Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Absolute Power of Relative Silence: A Simple Sensory Model of Connected Leadership

Leadership has attracted, and continues to attract, huge interest. Every time a leader speaks or acts, there are possibilities of a new “leadership” “thought” or “claim” emerging. When Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, addressed a letter to Microsoft a couple of days ago on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Microsoft (Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft on April 4, 1975), there were expectations of new leadership hints, bridging his past and current roles at Microsoft and the current and future roles at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, his current philanthropic preoccupation. Bill Gates, however, only made a succinct review of how he and Paul Allen started Microsoft with the initial bold goal of a computer on every desk and in every home and the role played by Microsoft in the revolutionary transformation of the computing scene over the last four decades (with its operating system). He also said that what matters most now is what Microsoft does next in terms of making the power of technology accessible to everyone, and every device.

There are instances like Microsoft (and Apple, Sony, Toyota, Ford, Infosys and several other corporations) where the growth of an idea from a small start-up to a large institution reflects leadership by and of its own. Importantly, in all such cases, the founders remain at the helm, at least till the firms reach their respective critical scale and scope. Thereafter, it is left to their scions or professionals to continue to steer the corporation in the manners they deem fit. In such cases, the styles tend to be differently effective despite varying leadership attributes but also take one of the three approaches: (i) be somewhat non-adaptive to the emerging environmental changes (as was the case with Steve Ballmer who succeeded Bill Gates), (ii) be proactively adaptive to craft a role in the changing environment (as seems to be the case with Satya Nadella who succeeded Steve Ballmer), or (iii) be creatively different in building on the legacy of the great founders (as seems to be the case with Tim Cook who succeed Steve Jobs, after his untimely demise).

Impatient, inaccurate

Clearly, growth of great institutions offers great leadership lessons. Academic leadership gurus, however, have their own leadership theories which are force-fitted on to existing visible institutional leadership successes. Such theories and models talk of leadership styles (participative, facilitative, authoritarian, transactional, transformative etc.,) and leadership competencies (visionary, strategic, interpersonal, communication, decision making, risk taking etc.,). There is no evidence of leaders during their active and transformational phases of their leadership roles taking time to sit with academic researchers to define their specific institutional leadership styles. While leaders like Jack Welsh may have been very articulate about their leadership styles while in harness, the motivations for that seem to be developing in terms of developing personalized leadership and mentoring businesses thereafter. Biographical studies also seem to be off mark in distilling and describing the true leadership styles.

Biographical renderings can provide valuable insights provided they are thoroughly researched by the biographer, deeply collaborated by the leader and his peers, and evidentially corroborated by events and developments. If not, they can be misleading and in the case of multiple biographies of the same leader even controversial and contradictory in parts. For example, the authorized version, titled ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson which was published in 2011, after Jobs’ demise is criticized by Apple executives as not being representative of Steve while the more recent follow-on unauthorized version, titled ‘Becoming Steve Jobs’ by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli published in 2015 won praise of Apple executives for being authentic. Amidst the impatience and inaccuracy, the opportunity for capturing helpful leadership insights and developing a leadership model based on proven institutional track record remains unfulfilled. Part of the reason could be because the deep leadership knowledge of a successful leader could be a source of competitive advantage of the firm, which cannot be disclosed prematurely. It could also be that true leaders recognize the collective institutional nature of leadership, and refrain from individualizing it to themselves.

