Sunday, July 29, 2012

Management of Loneliness: The Successful Leader’s First and Last Frontier

Leaders are those at the apex of an organization or a movement. Leaders lead, transform and manage their organizations and movements to achieve national wealth or national good, as the case may be. We have probably several thousands of leaders who brought corporations to great heights, from humble beginnings, either as professional leaders or entrepreneurial leaders. Similarly, we have several hundreds of leaders who inspired and led several social, religious, political and national movements. While corporate leadership tends to be a singularly recognized effort, leaders do need teams to strategize, execute and deliver results. Even leadership of movements of whatever nature requires a close group of stalwarts on whom the leader relies on to create the organizational vehicles, channel mass energy, manage controlled behavior and finally deliver results. Just as leadership is indispensable for directed and inspired growth, leadership team is indispensable for structured and focused delivery.

The leader and the leadership team share a unique thesis of oneness and collaboration, and yet a disturbing antithesis of divergence and conflict. The history of corporations as well as movements clearly points out to the essential feature of leadership. Several corporations lose their path of growth and talent excellence even after spirited unison of leadership teams because resonance of shared vision is diluted by dissonance of individual ambitions, of either the leader or the leadership team members. Several national movements fail to consolidate the harnessed energy of the masses once a major milestone is achieved because the leader and the team members become occupied with supra-national and sub-national considerations respectively. Leaders and the leadership teams would never want their goals and successes defeated by their own goals and successes, but ironically that seems to be a reality that the universal history teaches us.

Lonely at the top

It is often said that it is lonely at the top. It is certainly true of leaders who are at the apex positions in the organizations. While they may have closely aligned leaders at the helm of functions, business units or regions, the inner motivations as well as the intrinsic challenges are never shared with anyone. The several biographies of corporate chieftains reveal how both the types of corporate leaders, the effusive ones as well as the reclusive ones, had aspirations and agendas that had to remain embedded within them, at least partially. Interestingly, it appears as if this is not so true in the case of leaders of movements. This is attributed to the fact that movements typically require their leaders to maintain mass contact to sustain energy and support. On a closer review it would emerge that even the leaders of movements tend to be lonely, unable to share their inner visions and turmoil with their close followers. The reasons for loneliness at the top have, therefore, merited much analysis and discussion. And much of this would also be applicable, in some form or the other, to leaders of strategic business units, heads of global functions or regional heads working with the global apex leaders.

In a recent article, Harvard Business Review summarized how lonely it would be as a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a corporation. Echoing what every leader felt, it also said such a feeling could be especially unsettling for new leaders. More troubling is the finding that 60 to 70 percent of the CEOs find such isolation affecting their performance adversely. As leaders move up the hierarchical ladder, they have fewer touch points within the organization with staff at senior and junior levels, and in spread out locations. This distancing becomes especially true in rapidly grown start-ups. The leaders thus get drawn into a vicious cycle where it is easy to lose touch with reality. In professionally managed organizations, this risk is ostensibly somewhat mitigated, but is never eliminated as direct reports often nurture strong business unit, functional or regional perspectives with overlays of aspirations on getting to the top position based on performance differential of the respective businesses, functions or regions. Within the alignment at the top, this induces a level of latent misalignment. Leading management institutes such as Harvard, Stanford and Wharton are therefore involved in strategic management research in this important area.

Pro-dotes to loneliness

Leadership loneliness has a strong organizational logic. The CEO is charged with the responsibility of fulfilling multiple stakeholder needs, including those of investors, employees and communities. Typically, that responsibility is fulfilled through being unbiased and proactive and leading growth oriented strategies and execution, creating wealth for all the stakeholders. This requires that the CEO is equi-positioned and equi-distanced with all business units, functions and regions, deciding on inter se priorities in an objective and clinical manner. This requires that the CEO is not seen as being close to either high-performing reports or protective of low-performing reports. Much as the CEO knows that today’s stars could turn into tomorrow’s laggards, and today’s losers could be transformed as tomorrow’s winners, the dynamics of organizational visibility makes the leader maintain an equidistant position within his or her leadership team.

