Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Making (and Unmaking) of Future Leaders: The Natural Leadership Development (NLD) Model

Leaders have a great role in the making and unmaking of future leaders. Leaders, almost by definition, are those who look for a future of the organization they lead that is far beyond their own tenure, or even their own professional lifespan. Availability and development of a capable pool of future leaders has to be an essential objective of a leader. It is, therefore, paradoxical that several organizational contexts and leadership settings involve unmaking as much as making of future leaders. While great organizations have several structured programs of leadership development, synthetic leadership development (by sporadic programs by internal or external faculty, however capable they may be) is hardly comparable to natural leadership development (through continuous experience and observation of masterly leaders). This blog post seeks to propose a model of natural leadership development which is decidedly preferable and executable. It also offers clear insights into the factors that reinforce or impede natural leadership development.

Natural leadership development

Leadership development occurs naturally, spontaneously and continuously when potential leaders are associated with proven leaders from the inception of their career. There are several interesting pathways by which natural leadership development (NLD) occurs. The fundamental prerequisite, of course, is the presence of capable leaders as the heads of functions, locations or businesses and an iconic leader at the helm of the organization as the chief executive officer (CEO). Under such a virtuous scenario, leadership development occurs on a two track basis. Even as functional or unit leaders get developed by their CEO, they in turn develop the young executives into future leaders. While this process is largely hierarchical, at times potential exists for young leaders to directly interact with the CEO and for young entrants to directly work with unit or business leaders. This leadership development process occurs as a continuous process all through the careers of leaders as well as aspirants.

The lateral entry of leaders from other organizations occasionally is indicative of deficiencies in the NLD process of an organization but does not necessarily constitute the derailment of the NLD process. In many cases, entry of such leadership talent provides new opportunities for reinforcing the NLD process in the organization. A reality check as to whether the current leadership is adequate in the face of competitive environment often provides an answer as to whether or not lateral leadership entry is appropriate or not. That said, however, each organization must always be aware of the potential factors of reinforcement and derailment (reinforcers and derailers respectively). The two important reinforcers are the competitive drive and leadership harmony of an organization. The two important derailers are the environmental unpredictability and leadership trivia of an organization. Clearly, leveraging the reinforcers and eliminating the derailers provides the best assurance of NLD in an organization.

Competitive drive

The fundamental prerequisite for successful NLD is the alignment of leadership not only to the current competitive imperatives but also to the future corporate development perspectives. A holistic organizational development blueprint provides the basis for developing natural leaders from within, and also as a pool of leaders which is constantly recharged with fresh leadership assignments across the hierarchy. The competitive drive of an organization and its leadership has the most significant influence on the NLD processes in an organization. Though there is a debate whether the leadership talent in an organization is a trigger or an outcome of the strategic vision and roadmap of an organization, for the purposes of NLD it is the competitive ecosystem of the firm that influences the NLD processes. Regardless of whether the firm is in a growth mode or turnaround mode, if the leadership challenges are harnessed and percolated down in the organization, the NLD processes will bloom well.

The competitive drive for leadership in a growth mode largely requires leaders to seek new opportunities, design new products, explore new markets, pioneer new technologies and sometimes become adventurous and risk-prone to enter sunrise sectors. This gives tremendous opportunity for the CEO to script a new strategic vision, for his deputies (the other CXOs) to pilot and lead new businesses, and for several young leaders to participate in the growth processes in various product-market segments and leverage their fresh ideas and youthful enthusiasm. The competitive drive for leadership in a turnaround mode largely requires leaders to seek operational excellence and cost efficiencies, improve capacity utilization, enhance market penetration, extend product life cycles and optimize risks. This requires the CEO, the CXOS and other leaders to benchmark the firm in term of the best practices and restore the competitive edge. Typically, the competitive drive in an organization entails both growth and turnaround providing ample opportunities for NLD.

Leadership harmony

Leadership harmony at the CXO level is a key determinant of the NLD processes in an organization. Leadership harmony occurs when the vision and strategy are developed and executed with shared ownership between the CXOs and the CEO. Leadership harmony requires that the organizational ecosystem treats all the business verticals or units equitably in terms of budgets and metrics. It also requires that line and staff leaders work collaboratively without perceptions of superiority. Though there is a debate if organizational structures and processes enable leadership harmony or if leadership harmony optimizes structures and processes, for the purposes of NLD it is the maturity level of the leaders that determines the positivity of the NLD processes. Whether or not the top management meetings are visible and transparent (to the organization) in terms of structures and processes, leadership harmony has a way of breathing life and energy into the organization.

