Column by Dr YRK Reddy- HRD Newsletter
LEADERSHIP - IS IT BACK TO BALM?

The company was planning for a scorching pace of growth and the challenge is to suggest a way by which all their critical managers look "Jack Welch". The company had used, they claimed, all the usual ware. They had been put through several "instruments" and gained insights into their preferred styles. They came to know that life is indeed two-dimensional - task-oriented or people oriented or a cocktail thereof. Matrixes and grids showed that clearly.

The managers bared their personalities, shamelessly and without embarrassment, for critique by God, man, and the devil in one go. They also learned to perceive that old women are sometimes young and vice-versa and hence now use this revelation to communicate better. They were also put through simulations - they were left in the sea and in the forest. At times, they also went to the moon and had to get back, for whatever reason - in the process, they learnt of leadership and teamwork. They also learnt that leadership is actually not individual oriented as much as situation specific - sometimes, leadership is all about letting someone else be leader, they were told! They were implored that leadership effectiveness is to use a style that best fits than one unique way - one size doesn't fit all! Whatever works best is leadership, they realized.

They enjoyed the out-bound training which made them better individuals and got them back to college days of teamwork. They had gone through visioneering and can now reel off the strategic concerns of the company and where it wants to be. They know of Sun Tzu and about competitive dynamics. They also have been trained in the seven habits for being effective. They had gone in for outstanding motivators who changed their perspective on life, serviced their souls and gave them trademarked mantras.

To cap all this effort, recently someone told the company that fast trackers must go in teams and see "Lagaan". There is a lot to learn from Aamir Khan - the way to pool resources from nothing; the way to work under constraints and imperfection; to build a strong purpose; coach; empower; celebrate. The boys and girls enjoyed the movie, learnt a lot. On the way back they identified secretly in their own team, the traitors, the langda, the motu, the chotu, the dream girl, and the dreaming girl. Each one identified him/herself with Aamir Khan and it was obvious that they can't ever have a team with all captains.

Most did not know who they were actually playing against, in real life. Someone said that the enemy is actually within. But another said you need a rival, otherwise the game is lifeless. Some cynics felt that in the market place the enemy is usually the umpires. Not the rival team - if there is one at all. Look at the taxations, levies, Competition Law, consumer protection courts, essential commodity act, they wailed.

The HRD man in this company was at a loss to explain to his new CEO as to what all has been the impact of this endless training in leadership - including the Lagaan show. In retrospect, it all looked like the road-side elixir - the lizard pickle, the tiger's potion, the snake venom, gold and pearls. They played an important role - enhanced awareness, raised expectations, gave fun, improved sensitivity to peoples/teams requirements. They may have created a "placebo effect". The HRD man still does not know what great leaders do. Unless he knows, he can't make the boys Jack Welch. I wonder if there is new balm that addresses this issue? Is Kouzes and Posner`s book written in 1995 and still in great demand - a possible answer? Does John Kotter, the Harvard's legendary leadership guru, have an answer?

The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner is path breaking - it is based on research and yet is eminently readable and practical. Instead of talking about the theoretical foundations, it concentrates on summarizing the practices adopted by exemplary leadership. It believes that five fundamental practices and ten commitments can make leadership outstanding. The empirical support for this leadership framework arises from the Leadership Practices Inventory, which was applied, to over 60 thousand respondents after a methodologically sound development of the instrument. The conclusion is that the LPI has sound psychometric properties, which have internal reliability; has predictive and concurrent validity; and has been consistent over time and across people, genders, and ethnic backgrounds as well as diverse organizational characteristics. The result of this work is the affirmation that leaders who are successful adopt five fundamental practices that appear to get them extraordinary results.

The first is that they challenge the processes. They are committed to searching out challenging opportunities to change, grow, innovate, and improve - they treat every job as an adventure; treat every new assignment as a start-over; question the status quo; send people for shopping for ideas; go out and find something that needs fixing; assign people to the opportunities etc. They are committed to experimenting, taking small risks and learning from the accompanying mistakes - they set up little experiments; honour risk takers; debrief every failure as well as success; model risk taking.

The second practice revolves around inspiring a shared vision by envisioning an exciting future and enlisting team members by appealing to their values, interests, hopes, and dreams. This involves thinking first about the past; determining what is wanted; acting on intuition; becoming a futurist; identifying constituents; finding common ground; speaking positively; speaking from the heart; making the intangible tangible; listening first and the like.

The third fundamental practice is to enable others to act. Exemplary leaders foster collaboration among team members by promoting common goals and building trust - they always say we; they increase interactions; focus on gains; form planning and problem-solving partnerships; conduct a collaboration audit. Exemplary leaders strengthen team members by empowerment in a comprehensive manner which includes developing competence and offering visible support - they increase return on square footage; enlarge people's sphere of influence; educate; organize own " great huddle"; make connections and heroes of other people.

