Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Reverse Leadership: Forward Initiative

Leadership is often seen to be synonymous with top positions in an organization. The reasons are not far to seek. Incumbents of top positions would typically possess high competencies honed out of academic studies and practical experience. This would lend maturity and ability to steer the complex affairs of an organization. This conventional paradigm has some challenges in a world where young talent is competent and competitive and is more desirous than ever to climb higher echelons of an organization earlier than the previous generations hoped to. Many organizations do try to provide fast track opportunities to promising youngsters through faster job rotation and independent projects. Despite this variation, leadership is still held synonymous with a position one occupies, the only difference being age is perhaps less of a determining factor.
The fast track paradigm while apparently seeming to find a solution actually ends up leading to additional problems. Comparisons between composed, competent mature leaders and aggressive, talented young leaders apart, the paradigm barely covers a score of young performers at best. Performance tends to be driven by visible metrics and fierce individualism. Eventually, most fast track performers find themselves slowing down at some point of time or other based on demand and supply of talent. Virtuous organizations clearly need a more broad-based leadership canvas to be distinguished on a sustainable basis from others. Many experts, accordingly, refer to the concept of grassroots leadership but this also has its limitations.
Grassroots leadership
Grassroots leadership refers to a concept whereby leadership, as defined by the ability to lead and make things happen, occurs on a universal basis across the bottom of the organizational pyramid. Literally, it would extend to the multiple layers of the organizational pyramid. Exciting and impressive the concept may sound, it tends to remain largely utopian. The reasons often relate to the fact that in most cases focused execution tends to be the need of the hour at the operating levels. In addition, leadership requires space to create and innovate for individuals, which obviously cannot be universally made available. Moreover, most organizational processes are repetitive, requiring standardization and perseverance than versatility and promptitude. There is, however, one or two domains that could enable, or even require, grassroots leadership. Selling in the field is a clear example of grassroots leadership. 
A retail sales person or a field sales person typically serves as a microcosm of the company’s capabilities in its products and services as well as consumer need fulfillment. In a sense, he or she serves as the chief officer of the territory he or she serves. He or she is often expected to promote the products with feature selling, coordinate with multiple agencies to ensure stocks and payments, analyze and address competition, and in some cases take decisions on the spot. A field salesman could be the lowest in the hierarchy but could be expected to take leadership decisions of the highest order. Similarly, designers could be expected to be creative and resonant regardless of the level. These are, however, exceptions rather than the rule. In contrast to grassroots leadership, and in addition to its need in specific domains, reverse leadership is a paradigm of interest.
Reverse leadership  
Reverse leadership is considered to occur when so called ordinary employees or frontline managers, who are outside the leadership arena, demonstrate exceptional leadership in making things happen in the face of anticipated and unanticipated challenges. Reverse leadership provides solutions when apparently none exists. Reverse leadership often ends up providing sustainable solutions including tangibly better ways of performing corporate activities. A reverse leader is often a product of mentorship and typically emerges in an ecosystem that is willing to experiment rather than is terminally afraid of making mistakes. Reverse leadership, unlike grassroots leadership, can occur in any domain or department. Reverse leadership often also leads to visible improvement in the overall leadership strength of an organization.
There could be several examples of reverse leadership in day to day organizational life. In the movie industry, one has the examples of assistant directors coming up with astounding ways of taking certain scenes that defied the imagination of highly experienced senior directors. Cricket teams usually encounter situations where junior cricketers contribute innovative ideas of field formation in the face of opposing teams piling up runs relentlessly. A field salesman could come up with brilliant solution of off-label promotion of appropriate medicines. A designer may come up with redesign of components to reduce costs and weights and enhance strengths. A machine tool operator may come up with ideas to increase cutting speeds with tool feeds backed by novel rake angles. An accounting officer may come up with novel documentation system that cuts processing times and enhances archival capabilities.                                                                  
Characteristics of reverse leaders
Reverse leaders tend to have certain unique attributes that distinguish them from other employees. Fundamentally, they tend to be result oriented and creative process drivers. Observant always of the processes and products they own, they come up with lateral solutions to intriguing problems. Typically, they can operate under multiple constraints and yet provide optimal solutions. Such reverse leaders would require leaders in formal positions who understand the reverse leaders’ impatience and creativity in appropriate perspective, coaching and encouraging them appropriately. The unique approaches of reverse leaders are often borne out of their unique balancing of domain competencies with social skills. They have positive attitudes towards life in general.
Reverse leaders have a strong level of self-awareness which is accompanied by a strong sense of self-worth too. Their confidence, coupled with social skills, enables them to be non-egoistic but proud about their ability to drive a change. Their confidence often arises from a deep understanding of their core domain and their ability to contribute to the departmental and organizational competitiveness through such skills. As a result, when an organization is confronted by a problem, formal leaders and peers tend to look up to the reverse leaders for creative results. Reverse leaders display a high level of integrity and risk taking in their work, building trust and credibility in their competency and commitment.
Not surprisingly, reverse leaders carry out their assignments for the sheer pleasure of achieving results rather than for grandiose plans of creating fabulous careers. Typically, therefore, they are  seen to be transparent without any hidden agendas. As an extension, they also tend to be individual performers being content with the image of do-gooders. Much of their passion and dedication is driven by a motto of delighting the customers, whether internal or external. The satisfaction of changing the internal operating landscape through product and process improvements and influencing customer preferences through better product and service offerings tends to be of genuine fulfillment for them.
From reverse to formal leadership
Given the significant talent base, positive attitude set and selfless approach to performance, it is desirable that an organization nurtures an ecosystem that enables reverse leaders grow into formal leaders. This requires, at a simple level, coaching and mentoring by select formal leaders   to make the reverse leaders aware of the larger contributions they can make. At a more advanced level, they would need to acquire additional skills so that they can replicate their accomplishments on a wider scale. While certain reverse leaders would content to be individual contributors other reverse leaders would be willing to take on additional roles. Organizations which are able to recognize the different types of reverse leaders and recognize, develop, motivate and reward them would develop a solid and sustainable leadership base, and remain ahead of others.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on December 26, 2012                                                      


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