Sunday, April 29, 2012

Leadership, An Acronym of Ten Attributes!

Organizations grow as well as decline due to leadership. Leadership has many roles to play in an organization, many of them overlapping with the traditional roles of management. Two roles are however distinctive for leadership as opposed to management. The first relates to defining the strategic direction of the organization. The second relates to ensuring leadership continuity. All the other leadership tasks from planning to execution and from coordinating to monitoring can be performed by high caliber managers. Strategic direction and leadership continuity, however, are the two tasks that only a genuine leader can perform. In fact, a leader is differentiated from a manager by the effectiveness on these two parameters.

Setting strategic direction requires an intuitive conceptual ability, a trained analytical competence and a native entrepreneurial spirit. Strategic direction emerges from the annals of knowledge, teachings of experience and the visions of alternate futures. It is a core competence that scans comprehensively for visible and invisible opportunities but focuses precisely to crystallize the most appropriate product-market direction. Ensuring leadership continuity requires an ability to develop and manage a team of capable leaders, each member of which could potentially replace the leader at short notice or be capable of taking up leadership responsibility elsewhere. Developing and yet managing equally competent leaders is a core competence that sets apart leaders’ leaders from others.

Strategic leadership involves making a decisive change in the direction of the company. Some of the changes could be growth and profit boosting while some could be more of consolidating the present for supporting a better future. Mergers and acquisitions within the same domain could ensure a leadership position but need not necessarily imply strategic leadership. Real strategic leadership achieves a significant transformation in the business composition of a firm. Strategic leadership is greater than handling the strategy of a function; it is all about leading onto something transformative, which in the ordinary course of things would not have occurred despite the best of functional leadership. Strategic leadership in that sense belongs only to the chief executive officer (CEO), who must be the leaders’ leader to ensure that the sum of all the good parts of the organization results in an overall greatness.

Contrarian challenges

There are ten components which can be identified with each letter of leadership as a word, making it a meaningful acronym of ten critical attributes. These ten components are Logic, Emotion, Analysis, Direction, Engagement, Results, Swiftness, Harmony, Integrity and Precision. Viewed whichever way, these ten attributes emphasize how difficult the job of a leader is. For example, both logic and emotion, which tend to be contrarian, are equally important for a leader to succeed. The ability to deploy logic and emotion completely separately or in combination in different mixes under relevant circumstances cannot be a cultivated process; it needs to be a spontaneous hallmark of a natural leader. Swiftness and precision are again two attributes which could play against each other. Decision making requires swiftness which could at times come with a compromise to the quality and precision parameters of a process and its outcome. The same way, focusing on only precision could slow down a leader.

Engagement and direction are two very important process parameters which are applied together but also require drawing of a necessary line between them. Engagement requires patience, empathy and a relatively mass contact. The more engaged a leader is with his team, the more likely he or she could be successful in motivating the team. At the same time, engagement could suffer from the perils of multiple influences and vested advocacy. The leader would need to ensure that the team is directed to perform certain tasks, though the team feels different, mainly to ensure the desired outcomes. Very often, the leader is able to see a strategic picture that the team would not be able to see despite engagement; therefore direction becomes important after due engagement with the team. At the same time excessive use of direction under the umbrella of engagement would not go well either.

Many times, result-orientation is considered to be the dominant characteristic of leadership. This is not necessarily true. A leader with the right attributes of leadership carries out the right processes and succeeds in achieving the right results. In planning and executing for results, analysis and the science of analytics plays a major role. Too much emphasis is placed on the conceptualization and visualization as a striking differentiator of leadership with management. It is, however, the analytical ability that distinguishes a top class leader from others. There are also certain attributes of leadership which are mutually reinforcing with each of the other components. Integrity is one such attribute that reinforces corporate and functional conduct, including result orientation. Integrity leads to alignment of thought, expression and actions, across individuals, teams and the organization. Harmony is yet another characteristic that strengthens internal and external collaboration for the organization.

Practical leadership

Leadership is all about weighing in options and decision making. The ten attributes play a major role in determining how the leadership converts challenges into opportunities and opportunities into businesses. Let us take the case of an airliner facing deep operational and financial turbulence. We may simulate how the airliner’s leadership could role-play the acronym of leadership to achieve positive outcomes. The first task of the leader is to let logic and analytics prevail over emotion in planning for recovery. The leadership should be able to see beyond current turbulence and establish a case for industry and business revival, given the cyclicality of the airline industry. Once the case is established, the second task of the leadership is engagement, with the distraught employees, the circumspect passengers, and the worried external agencies, bankers and regulators. The process of engagement is helped by the level of integrity and harmony, with the right touch of emotion, that are displayed in the process of dealing with all the stakeholders.

These processes cannot be interminable; nor can they be viewed as processes of negotiation with the stakeholders as to who would blink first; whether it would be disheartened employees on voluntary attrition or panicky bankers and regulators with bailout packages and policy frameworks. Swiftness of a turnaround plan, rather than emotional stewardship, builds credibility and secures broad-based support to bail the airliner out of the turbulence. Precision in articulating the recovery pathway and metrics helps in reinforcing the credibility. Results orientation helps the leadership measure its own success, and articulate to build credibility amongst the stakeholders. Practical leadership would endeavor to turn around the airliner by its own efforts as expeditiously as possible without letting it sink on elusive hopes of public bailout.

At another extreme would be an entrepreneurial leader who has rolled out an enterprise on the basis of a minimum business program acceptable to the angel and financial investors as well as co-promoters. The entrepreneurial leader builds the logic of growth by the swiftness with which he achieves performance that exceeds its plans. A noted entrepreneurial pharmaceutical firm achieved in two years what it promised as its minimum program of five years, thus building a huge bank of faith in all its stakeholders. Direction and results constitute the hallmarks of a high growth entrepreneurial firm which help the leader engage with his stakeholders. Integrity is a major component of entrepreneurial success while harmony with emerging public policy and underserved social needs helps the firm constantly identify new opportunities.

More often than not, many firms also happen to be well established corporations with large organizational structures, comprising functional units or business units. The concept of leaders’ leader is well challenged in such organizations. For most such organizations, the emphasis would be on hard-wiring the leadership behaviors and processes with structures and templates. Logic, analysis, direction, results, integrity and precision are the dominant themes. Leaders need to add emotion, engagement, swiftness and harmony to the behavior models of the large corporations to ensure holistic leadership. Technology needs to be deployed in areas such as company-wide engagement while entrepreneurial leadership needs to be integrated at functional and business leadership levels. Harmony with environment could be a dominant integration need as is evidenced by the delays faced by large corporations in establishing new green field projects in steel, power and other such sectors.

Acronym for all seasons

Practical leadership is not only contextually appropriate but also conceptually relevant in any leadership situation. Organizations, large or small and public or private need leaders who can bring out the capabilities of the team to the fullest extent through a combination of attributes. Different types of organizations typically facilitate or require certain types of leadership. Practical leadership requires that the leaders achieve a transformation of leadership models to promote growth or fight decline as the case may be. Logic, Emotion, Analysis, Direction, Engagement, Results, Swiftness, Harmony, Integrity and Precision are the ten essential components of leadership that remind every leader of his or her attributes for success and fulfillment.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on April 29, 2012