Leadership is one subject which has spawned awe inspiring experiential and non-experiential theories. From clichés like “leaders are born and not made” to truisms like “leadership is the ability to transform”, the folklore of leadership is sprinkled with multiple hypotheses of fiction and fact. Leaders are expected to be charismatic and visionary, attributes which are not possessed by all but a few. As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, there are over hundred adjectives and phrases that are considered as leadership attributes. Leaders, in organizational setting, are seen and heard but not experienced as often as the common professional would hope for. As a result of the management literature that abounds on leadership and the distance that separates a leader from followers, there tends to be aura and mystique on what leaders and leadership represents.
In practical terms, however, leaders and leadership are less esoteric than they are made out to be. Leaders do not necessarily belong to an extra-terrestrial class with extra-sensory perceptions on future. Nor are they just competent professionals with added drive of aspiration, aggression and passion. Leadership is also not only about vision, strategy and execution in a transformational perspective. Practical leadership is also the art and science of achieving sustainable growth with profitability, reconciling, resolving and managing contradictory drivers of performance. Practical leadership is contextual, in terms of external and internal environment as well as external and internal stakeholders. Practical leadership involves making wise, even if seemingly inconsistent as viewed by others, choices between pairs of drivers of performance. A practical, successful leader does far more of elegant tightrope walking than dashing flying in the air. There exist five pairs of such challenging contradictions a successful leader manages which this blog post discusses. In the process though, a successful leader primarily holds a few parameters of leadership non-negotiable.
The five non-negotiable parameters of successful practical leadership are truly foundational ones: safety, quality, productivity, ethics and compliance. There can never be a compromise on the safety of business, operations, people and environment. Quality of products and processes is essential to serve the customers, markets, society and nations well. Productivity, whether in decision making or operational execution, is the sine qua non of competitive advantage. Ethics represent the super-ordinate values that govern the conduct of each and every member of the organization. Compliance reflects an unswerving commitment to follow all the laws and regulations of doing the business. Leadership, while endeavoring to manage contradictory performance drivers will need to be unflinching in respect of non-negotiable parameters. Given this foundational hypothesis, practical leadership is all about leading a way out of contradictions. This blog post postulates five pairs of such apparent leadership contradictions, covering a vast canvas of strategic and tactical leadership.
Empowerment versus control
The biggest leadership challenge a successful leader tackles is making and sustaining his entity entrepreneurial yet systematic; empowered yet accountable. Entrepreneurial and empowered cultures go hand in hand and are known to generate products and services of transformational nature. Equally, lack of systemic controls and sense of accountability also leads such ventures to near-terminal experiences. A highly systematized and stage-gated organization, in contrast, delivers consistent results but not transformational outcomes. Fusing empowerment with accountability is best achieved by creating business unit organizations, identifying single point business leadership, integrating all line and staff functions in the business unit and holding leadership accountable for growth with profitability.
Not many organizations are successful in achieving the above essentially because they are faced with a paucity of real business leaders as opposed to functional leaders who are much more easily found. Over time, the functional leaders who are unable to transform into business leaders develop a vested interest in keeping the organization functionally driven, rather than multiple business, product or service driven. Creation of business unit organizations must be seen as an essential step to develop top leadership bench that knows how to run a business rather than a function. Boards and Chairmen/CEOs have a special responsibility to develop business leaders out of functional leaders. Integration of empowerment and accountability would come naturally with such a business and leadership ecosystem.
Short term versus long term
A common fallacy is that leaders need to focus on the long term and the executives need to focus on the short term. While leaders certainly need to have the long term vision of how technologies and markets would shape up and how the organization could transform itself for the future, no leader can ignore the short term. Short term actions ensure revenues and profits that enable a company undertake futuristic initiatives. A leader’s dilemma is not whether he has to choose between the long term and the short term but to make them work together. The successful leader would need to approach this with two clear foci. Given that the long term is always fraught with uncertainty, his or her objective must be to minimize the margin for error and given that the short term is predictable, his or her objective must be to maximize the scope for success.