Young leaders, and the CXOs themselves, are greatly benefitted in an environment of collaborative leadership. In such an internal environment, the leaders tend to engage amongst themselves openly and synergistically providing the needed impetus for collaborative cascades horizontally and vertically at all levels of the organization. For organizations in growth mode, leadership harmony provides mutual reinforcement and risk optimization. Multiple skills become available to debate and diagnose the unknowns of growth. For organizations in turnaround mode, leadership harmony eases the pain of restructuring, enables harmonious redeployments and leads the company to successful turnaround faster. Leadership harmony provides higher levels of empowerment across the organization enabling speedier and focused decision making and execution. Needless to add, the factors of reinforcement, competitive drive and leadership harmony need to coexist for each to be successful. Without leadership harmony, competitive drive gets blunted while without competitive drive, leadership harmony leads to corporate smugness, both situations leading to eventual stagnation.

Environmental unpredictability

Economic cycles have long been a fascinating aspect of economic analysis with leaders of the governments and businesses always trying to bring some predictability of economic environment to decision making. The task, however, has become increasingly challenging as economic environment has become more unpredictable and volatile with several countries staying in deep recession for years on. The price movements in oil, commodities, industrial metals, and precious metals have become unpredictable while currency exchange rates have become major distorters of orderly globalization. Global investment flows have become equally unpredictable while the global banking institutions have become fragile. Massive investments in infrastructure and sector-specific stimulus programs have supported global recovery but have not resulted in global growth. Economic and financial instability in the Euro Zone has been threatening the fragile global recovery. Even economies such as India and China that were expected to sustain world leading economic growth rates based on strong domestic demand have begun to falter.

The industry and business are dependent on a positive investment environment for funding the growth or turnaround plans as the case may be. The funding environment being uncertain, neither the growth plans nor the turnaround plans can be implemented decisively. Various companies, from Apple and Microsoft in the US to Infosys and Reliance in India, have been sitting on cash piles rather than aggressively investing for growth. Even if reinforcers such as competitive drive and leadership harmony exist, economic unpredictability tends to derail even the best laid plans, growth or turnaround, and most harmonious organizational structures and processes. In addition, forces of environmental and social activism as well as governmental and legal review processes tend to block or reopen the apparently settled projects. Organizations are often forced to tailor leadership aspirations and expectations to what geo-economic and geo-political considerations allow.

Leadership trivia

Not all derailers for the NLD processes come from external environment. Some emerge from certain leadership trivia, which often erode leadership effectiveness and impact. Two of the important trivia are bipolar leadership and anchored leadership. Bipolar leadership connotes a leadership behavior that swings rapidly and unpredictably between two extremes in either environmental sensitivity or interpersonal relationship. The extremes of bipolar leadership behavior covers the extremes of optimism and pessimism (in assessing business situations), collaboration and confrontation (in people management), decisiveness and procrastination (in decision making), sparkling intuition and paralytic analysis (in strategic management), extroversion and introversion (in communication), permissiveness and authoritarianism (in empowerment), forgiveness and vindictiveness (in performance management), transparency and opaqueness (in visibility) and so on. Such widely contrasting behavior patterns are occasionally adopted by certain maverick leaders to remain inscrutable but ultimately result in only unmaking of current and future leaders rather than in natural leadership development.

The other leadership aberration is one of anchored leadership. True leadership is equidistant from, and equipotent with, all functions, units, locations and businesses of the corporation, and its specific leaders. At times, leaders tend to be anchored around one platform or one leader to the detriment of other equally important platforms and prospective leaders because such platforms provide immediate growth or essential turnaround possibilities, or for the sheer comfort of dependence on known platforms and leaders. Such excessive dependence induces real or perceived bias in leadership behavior, transcending into bias in decision making, execution, and performance management. Factors of reinforcement, namely corporate drive and leadership harmony, are maximized when leadership is not only actually and but also perceptually, seen to be accessible, unbiased and objective towards all of its businesses and entities. Leadership trivia point out how important it is for leadership to be personable in relationships but impersonal in terms of reflecting the relationships in execution.

Life’s experience

Natural leadership development is akin to gaining life’s experience, molded by caring and disciplined parents, and diligent and committed teachers. In the challenging world of competitive career development leaders constitute the beacon and inspiration for young executives and leaders. Learning experientially with leaders committed to leadership development is fruitful and long lasting for aspirants. Competitive drive and leadership harmony in an appropriate organizational ecosystem enable and reinforce natural leadership development in organizations. The making of leadership thus happens by design and organizations that facilitate natural leadership development are bound to be successful in creating a vast pool of leadership talent for sustainable competitive advantage.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 9, 2012

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