Connected leadership
Leadership is all about staying connected - with all the stakeholders (employees, investors, vendors, governments, public included) and in multiple ways (physical, virtual, direct, diplomatic, objective, emotional, and so on). Being connected is an essential component of communication, collaboration, coaching and influencing. Different leaders have different ways of getting connected - from reaching out to getting reached out to. The different competencies that leaders possess enable them connect to their constituencies in different ways of such a connection spectrum. I have in an earlier blogpost titled “Five Great Indian Leaders: One Singular Leadership Ethic”, Strategy Musings, January 23, 2011 discussed how multifarious leadership competencies are fused under the quintessential Indian leadership model of intellect-driven work ethic ( Reviewing the blogpost again after a gap of four years and also studying further works on Indian and global leaders, I am of the view that staying connected is an important aspect of high calibre leadership.
Competencies play a major part in staying connected. Those leaders with high competencies, of which ability to stay humble is one, tend to reach out and be reached out to. In her convocation address at IIM Calcutta, Indra Nooyi, Chairperson of global food and beverage giant Pepsico attributed her being in the CEO position to being in a state of perpetual learning and to staying connected to her parental roots. She also advocated giving back to society even as one learns and earns. Giving back to stakeholders takes different forms depending on how close or distant they are to the leaders. Among all stakeholders, employees are the most important ones for leaders to connect with.  While there are different ways of connecting, including through platforms offered by communications specialists, the leadership connection especially to or with employees, occurs through day to day leadership interactions. While social and emotional connect is increasingly recognized as being as important as technical or professional connection, this blog post proposes a sensory connection platform to serve as a distinctive leadership model.
Sensory leadership model
For accomplished leaders, interpersonal connection in organizations, of which leadership connection is an important one, takes place through the six sensory functions of a human being, in a somewhat metaphorical sense. These are the six powers of sight, speech, hearing, smell, taste and touch by which a living being exchanges information with the world around. While these may not be applicable to life as a leader in an identical manner, they play a notable role with subtle variations of interpretation. The six point sensory postulates for a connected leadership model may be defined as below.
Look around but observe sharp
An ability to see is the most important human faculty even though the other sensory functions are also very important. For successful leaders, the ability to see is accompanied by a keenness to observe. Observation brings care and watchfulness to the rather normal ability to see. From the ability to read body language of others in meetings and interactions to the wisdom to sight a risk or an opportunity in the world, the power of observation can help make a leader truly perceptive. This is one of the founding planks of a leader’s ability to envision a new future state as well as improve the current state.  
Talk less but mean more 
Great leaders are effective communicators. Effective communication is not a function of the oratory level or time as is commonly understood; rather it is one that is thematic, purposeful and meaningful to the audience, and the task at hand. Effective communicators, over time, develop the ability to convey a message beyond what words may purport to. At one level, this is a function of the cumulative connect a leader has with the team; at another level it is also a function of the mastery over subject, the sincerity of purpose and the empathy with the audience that a leader demonstrates, almost as his or her second nature.
Hear well but listen intense
Everyone may have the ability to hear but only a few would have the habit of really listening. Hearing is the process of receiving sound through the ear. It could, at its worst, be just a mechanical process of interpreting vibrations of eardrum into sounds and words. Listening, on the other hand, is the process of hearing with care and a preparedness to register the message, and act on it after due processing. Listening is an interpersonal skill required for good communication and collaboration. At leadership level, where knowledge and experience as well as position and power result in a certain level of presumptuousness on the part of leaders, listening skills could make all the difference between an empathetic and responsive leader and an indifferent and desultory leader.   
Smell a whiff, ahead of the fragrance
Developments in the organization or in the environment are never definitive while in the making. Perceptive leaders are able to detect the early signs as they waft through. These could be as simple as internal employees gradually failing to greet each other in an organization or external agencies taking longer to appraise a project put forth by the organization. Successful leaders are adept at understanding the socio-economic changes before they become trends and then turn on into movements. This requires that leaders have good social sensitivity, emotional intelligence and economic aptitude, regardless of their functional specializations. Leaders in emerging technologies and businesses as also in cyclical businesses must have this early recognition faculty.
Taste the sample to savour the universe
An organizational ecosystem or an environmental envelope is a huge canvas which can never be tracked or understood in its entirety. The head of a conglomerate, or even a large specialized business, would not be able to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies until they are fully implemented; waiting until then would be too late. An ability to define meaningful pilot projects or undertake sampling dipsticks to assess likely total strategic effectiveness is an essential component of successful strategic implementations. Regional product launches, segmented change projects, specific leadership evaluations, and laboratory/field simulations are some of the methods to assess whether planned universal strategies would be actually successful.
Lead the mind but touch the heart
Organizations need logical and rational thoughts and actions to be effective. Leaders must develop plans and execute actions that stand the test of logic and rationality. In short, leaders must lead through mind. Yet, there are matters of organization where appeal to heart is equally essential. In aspects of business turnaround which call for sacrifices for better times, in matters of leadership transformations which disturb stable networks and in phases of start-up with natural uncertainty leaders need to appeal to the heart for teams to stay together and scale all difficulties. Teams in mountaineering and other expeditions overcome most challenging conditions through emotional bonding as much as through professional skill.
Relative silence, absolute power
Bill Gates has been relatively silent for over 7 years since he gave up formal executive leadership of Microsoft in 2008. Steve Ballmer, who succeeded him as the executive head, is known for his thumping leadership style. Satya Nadella, on the contrary, was not known to be anything other than a quiet protagonist of the cloud platform. Yet, a quiet Satya Nadella could seamlessly take over from a dramatic Steve Ballmer, and also steer a significant directional change. Bill Gates’ simple letter continues to have its solid impact. While leadership cannot be totally silent and uncommunicative, in most cases, rather than self-proclamations three aspects communicate leadership – firstly, results speak for themselves; secondly, institutions stand as expressive legacies; and thirdly, processes provide communicative continuums. Successful leaders, and even powerful leaders, tend to be relatively silent, rather than banal, about their leadership.
While relative silence, as an intriguing but appropriate leadership trait, has powerful value, the mystery of what real and practical leadership is all about needs to be decoded. This can happen only when leaders, at the peaks of their success as well as at the nadirs of their failure speak up openly, in dialogue with management experts, academic researchers and objective biographers, on the drivers of success and failure. Those who are reluctant to open up for reasons of either humility or competitive risk should keep making leadership notes on a periodic basis which can be opened up at appropriate times. Only then the disproportionate cacophony generated by limited leadership theories can be replaced by more meaningful, realistic and authentic leadership models. This blog post has discussed a model of connected sensory leadership where power flows from silence and simplicity, relatively speaking! More such theories can emerge from open and shared leadership notes.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on March 11, 2015   

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