived from a practice called Systems thinking.)More so it requires an ability to understand and deal with open systems and that too multiple systems at one time.

This is where we have a definition of leadership. Leadership practice is an ability to influence open system(s) in a sustained manner. Sustained manner means not just one time action; but an action which can be sustained after the initial trigger is off.

This definition will tell you where where leadership cannot be practiced. If, for instance, not a single system is 'kept' open at a junior level, you may not be able to practice leadership at a junior position. You will also realise that you are not expected to 'practice' leadership even at senior positions in certain times. For instance, if an organisation has to be revived, it needs huge 'administrative ability'.

With a precise definition of leadership, you will know and how and when to practice leadership. You will know that despite whatever your effort, you cannot achieve anything more in an organisation where platform creation is going to take huge time. You will set realistic expectations.


Unknown said...

dear sanjiv,

your ability to carry around the systems thinking lens and sniff out and snoop around and find 'common' linear practices masquerading as systemic practices, and to articulate the whole thing beautifullyy is unsurpassed. mixed with your very funny innocent ways of writing english, it becomes a treasure trove of fascinating insights served on a platter of magica practicality.

keep going, sir,


Harish Nair said...

Dear Sanjiv,

Its about time the world started looking at the term 'Leadership' in a more systemic and realistic way, rather than as a personality trait. The misconception or lack of understanding or misunderstanding of this concept has ruined many a careers. And i urge you to build on this concept comprehensively.

Our times, when information & communication technologies are breaking down barriers between geographies and social systems, when we are undergoing and are being impacted by unprecendented changes, what we need is a clear understanding of Leadership and how it can be developed. We need to understand what Leadership is NOT as much as what it is. The amount of literature on this topic is immense, yet none of them proclaim or provide a complete understanding and they leave the recepient with a sense that something is missing. So every few weeks, we have a new book or perspective offering another elemental view of the issue. At the end of it, its all so confusing that it would require a superhuman to fit into all current definitions of Leaders.

I would request you to explore leadership in the context of

1. Current Definitions and its impact on the individuals growth and professional development

2. Corporate performance

3. Society and Globalisation

4. Art, literature and social systems

5. Can leadership be taught?

In my view, you have taken up a topic of immense import and therefore to do justice to it, i would request you to deal with Leaderships in the different contexts at length.

Here's wishing you all the very best.

Best Regards

Harish Nair