The other cause of loneliness is the bet on the future of his organization that the CEO, and the CEO alone, can take. While there could be in the contemporary organizations a host of departments and consultants to analyze, chart and script future options, it is typically the CEO who needs to exercise his judgment based on intrinsic intuition, experience and expertise as well as extrinsic empathy, sensitivity and responsibility. The decisions a CEO takes are, therefore, not always the ones his leadership team appreciates, individually or collectively at times. This adds to loneliness at the top. Many times, it is assumed that the board of directors helps a CEO overcome the loneliness with its sage counsel and shared vision. While such a proposition is true, the very same considerations that influence the CEO to be equidistant with his team members typically also cause the boards to exercise independence and objectivity of equidistance and equal diversity.

Antidotes to loneliness

Contemporary management thought suggests several ways to reduce the loneliness at the top. Some of these could be options to convert the disadvantage of loneliness of the apex position into an advantage of organizational transformation. Probably, the first and foremost is the recommendation for a CEO to connect with other CEO peers and like-minded leaders through appropriate national or global business forums. Interaction in such forums not only leads to sharing of mutual knowledge but also enables benchmarking of his organization in a broader environment. In India, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) is a perfect forum for that. The second approach would be to build an aligned, trusted and trustworthy leadership team which not only assures him of collaboration but also inspires positivity across the organization. The third approach would be to connect and network with the corporation’s ecosystem as much as possible. Regardless of the functional or business specialization one comes from, the CEO could benefit from connecting with all the internal and external stakeholders, employees and customers being the primary respective ones periodically. Annual dealer conferences, supplier meets and employee get-togethers could be a great way to accomplish that. I had, in recent times, at firsthand, a remarkable example of a global leader spreading positive vibes and boundless energy across the organization through networking by various means. The same leader demonstrates how nurturing and leveraging the charismatic side of one’s leadership personality could eliminate loneliness not only at the top but across the entire employee team.

Notwithstanding the equidistance characteristics of the Board of Directors, the Board could be a great instrument of togetherness for a CEO. The value the Board brings as a springboard to support the CEO passions and to evaluate the strategic options developed by the CEO could be immense. By building a Board whose members represent multi- industry, multi-regional and multi-cultural expertise, and engaging the Board in formal and informal meetings beyond the needs and requirements of corporate law and governance, the CEO would be able to fend off the top level loneliness syndrome. Some literature also suggests having an industry veteran, management guru or leadership philosopher as a coach or mentor, especially for the first-time CEOs, entrepreneurial CEOs who grew their organizations rapidly and to CEOs who are required to take complex and painful decisions. The later class of coaches also help the leaders overcome their frailties if any, resolve the conflicts that are inevitable and explore the latent strengths for the common good. Balancing professional and personal life as well as harmonizing business and social responsibilities are two other powerful ways to reduce, if not eliminate, the top level loneliness.

Success mantra

Apex leadership has in its control, by and large, the greatest antidote to loneliness. Success of the corporation or the entity the CEO heads, or articulating the pathway to success, is the most effective way to inspire, and interact with, the larger organization. Great leaders who prime success are unlikely to be lonely as they share their success with the teams and followers. Great leaders also do successful things with, rather than without, the followers; they typically invite and motivate, rather than force and control the teams on the journey - as a result they are unlikely to be lonely. Great leaders grow the businesses continuously with their reports, ensuring that there is always room at the top for capable and successful potential leaders. Great leaders also do not let success become the barrier between them and the broader organization; they are always humble and curious, and continuously find ways and means to stay connected and inspire as well as get inspired by the rest of the organization. And finally -this is the most difficult part - great leaders display focus and courage unequivocally and take gutsy but calculated risks for their organizations and own up for the executing teams, while ensuring high level of competency and commitment in the organization.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on July 29, 2012

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