In Chennai, on March 2, 2014, the popular new-age leadership guru and executive coach, Robin Sharma led a leadership coaching session titled “Leading without Titles”. The program was reportedly a sellout. Given the obsession of organizations as well as individuals with titles, one would think that there could not be a more apt program for the times that are we in. The historical evolution of the modern organization has verily been accompanied by an increasing engagement on the importance of organizational structures and the accompanying titles. This, by no means, is confined to corporate organizations; the Dictatorial State as well as the Democratic State and the Mutt of the Hinduism as well as the Church of the Western Christianity all have their own structures and titles. In fact, any organization that has more than one person faces the practical and legal requirements of organizational structure and title.
According to Robin Sharma, in many ways, the whole idea behind Leading Without a Title is the democratization of leadership. Robin acknowledges that positions are important to the smooth running of any organization (whether that organization is a business or a community or a family). Having said that, he proposes that the new model of leadership is all about every single stakeholder showing leadership in the work he or she does. As per his model of distributed leadership every single person owns the responsibility of showing leadership at his or her craft. Every single teammate is the CEO of his or her own small business unit called job. Traditional organizational experts referred to grassroots leadership but clearly Robin gave the concept deft posturing. All this is easier said than achieved, though. For example, in a true leadership program on being led without titles, Robin would have been one among equals, at least by the end of his conference; but not unnaturally, I am told, he continued to be the leader!
Robin Sharma, in his popular work “The Leader Who Had No Title: A Modern Fable on Real Success” postulates that in business and in life, anyone can be a leader. According to him, too many people go to work with the mindset that to be a leader they need to work their way up the company ladder, get the title or position they seek, and then they can be leaders. This is the wrong approach, according to Sharma. The book is written in a business fable style with a story that is engaging. The leadership principles that emerge out of the narration make the book worth reading. Sharma proposes self-leadership as the foundation principle of his hypothesis. Anyone who understands the concept of self-leadership can lead regardless of his or her official title in an organization. According to Sharma, “leaders are those individuals who do the things that failures aren’t willing to do…; too many people pay the sad costs of mediocrity and forego the spectacular rewards of being a leader”.
In the story told by Robin Sharma, the main character (Blake) has conversations with four unorthodox leaders. Each of these individuals works in a position that — based on conventional wisdom — would not be considered a leadership position. Each conversation brings out key principles that can help “ordinary” people become true leaders: The first is that to lead without a title on has to be persistent and courageous. The second is that challenging times are opportunities to learn and transform. The third is that the deeper the relationships, the stronger the leadership. The fourth is that a great leader has to be fundamentally a great person. Robin Sharma proposes a repertoire of principles, tools and techniques to achieve that, which is probably his business of leadership development. Much of his leadership kit focuses on self-awareness and self-discipline. There is a strong oriental approach with Robin that emphasizes introspection as the foundation for development, which resonates strongly with this blog post.
Stature, the leadership driver
Stature is the importance and respect that a person has because of his or her ability and achievements. In social life, title follows achievement, and in some cases precedes it as well; but stature follows distinctive ethos and accomplishment. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was called Mahatma Gandhi as a result of his stature (Mahatma, in Sanskrit, denotes a person who is respected for his distinctive greatness). As a leader who won independence for India Mahatma Gandhi is called the Father of the Nation. Stature does not come easy; it involves several distinctive capabilities as Mahatma Gandhi’s life demonstrates. From a leadership perspective, how stature gets developed is more fully described in my blog post titled, “Mahatma Gandhi: Ten Leadership Lessons”, Strategy Musings, October 2, 2013 (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2013/10/mahatma-gandhi-ten-leadership-lessons.html). From a corporate organizational perspective, the concept of stature has certain implications.
Firstly, stature matters at all levels in an organization; from frontline executive to top level chief executive. Secondly, institutions and individuals reinforce each other’s status. Thirdly, stature inspires confidence, and motivates acceptance and/or followership. Fourthly, stature requires probity. Fifthly, stature is built on positive performance, and is lost on negative performance. A campus-fresh executive is judged by the status of the institution he or she hails from. At the same time, much as graduates are judged by the institutions, their performance in business or life adds stature to the institutions. IITs and IIMs are symbolic of the mutual stature building, with several top honchos getting early career traction due to the institutional stature and institutions gaining from the leadership achievements of their alumni. More recently, for example, Nadella’s elevation as the CEO of Microsoft added lustre to his alma mater, Manipal University. There is strong element of honesty and ethics in stature as much as, or even more than, performance.
From a logical perspective, statures and titles in an organization would need to be positively correlated. People of high stature should be occupying positions of high titles. As a corollary, people in high positions should be those with high stature. Simple as it may seem, the relationship between stature and title in an organization defies easy understanding. Not all persons of stature tend to be title seekers or position seekers; Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa, for example. In certain cases, positions may require acts not in consonance with the stature. In national governance, for example, one may need to act independent of a recognized stature to remain or manage affairs at the helm. In certain other cases, the higher titles may not match the preferences of the statured individuals. In academics, for example, the most accomplished or most statured professor may not accept the position of director of an institution due to a dislike for non-academic, administrative work.
The conundrum becomes a conflict when the ecosystems fail to recognize true stature, in terms of separating individual brilliance (or lack of it) from institutional brilliance (or lack of it) and bestow titles not commensurate with the statures. The conundrum becomes a conflict when the ecosystems confuse stature (or lack of it) with expertise (or lack of it), or vice versa. The conundrum becomes a self-limiting constraint when ecosystems are so constrained in culture, scale and scope that they cannot accommodate several individuals of stature. The conundrum becomes an intellectual riddle when ecosystems consider that stature implies statesmanship and wisdom while title requires go-getting and risk-taking performance. The stature-title conundrum in all such facets would look unmanageable when leadership is viewed as being all about getting results but would certainly be resolvable when leadership is viewed as being about building the stature of the institution as much as about accomplishing results.
Aligning stature and title
Clearly, every virtuous organization must aim to align and integrate stature and title. The Art of Living Foundation has the founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with the highest stature in the institution also being at the helm. In fact, it is interesting that organizations dedicated to philosophy, spirituality, religion or theology are able to achieve alignment and integration of stature and title. Other organizations seem to reconcile themselves to a perceived inability to align stature and title, and appear to resort to alternative structures to accommodate the perceived dichotomy between stature and title. The separation of an apolitical President position and a political Prime Minister position in national governance is an example. The separation of a “wise” Chairman position from a “smart” CEO position in corporate leadership or constitution of a board of directors made up of persons of stature for corporate governance are examples of such alternatives to align and integrate stature and title in commercial organizations.
Returning to the starting point of this blog post, it may be possible to lead without titles but it would be impossible to lead without stature. That is because leadership is about not only competencies to lead people, organizations and businesses for smart performance but also about stature to assure them for good governance. Under the model of distributed leadership or self-leadership, it would be necessary for individuals to acquire stature in their domains of work from the very early stage of their careers, and build on them progressively and consistently. Performance may be measured by metrics but stature can only be experienced. That certain firms, conglomerates and leaders have superior statures compared to others even with greater scale and scope is a fact that means accomplishment that captures the imagination and trust of a broad sweep of population, be it of organizations or societies. Despite all the challenges discussed herein, organizations in their quest for virtuosity must seek to align and integrate statures with titles.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on March 9, 2014