Creating leadership at every level

Updated: Feb 26 2005, 05:30am hrs
Mention the word leadership and Jamshedji Tata, Soichiro Honda, Matushista, Jack Welch and Alfred Sloan spring to mind. Western management literature has entrenched an association of leadership surely with larger than life charismatic leader. Deeper analysis reveals a more modern and balanced understanding of the fundamental and core contituents of leadership that their personalities cloaked. Increasingly, leadership is seen as a three-pronged, situational or contextual variable. It is much dependent on the nature of the people being led, their culture, background and expectations as on the task or situation at hand and the leader as a person.

Driving home this point Prof Brockbank of Michigan Business School often presents contrasting excerpts from the film Patton along with those from an equally famous film Gandhi to show how both were great leaders, but in completely different contexts, and styles for different situations. It is also more relevant today to view leadership as a set of skills and functions executed skilfully and not only as a set of personality traits.

My comments today on Creating Leadership at Every Level are based on my experiences as an owner-manager, born in a family of entrepreneurs and entrusted with businesses in which certain deeply held values are embedded.

True customer focus
Fifty years after Peter Drucker expounded it people have begun to accept the precept that the fundamental reason for existence of a business is to create a satisfied customer. This is not empty management rhetoric. It is very clear today that whether you are an R&D manager or production engineer or in design, advertising or sales, any manager or frontline executive worth his salt must understand the business holistically and demonstrate leadership based on this understanding.

Let us take a look at the changing role and profile of middle management. Traditionally, middle management viewed information as a source of power and with the advent of the information technology era, it was felt that their power in the organisation would reduce signficantly. However, accepting the central precept that serving the customer is indeed the very purpose of the organisation, we see that middle managements role has transformed from one, where working in silos was the norm, to one in which they have to use cross-functional management and task forcing as a means of extending their influence to deliver business results. This dramatically changes the skill set required. Hierarchical managers have to give way to a new generation of influencers who use their holistic understanding of the business and their deep understanding of human behaviour and command of interpersonal skills in order to be successful leaders.

Successful middle managers, therefore, need to be true leaders incorporating in themselves a strong general management perspective. It follows then that the cross-functional and general management perspective of a business is a survival need. Thinking within narrow specialisation can slow you down. It can take you in the wrong direction. It cuts down the communication with the customer, and most importantly, comes in the way of your listening to the voice of the market. Thus, the general management perspective across the functions and at different levels of the organisation is the first requirement in creating a robust competitive organisation which by definition is able to respond at all levels of the organisation to the customer. And is connected 360 degrees to the customer. Asia is changing the business landscape of the world.

Living examples
Aggressive, bold innovative competition and new models are threatening traditional responses, rapidly changing customer expectations and necessitating agility of response in a magnitude hitherto not witnessed in India. This demands a response from frontline managers to act and behave like owners. By deduction every level of leadership needs to behave like owner. The term ownership deserves some elaboration. Ownership is not a matter of employees owning stock in the company. It is all about treating every customer as your own customer and not that of the sales department or the dealer alone.

Jan Carlson of Scandinavian Airlines begins his book on Moments of Truth with a story of how the front desk person in a hotel rushed a ticket left behind in the room to a guest, who had already reached the airport before discovering the oversight. The employee had taken it upon himself to decide and sent a car to the guest promptly. No delay. No fuss about referring to boss for approval. Delighting the customerprobably retaining his customer for ever in the process was the sole aim.

Southwest Airlines has stood out as a unique example of a low-cost business model with a work culture deeply infused with ownership. Everyone including the pilot pitches in and helps at checking in or on board if it would help maintain their remarkable record of lowest turnaround time and high on-time departures.

People development
Besides a general management perspective and a sense of ownership at all levels, the third element or orientation of leadership is a people development perspective. For leadership at all levels, each one needs to think and act strategically and innovatively in alignment with the companys direction and do all this with a sense that the customer is the ultimate boss. Managers must focus not so much on developing a personal style or charisma but on setting an example by practise of values, and by becoming role models so that others can act without fear. A shared purpose, along with frequent and consistent communication, is the bedrock upon which effective leadership rests.

Leadership thus dispersed and internalised as a wide sense of ownership is what I would like to call embedded leadership. While achieving this is a long, hard climb, when such a team does work together, the efforts are palpable. Consider the remarkable saga of Australian cricket, which seems to suffer no reverses due to the retirement of their top most players. There is a sense of continuous direction and a natural process of developing understudies and succession planning. No one is indispensable. The team can still go on and win. Of such stuff are robust teams made. And in such teams or organisations, leadership is deeply and widely embedded at several levels of the organisation.

Such embedded leadership comprising a general management perspective and sense of ownership at all levels combined with an organisational culture that puts people and competency development at the forefront is still very much an ideal and a dream.

How does one start
One thing seems fairly certain. A company of too many sharp, aggressive, ambitious, and self-seeking people would find it difficult to get this spirit. They would be loath to submerge their egos in or under the larger interests of the corporate body. Nor can you simply recruit your way towards a solution. Bringing a whole new team in is not the answer. In my view at least three out of the four amongst the key roles and positions must be filled by home-grown managers. Only they will have the tacit knowledge and the shared purpose and culture needed to maintain continuitywhile the other quarter of the population must indeed be from outside, in order to give the organisation a much-needed diversity and richness. Empowerment is not merely giving power by delegation to different levels of the organisation but is ensuring the people in place are equipped to discharge their responsibility well. Empowerment encompasses both delegation and competency development.

Extracts from a lecture at AIMA when Venu Srinivasan received the JRD Tata Corporate Leadership Award