Saturday, December 31, 2011

Leaders as Pioneers, Followers as Leaders: A Transformation Wish for 2012

In a few minutes, 2011 will pass into history and 2012 will usher in a new chapter at the stroke of the midnight of December 31. The human race as usual will put aside its worries and concerns of 2011 and rejoice for a moment, hoping that 2012 would bring better tiding. Also, everyone has typically a New Year Wish for oneself and for others. As a technical and managerial professional, I have some unique wishes for fellow executives, managers and leaders of various domains. I feel happy to share these expectations in my blog "Strategy Musings", for which this is the 52nd post for the year 2011, and the 121st post since I started blogging on strategy and management topics in 2008.

This blog post attempts to map certain contrasts in human thinking and behavior which if managed well could make us a better society, at least a corporate society to start with. One may not admit it, the human race is one of contrasts and contradictions. Polar extremes of behavior coexist in human life. At a stark level, the human being as a child is utterly dependent on the parents and caretakers but as the child progresses through all the stages of growing up, the evolved human being believes that he or she has moved to a state of apparent independence. Yet, as a senior citizen he or she realizes the fact of inescapable dependence, whether on the family or the State and caretakers. In essence, the human being is always as dependent as independent. Human life is one of dependent independence. Many other conflicts can be seen in individual human psyche; rich and impoverished, liked and disliked, praising and criticizing, awarding and awarded, and sublime and ridiculous, all simultaneously. At the core of relevance to management is the contrasting desire of a human being to lead and also be led.

Leaders and followers

The greatest of leaders also happen to be the greatest of admirers, fans or followers. They tend to derive their strength and recharge themselves through associations that do not necessarily correlate with their leadership that gets reflected in all that see and survey. The meekest of followers also turn out to be the greatest of leaders when circumstances demand. The humble common man could become an awesome manager when a crisis hits the society. Even a commonplace group of entertainers on a stadium could be cheer leaders. The raw talent and viral innovation of a limited visibility leader could catapult him to global acclaim as demonstrated by actor Dhanush's Kolaveri Di video!

The human organization, from chaos to orderliness, and from survival to growth has been governed by one singular concept of a few leaders and a mass of followers. Civilization has seen how just a few leaders with vastly varying characteristics could sway millions of people; to independence through non-violence as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, or to near disaster through warfare as in the case of Alexander or Adolf Hitler. As the industrial society took shape, the organizational model, be it of any domain - politics, government, administration, education, business, charity, art and media, for example -became the most symbolic platform for leaders and followers.

As all of these activities became more competitive the concept of singular leaders who can sway large organizations to remarkable results (a la Jack Welsh and Steve Jobs) has come to the fore. Simultaneously, however, the concepts of institutionalization of leadership processes and grass-roots leadership have also come to the fore. Leadership models have grown in multiplicity and complexity as theoreticians and practitioners started discovering that there is nothing linear or replicative in leadership. Leadership is seen to be intensely personal but organizationally contextual. Yet, as 2012 poses new threats to economies and industries, we may examine if there is a case for adjusting our corporate leadership models by evaluating and learning from models available in other domains as well as from what has been happening in society.

Elective, collective, collageal, rotational and singular

Leadership in corporate or industrial sector is quite different from what exists in other walks of society. Whether it is a totalitarian state or a democratic state, there tends to be a system of elective leadership or collective leadership. In an educational institution or a not-for-profit setting, there tends to be a system of collageal leadership or rotational leadership. It is not unusual for the heads of educational institutions to step down after completion of their tenure and become senior professors. The sports arena too offers interesting examples of captains reverting to positions of team players. To view in a perspective, practices and contexts in several non-business sectors offer potential for flexible and dynamic leadership models which equilibrate with not only leadership performance but also organizational flexibility. Leadership journey in these settings tends to be multi-role and also flexible and reversible, with several stake holders participating in leadership selection and movement.

In contrast, the leadership journey in industrial and business sectors tends to be a journey on a steep, slippery, tough-to-climb pyramid, which favours singular choice, and little scope for re-adjustment or retraction. Business culture has its success metrics clearly laid out almost as a "go-no go" gauge. Elevation and exit are strongly correlated with performance or non-performance of leadership. Leadership cannot find new homes in an existing organization and cannot, even if willing, continue to offer talent that is residual in relevance. This is a given cultural context which is seemingly getting more rigid than flexible in corporate and business organizations. This implies that corporate and business sectors are highly vulnerable or sensitive to the correctness or otherwise of leadership bets.