The fourth practice has been titled as "modeling way" which centers around setting examples by credible behaviour and achieving small wins that foster progress and commitment into the future. The commitment required includes taking a look in the mirror; writing leadership credo; opening a dialogue about personal and shared values; auditing actions; trading places; being dramatic and telling stories about teachable moments. Achieving small wins can be easy by taking it personally; making a plan; creating a model; breaking things up and down; using a bulletin board; selling the benefits; taking people to dinner!!

The last practice is to encourage the heart by recognizing individual contribution and celebrating success regularly. The book implores the readers to be creative about rewards and recognition; recognizing publicly; providing feedback en route; creating pygmalions; finding people doing things right; coaching. Celebrating accomplishments can be easy by scheduling celebrations; being a cheerleader; being a part of the cheering squad; having fun; determining social network and bolstering it; staying in love!!

The recipe appears simple and even too simplistic. Yet the book makes abundant sense, even if there is a smacking of several familiar clichés a la the One Minute Manager. The hope that this approach generates is that leadership, in effect, can be process driven - you adopt a few practices consistently and they will make you an exemplary leader and a creator of high performance teams. There is a hint that managers need not be endowed with dominating traits, charisma, assumptions, or values that would support good leadership - the practices and commitments would probably retrofit the individual to a workable leadership framework.

It is also interesting that the approach adopted by John Kotter in his eminent writings (see, What Do Leaders Do? Harvard Business Press, 1999) center around good practices that distinguish leadership from management and make managers good leaders. He believes in the power of direction setting; aligning constituents and motivating and inspiring. An important point Kotter had made is that leadership training is different from management development - it involves change and taking risks; is inductive; supports flexibility; is longer term oriented; empowering than controlling; appealing to the values of the group; energizing; cheerleading and the like. The thirty years of research of John Kotter has been summarized in the following ten statements:

  1. "Successful change requires a complex and time-consuming, multi-stage process. Managers must create urgency, build a strong team, create and communicate a vision, empower individuals, deliver short-term results, build momentum, and ensure that new behaviours become part of the culture.

  2. Some of the ingredients to successful change vary with the situation, and good leaders are able to distinguish what is required in a particular situation and resist the "one-size-fits-all" approach.
  3. Even effective managers with good intentions make predictable errors in attempting to create change.
  4. Frequently the problems associated with creating change are a result of applying management skills to creating a change rather than the required leadership skills. For example, structure and systems may be over-emphasized and communicating and networking under-emphasized.
  5. The increasing pace of change means that all managers are being called upon to do the work of leadership.
  6. Managers are therefore required to create budgets and visions, develop formal organizations and informal networks, and motivate others using both management controls and inspiration.
  7. Managers are now required to work in and through a complex web of relationships in addition to the formal organizational structure.
  8. Rather than exercising formal power over others, managers must increasingly recognize and manage their informal dependence on others.
  9. Networks, dependence and leadership place a renewed emphasis on traditionally non-managerial tasks such as managing the boss or building organizational capacity outside your own domain.
  10. Daily activities of effective managers rarely resemble stereotypes of managers, leaders or executives. However, their seemingly disjointed conversations, interruptions and joking around make a lot of sense in the context of the complex, difficult and diverse agendas they must implement in order to be effective. "

The leadership paradigm being advocated by both fit the new enterprise well. The new enterprise has to function less on the basis of formal authority and more by informal processes. Leadership had been defined as the art of influencing behaviour - with or without formal authority. These approaches give us hope for this art to spread. Yet, I have a disquiet on three counts. The first is the feeling that leadership behaviour as described is positive behaviour all through. As someone said, leadership is not a popularity contest and Noel Tichy had commented elsewhere, along with an expletive, about Jack Welch to make this point. General Powell was reported as commenting that leaders are responsible for the welfare of the group and "being responsible sometimes means pissing people off." The second worry I have is the cultural specificity - despite the statement of statistical validity in the Kouzes and Posner work, the leadership practice paradigm appears distinctly American -centric and some practices prescribed could stick out as alien in the German, Japanese or Indian contexts.

The third is more worrying. If leadership is a process driven affair, (a) there could be a belief that leadership behaviours can be fashioned through process control and (b) there would be doubt if we require all the behavioural instruments at all. There may be a demand for a Scorecard instead or a process certification for leadership - neither of which guarantee sustainable strategic advantage, as there are no barriers to copying for long.

Yes, Kouzes, Posner and Kotter`s perspectives, prescriptions and the training modeled after these may be just another balm, a flavor of the times, a passing fad. But I would rather suggest a new flavored balm to the company than the stale and rancid oil palmed off as medicine.

November, 2001 Issue
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