Leaders can achieve the above by concentrating on technological advantage for the long term and operational advantage for the short term. Success in the long term is derived by banking on the right technologies which create new markets with new products or services, and also deliver them effectively with efficient processes. Success in the short term is derived by ensuring high quality products consistently with as low operationally-efficient costs and as high market-acceptable prices as possible. This requires leaders to constantly bet on sunrise technologies and optimize mature technologies. Successful leaders will deploy sub-leaders who have the necessary depth in various aspects of science and technology as well as operations to integrate the short term and long term successfully without any conflict.Competing versus collaborating
Leaders by definition tend to have a strong competitive spirit. There are leaders who believe that in the businesses they operate in they must be the first or the second. Competitive spirit, if not moderated and titrated could drive leaders, especially those committed to keeping their businesses in top pecking order, to take actions that engulf their businesses and leaders in competitive actions which could destabilize the businesses and leaders. In growing or stalling companies, neither the success nor failure is singularly that of one leader but of the leadership team as a whole. A leadership team which competes for success is more likely to fail its organization while a leadership team which collaborates for success, or even in failures, is more likely to secure success for its organization.
Extending the theme to the external world, successful leaders must know the relative benefits and pitfalls of unmitigated external competition. As brought out in my earlier blog, collaboration can contemporaneously coexist with competition in the current industrial and business world. Successful leaders who understand the tightrope between collaboration and competition would be best positioned to take optimal decisions between integration and diversification, in-sourcing and out-sourcing, in-licensing and out-licensing, investment and divestment, and physical and Internet aspects of business. The ability to optimize investments and maximize returns would depend upon the ability to walk the tightrope between collaboration and competition.Kaizen versus Kaikaku
The other very important leadership choice is between kaizen and kaikaku. The more famous Japanese word kaizen means continuous improvement. Kaikaku, a less known Japanese word means radical change. Both the conceptual words have their origins in the famous Toyota Production System but have applications in areas beyond production. Leaders who come in to turn around adverse business situations or to drive supernormal growth or leaders who are steeped in aggressive leadership templates may be tempted to consider radical change in preference to continuous improvement. On the other hand, leaders who are at the helm of mature businesses and whose leadership templates are built around balanced scorecard of all aspects of business may be inclined to consider continuous improvement in preference to radical change.
The above kaizen-kaikaku choice is more of an opportunity than a challenge if the leader sees the short term as the arena for kaizen (or continuous improvement) and the long term as the canvas for kaikaku (or radical change). In fact, Toyota has demonstrated how it applies both kaizen and kaikaku to its leadership culture. If Toyota’s annual refreshes and periodical overhauls of its automobile models are a result of kaizen, its pioneering pursuit of automobiles with hybrid technologies, and diversification into robotics and intelligent homes is a reflection of kaikaku. Samsung is another group whose leadership culture demonstrates simultaneous application of both kaizen and kaikaku. Samsung applies both kaizen and kaikaku to foundational short term, reflecting a high degree of technological, operational and leadership strength while every kaikaku transformation is quickly followed up with several kaizen initiatives.
Speaking versus listening
Leaders are evangelists of what they ardently believe in. The famous Quality gurus Deming and Juran and the management gurus Drucker and Prahalad have been evangelists of what they believed in. Charismatic leaders are well positioned to be evangelists of change whether of kaizen and kaikaku mode. Without their passionate espousal of change organizations, whether they are moribund or vibrant, would find it difficult to be catalyzed into change. That said, continuous evangelism could be more mesmerizing than galvanizing for the rank and file. It often distances the leader from ground realities, and even makes the sub-leaders become mere followers rather than creative thinkers and doers on their own. It requires perfect focus and fit-as-glove dovetailing for only single minded evangelism to become an institutional strength.
In contrast, leadership which combines passionate advocacy with empathetic listening takes leadership to the next higher level. If Douglas McGregor’s Theory X is to be believed, and many virtuous corporations do, in fact, benefit from Theory X as a driver of positive corporate culture, grassroots leadership often lies innate in an organization at senior levels to express to, and develop with, charismatic and passionate leaders. Great organizations, therefore, resort to continuous leadership development in their own institutes to listen to and to coach future leaders. Great leaders not only coach and mentor employees, negotiate with vendors, and assure customers and investors but also are willing to listen to employees, customers, vendors, investors and various stakeholders so that their own passion and evangelism gets directed at real issues and succeeds in providing real, sustainable solutions.
When ends converge
As the foregoing illustrates, leadership is a synthesis of not only excellence but also a harmony of contrasts. Practical, successful leadership is built on solid foundations of five non-negotiable parameters of safety, quality, productivity, ethics and compliance, and achieving convergence between five important pairs of apparently contradictory but realistically synergistic options for leadership, these being empowerment and control, short term versus long term, competing versus collaborating, kaizen and kaikaku, and speaking versus listening. The result of this model of practical, sustainable leadership would surely be sustainable growth with profitability for the organization it leads. This elegant practical leadership model has the potential to generate sustainable wealth and value for the organizations, customers, markets, societies and nations.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on March 31, 2013.