It is important to mention right at the beginning that this discussion is primarily focused on the ‘leadership’ in the context of business organizations. However, an inevitable reliance is also placed on references outside the business organization paradigms, where necessary.
It’s a shame that the word 'leadership' has become a cliché! Everyone wants to at least offer an opinion (even if not write/talk about it) on the subject! Theories have been written and debunked around the subject. And prolific quotations are available (and increasing) from millions of people, drawn from all possible fields and parts of the globe.
I still think that the last word on the subject has yet not been written. I also think that given the ever changing situation around the world, that last word may never be written, after all!
So, what is this ever changing situation? And why is it so germane to the subject of leadership?
It is not my case that there aren’t many solid eternal qualities that define great leaders e.g. ability to empower teams, execution capabilities, drive for innovation, courage of conviction and as one can imagine, there are many such time tested characteristics that can be listed here. However, the important point that often gets missed out is that leadership is not about possessing and all the time merely honing these attributes. It is, in fact, more to do with the leader’s judgment about understanding which skill to use in which situation. Let’s take an example: The world recently saw (and the situation even today is far from normal) an unprecedented economic slow-down. Many corporations lost their original identity as an inevitable consequence of this economic depression, while some others have so far managed to keep themselves afloat. We have still not seen any major examples of organizations leveraging this crisis as an opportunity to fundamentally change their business model that could potentially insulate them from any future downturns. When we start seeing powerful examples of corporations coming out as victors from the current crisis, it will certainly be largely attributable to the leadership effort. It will be clear only at that point as to what really worked! So, the lesson here seems to be that what sets apart a good leader from the average one is the leader’s ability to apply right skills to the right situation.
Now to the other important point that is also often neglected while understanding the concept of leadership and that is ‘inclusiveness’ or ‘respecting diversity.’ An example here will make this point amply clear: Take a case of any successful global corporation and pick-up the top 5% of its global leaders and you will invariably find that their individual leadership strengths are very unique to each one of them. Highly successful CEOs allow such uniqueness of qualities to flourish amongst their top leaders such that the collective organizational leadership style becomes a fine amalgam of each leader’s unique style and not a perpetuation of the CEO’s own preferred style.
And lastly, my most favourite one. Leadership within a business organization can’t survive, sustain and grow without its harmonious linkages with the social milieu within which that business organization operates. Again here, an example will be in order. For a country/society where democratic processes are well established, an organizational leadership style that is democratic will yield a lot of favourable results, however, in a hierarchically arranged society/culture if an organizational leader tries to inculcate a class-neutral (or egalitarian) style, it will not work. Isn’t it a fact that after putting in place very flat (modeled on western ways) organizational structures within the India arms of the global organizations; we have ultimately found our own ingenious ways of inserting sub-layers within the overall broad-banded org structures? And we did that for a purpose, right?
So, leadership is not about what common attributes the leaders should possess, but it is about what works—culturally, situationally and indeed dynamically!
My stray thoughts to begin the New Year!