Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Hare as a Tortoise: A Leadership Sine Qua Non, Not an Oxymoron

Nature, in its broadest sweep, and Life, in its microcosmic splendor, are two of the most powerful and amazing creations of God. The human race has distinguished itself in this creative canvas as the one driven by its ability to think, analyze and execute, in summary developing itself and the society continuously. Long before management and leadership became domains of learning, human beings intrinsically and intuitively became self-driven in the game of positive evolution, going beyond (probably not completely though) the Darwinian thesis of the Survival of the Fittest. Arts, Science and Technology have been the first domains of organized knowledge building while Management and Leadership have been more recent additions, all of them making the human race a differentiated species. The domain of Arts remains as the eternal aesthetic aspect of knowledge while science and technology are the two unstoppable drivers of socio-economic development. Management and leadership, in contrast, have emerged as stylistic rather than substantial domains.    

It is typical that science and technology are experimentally learnt, and management and leadership are experientially learnt. Life and nature have been the greatest models of learning and development as well as challenge and opportunity for science and technology. Whether it is the airplane that mimicked the bird or the robot that mimics the human being and whether it is synthetic life or artificial intelligence, products of science and technology are invariably developed by emulating life. In contrast, management and leadership seem to learn or unlearn little from the nature and biological forms of life, save some references to the cheetahs for competitive spirit, and ostriches for needing to be open. Interestingly, the ancient Indian wisdom has Panchatatra that teaches several lessons of management and leadership through tales of the animal kingdom. This blog post considers one of the most interesting parables of all times, the hare and tortoise story (of ‘slow and steady winning the race’) to develop some contemporaneous management and leadership insights.
Fast, smart or wise?
In the increasingly competitive world, speed and “time to…” are considered the critical facets of competitive advantage. Successful industrialists who build new generation brands, firms and conglomerates in short frames of time, encourage the thesis that time is the most important resource, even compared to costs; the thesis implies that cost overruns could be recovered but time overruns would never be. Fast growth usually focuses on only one dimension of growth, for example revenues, market share or profit. Unidirectional fast growth does more harm than good in the long run. Fast growth often entails saturated deployment of resources which could be questionable in the long run. Smart growth attempts more balanced growth, for example revenues with profitability or market share with profit share. Smart growth, in contrasts, often entails judicious deployment of resources, including integration of differentiated and niche strategies within mass generic strategies. Smart growth impresses with intellectual prowess and commercial cleverness.
Wise growth, on the other hand, focuses on sustainability while leveraging smartness. Leaders who believe in wise growth consider the race for competitiveness as a marathon rather than as a sprint. Wise leaders are sensitive to the environment and society as much as to their teams and themselves. They have a balanced view of all things that are relevant and appropriate; science and technology with management and leadership, the past with the future, entity performance with social good. They are able to integrate values and ethics seamlessly with commercial considerations and appreciate the subtle as opposed to gross; for example, differentiate between equity and equality. Typically, wise growth involves moving to, rather than jumping to conclusions. This is dependent on introspection and reflection as a trait as much as conceptualization and analysis.
The proverbial hare and tortoise story has relevance in these three shades of growth. Managers and leaders who drive growth, often reckless, are like hares who push themselves, and their firms, into unacceptable positions. Managers and leaders who constantly look for niche and expertise are like tortoises that are dependent on bumbling hares or others’ harebrained ideas; their success tends to be based on relativity of smartness. Managers and leaders who ensure sustainability in their firms, in every dimension of their performance, are like hares which act as tortoises, combining speed with sensitivity and fastness with smartness; they tend to be wise leaders. Hares and tortoises have certain characteristics that make them what they are; a corporate hare and tortoise analogy requires a combination of the characteristics of hares and tortoises.             
Hares and tortoises

Hares are adorable little animals of the animal world. Hares are similar to their cousins the rabbits, but carry several important differences. While rabbits dig burrows, hares do not, living instead on the open ground. This is reflected in their stronger build, as running from predators is their only way to safety. They can approach speeds of over 70 kmph for short bursts, significantly faster than most other animals. Hares have strong hind legs which support such bursts of high speed. Another characteristic feature is the largeness of the hare's ears which help the hare hear or sense a predator coming from a mile away. This enables the hares, which are vulnerable, to survive the dangerous competitiveness of the animal world by darting away. Hares with their irrepressible impatience and instinctive speed are quintessential representatives of certain entrepreneurial, managerial and leadership behaviors.
The tortoises, in contrast, are the antithesis of the anticipated managerial behavior. They are rugged, slow and somewhat uncouth. They are, however, blessed with the hardest protective shell and have the ability to hide their vulnerable limbs within its protective shell when danger is sensed. Some biologists hypothesize that slow lives lead to long lives as exemplified by tortoises. Turtles and tortoises are considered harbingers of good luck. The hare and tortoise story imbues certain wisdom to the tortoise of making steady but slow progress to the winning post in contrast to the hare which sprinted off to a great start only to doze off with a false sense of invincibility vis-à-vis the slow tortoise. In today’s world of hyper-competition, hyper-fast harebrained strategizing and execution may act counter to right timing and right scoping while tortoise-like super-slow approach may be equally unhelpful.
Hare as tortoise
For the corporate world, the story of hare and tortoise can only be a simile and not a model. A firm, to be a wise firm (and a manager or a leader to be a wise one) needs to be able to combine the virtues of hare and tortoise and eschew their weaknesses.  Like a hare, a firm needs to be fast and nimble but cannot afford to be harebrained and complacent. Like a tortoise, a firm needs to be slow and steady but cannot afford to be shell-shocked and cocooned in the face of competition. A hare can modify its emotional behavior to that of a tortoise but a tortoise would find it difficult to be physically capable as a hare. A combination that has the physical prowess and agility of a hare (with none of its randomness) and the emotional steadiness of a tortoise (with little of its laziness) could be a wise combination.  
Wisdom in a corporate sense is difficult but not impossible to define and practice. The famous philosopher Aristotle called wisdom the master virtue. He defined it as ‘figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person at a particular time’. The Bhagavad Gita, India’s Hindu religious theological treatise, says that wise leaders understand how to balance the extremes and act from a state of equanimity. The Gita also imbues wisdom to tortoise saying ‘just as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw their senses in at will’. Wisdom requires a firm and a leader to be smart on five dimensions in which its organization is anchored. These are people, function, region, product and business. A wise leader is people-smart, function-smart, region-smart, product-smart and business-smart. These five dimensions of smartness cannot be delegated to other leaders; instead they must be an integral part of wise leadership.
‘Hartoise’, a professional sine qua non    
It may be an oxymoron to say that hare and tortoise can coexist as one being. However, from a professional viewpoint, the good points of both the animals need to be assimilated and the unhelpful points eschewed as part of wise leadership. As a hare, a leader or a firm needs to be fast, nimble and quick on the uptake. At the same time, unlike a hare, they can ill afford to be harebrained and random. As a tortoise, a leader or a firm needs to be shock-proof and competition-proof. At the same time, unlike a tortoise, they can ill afford to be withdrawn and meditative when action is required.  Like hare and tortoise, the leader and the firm need to be alert to predatory competition but unlike a hare they should not be running away from competition; rather like a tortoise, they should be having a protective shell against competition. The protective shell is typically made up of perfection in products and processes as much as in people and culture.
Planning in a slow and steady fashion like a tortoise, and executing on a predetermined path like a hare could be a wise characteristic of a 'hartoise'. Reflection on every situation, inflexion at every challenge and acceleration at every opportunity helps leaders and firms to be fast, smart and wise in the totality. The foundation for wise leadership is contextual sensitivity. It appreciates that fastness and smartness have their utility but also have their limits too. Understanding, reflecting and leveraging on the challenges and opportunities that people, functions, regions, products and businesses offer and responding appropriately either as a hare with speed and focus, or as a tortoise with poise and smartness would be a touchstone of wise leadership. Fast and smart or slow and steady as required would be the right ‘hare as tortoise’ analogy for leaders and firms targeting sustainable success.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on January 5, 2014       

1 comment:

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