Leadership bets

That said, there have also been instances of erstwhile leaders returning to active leadership arena and reviving the fortunes of companies beyond expectations. The return of Steve Jobs to Apple is the most profound example of companies, rather than leaders, being the prodigal ones! The return of Michael Dell to Dell Computers, Larry Page to Google in terms of resumption of active leadership are examples.

Given the nature of leadership journey, leadership selections in corporate sector tend to be futuristic bets, which are as critical as bets taken on technologies, products and markets. Some organizations take what may be seen to be incredible and adventurous bets but succeed enormously. The unbelievable turnaround and growth of Fiat and Chrysler under Sergio Marchionne or the dramatic transformation of GE under Jack Welsh are striking examples of how leadership bets can pay off. On the other hand, there are examples of bets going awry too.

Many companies, therefore, plan calibrated multi-year transitions which are less of speculative bets and more of orderly leadership steps. The movement of Jeff Immelt into Jack Welsh's role at GE,and Andrew Witty into GSK CEO role are few examples of planned leadership transitions, either through internal pathways or external talent pools. In all such cases, however, the results have been impressive but not necessarily dramatic. The reasons are not far to seek. Each such elevation or induction of a singular leader through the calibrated selection process has been accompanied by movement of the other contenders from the company. Secondly, the calibrated selection process lays a premium on continuity and compliance. The leadership personality may not therefore support dramatic transformations.

Social trends

As with any other year, the society's destiny will be governed both by the leaders and the led. Yet, if one reviews the broad trends of 2011 (from global social networking to local street uprising), one may discover a potential for subtle but impacting tweak. There is a strong underlying current that suggests that the trend of extremely limited leadership qualifiers is under question by the broader civil society. There is an unfulfilled expression that leaders should not merely extrapolate the past but must necessarily do something innovative to realize India's potential.

The social commotion also suggests that the masses are leading new expressions. Probably each citizen is examining if he or she is likely to follow a beaten path or lead onto a new path. Collectively, the question is if we as a human race write a new chapter in history by ourselves or pass meekly into a chapter written by a few others? The solution to this does not lie in uncoordinated, and often disruptive, mass actions. The solution could be more in terms of busting the traditional leader and follower models.

Leaders as pioneers, followers as leaders

Leadership is often seen in terms of controlling the destiny of an organization, with business performance serving as the key metric. A leader is expected to be a visionary and not necessarily a pioneer. If leadership is seen in terms of futuristic outlook and innovation, a leader who has the highest futuristic and innovative outlook would qualify to be a pioneer. While visionaries often succeed even with current business models or modifications thereof, a pioneer would chart out into new products or new businesses on a first-to-market basis. The more pioneers exist as leaders or as more leaders evolve into pioneers the greater is the potential of continuous and sustainable business growth.

Leaders are enabled to be pioneers when followers assume leadership. When strategic planning and operational execution are pushed down the hierarchy followers become progressively leaders. On a companion thought when freedom of expression and execution are enabled at ground level, followers become capable of exercising their innate faculties. The reason for good science and technology getting made by the young as much as by the old is related to this subtlety of free thinking that permeates hallowed research and development laboratories. The social activism being shown by the masses is indicative of the yearning for grassroots leadership. Business and industry can thrive by converting the grassroots energy into accelerated performance by providing greater leadership avenues.

Utopian or practical?
As with many concepts of the posts in this blog, the concept of leaders becoming pioneers and followers becoming leaders would appear utopian; nice to say but difficult to implement. Probably, the corporate world which views management and leadership in the twin lenses of hierarchy and beauracracy would find it impractical. The truth, however, is that alternative leadership models in governance, public service, research and education have shown how leadership could exist at front line or operating levels. Certain other domains such as media have demonstrated as to how pioneering is an integral part of leadership. These institutions have also led to viral entrepreneurship with people starting at the bottom of the ladder becoming leaders in their own right. Journalists becoming media CEOs or media barons and light boys becoming movie directors is not uncommon.

As organizations become conscious of the constraints they are subjecting themselves both at leadership and follower levels by setting expectations of mandated "lead-led" behavior, the industry would continue to have scores of leaders who are just content to follow the beaten path, and not take the challenging paths of pioneership as well as masses of followers who would not even dream of testing whether they have any leadership abilities. The key for corporations, businesses and industries as 2012 poses even more challenges, economic and business, is to unleash a bit of freedom and creativity in the organizations, and induce both leaders and followers to explore paths of higher challenges for leaders and followers, of pioneers and leaders respectively. This alone will ensure supremacy of optimism and growth over pessimism and stagnation.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on December 31, 2011

No comments: