'Leadership is a choice, not a position; leadership is moral authority'

Written by Sukalp Sharma | Sukalp Sharma | Updated: Nov 22 2010, 03:59am hrs
He believes that the world is still struggling with a psychological recession, born out of the global economic slowdown. Some people and organisations are breaking through it and some never fell into it, but people are still trying to figure out whom to trust. And many leaders and organisations are trying to figure out how to best rebuild trust. This is a process and it will take some time, he says. Taking cue from the unpredictable times that the global economy witnessed recently, renowned author and self-help guru Stephen R Covey, along with Bob Whitman and Breck England, tell organisations across the globe on how to win the race in the mountains, or to make the best of challenging times in their latest book, Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times. In an e-mail interview with Sukalp Sharma, Covey talks at length about his four mantras of successslimming down to few key and simple goals, maintaining high levels of trust, doing more of what really matters, and transforming fear into engagement and productivity, and much more. Excerpts:

Though it has hurt many across the globe, what sort of learning potential does the economic downturn hold for the future of businesses globally

There are many lessons to learn if people will take them. We have to move away from the Industrial Age approach where people are controlled and managed and move towards the Knowledge Worker approach where people are treated as the organisations greatest assets. Simply, you manage things and you lead people. At the centre of all leadership is unleashing peoples potential, their talents, their minds and hearts towards a unified purpose. I have found that people want to make a difference; they want to make a contribution. If you treat people fairly and with respect, and empower them, they will offer their full talents, skills and creativity.

Equally important is restoring trust. There are two measures of trust: speed and cost. When trust goes up, costs go down and speed goes up. When trust goes down, costs go up and it slows everything down. Building and restoring trust takes both character and competence. You must have transparency, keep your commitments, extend trustand align systems, process and structures to support high-trust behaviours.

You have provided quite a few examples from the world of sports, like Tour De France and Formula One to explain your points. Was that a deliberate choice and if so, why

Those examples were not necessarily chosen because they were sports-oriented, but because of the powerful illustration of teamwork. Both of these examples really show the impact of what can happen when individuals in teams and in organisations create a disciplined way of approaching problems and opportunities. They were examples of following the principles that I outline in my book, Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times. For example, Tour de France teams that excel in tough terrain and conditions have developed the ability to execute with precision. In addition, they have high trust among team members and they focus on the most important things they can do for the greatest impactthey do more with less. Finally, winning teams have a high purpose, they have a sense of missionand that drives them to overcome very difficult challenges. In the mix of such teams or organisations, you will find incredible empowerment and this releases potential and creative energy of people.

In the four mantras that you list for companies to practice and implement to get expected results, excellent intra-organisational communication seems to be a critical necessity. How can organisations, especially those with hundreds and thousands of employees deal with the challenge of free-flowing communication within the organisation

Communication needs to be consistent, transparent and impactful. Technology facilitates wide distribution of communication and frequency. Organisational goals need to be clearly shared in a timely way with key stakeholders. These stakeholders, depending on their various roles, can take responsibility for communicating in smaller groups and allowing for real dialogue. The more you involve people, the more invested they become. Of course, this needs to be done in genuine ways and not through methods that people have come to mistrust. Equally important, it is important to have communication run not just top-down, but bottom-up or across the organisation.

You've written at length about the concept of moving the middle. Do you feel that times of crisis like a recession present golden opportunities to move the middle, so to say

For organisations that want to respond to the market and customer needs, they need to look at how they can best do that and cut out those things that dont serve those needs. This takes a very precise focus and saying no to things that dont really serve customer needs or what the customer values. Part of this ability to respond to the market means looking at your organisation to see how to move the middle, so they can do more with less.

In my book, I share some key ideas for moving the middle. Look for islands of excellence in your organisations to find out what they are doing right and how the organisation can learn from them. Its important to talk to teams and individualsthey know more about how to get things done better and faster, especially if they have direct contact with clients or customers. Enable performers who are excelling to mentor others and encourage higher performance.

Would you recommend this book even for personal success at the workplace, say in the case of a junior-level employee How would these principles work in the case of an individual

Leadership is a choice, not a position. Leadership is moral authority. By that definition, everyone in an organisation needs to know the principles in my book. They need to be able to act on them in their Circle of Influencethe things they have control and influence over. I recommend that departments and teams read Predictable Results in Unpredictable Times and determine how they will lead and produce results consistently. And as an individual, its important to know how you can uniquely serve the goals of your team, your department and your organisationhow to be solution-minded.

You mention The economic breakdown is about a breakdown in moral authority. With the worst in the economic slowdown said to be over, do you see the moral authority and trust being redeveloped across organisations globally, or are we making the same mistakes all over again

There is a slow emergence of moral authority. This is a process and it takes strong leadership throughout an organisation and empowering everyone in the organisation to have moral authority. Such organisations tend to be flat in structure and they align their systems, processes to match a culture of empowerment. Individuals, teams and especially bosses need to be accountable to each other with transparency. The days of letting the boss do all the thinking and decision-making are goneyou need your full workforce to think creatively and solve problems.

There are those who will repeat the same mistakes if they dont transform their thinking, their behaviours and anchor on principle-centred leadership. The business environment is very tough and its too easy to take short cuts. It takes discipline to have a foundation and stick to principlesin good times and bad times.

What particular lessons do you feel Indian organisations should learn from the downturn And on the flip-side, what can organisations in the West learn from Indian organisations

You need a culture of empowerment in organisations. Now more than ever, in our Knowledge Worker Age, people decide how much of themselves they want to give to their job. How much they give of themselves largely depends on the culture they work in. If they feel empowered to unleash their talents and potential, they will find ways to make their unique contribution. When treated fairly and with respect, they will bring out their creative energies and they will take initiative to creatively solve problems or create new opportunities. The key is to create cultural empowerment.

There is much to learn from India. I think there is a culture of excellenceof wanting to be the best and to be highly responsive to the needs of the market. Many firms have turned to India and markets are growing, even in an economic downturn. I personally have appreciated my visits to India and I marvel at the people and your accomplishments!

You have mentioned earlier that Mahatma Gandhi is one of your favourite leaders. Who else do you look up to for leadership inspiration

Another favourite leader of mine is Nelson Mandela. He got his moral authority in prison. I had the privilege of meeting him on one occasion. I asked him, How did you overcome your bitterness towards your jailers when they treated you with such indignity and torture He said he began to realise (that) they, too, were victims of the Apartheid Era. Thats why when he became the president of the new South Africa, he appointed Bishop Tutu as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (He did this) so that they could bring together the victims and the victimisers of the Apartheid Era, and they processed their experiences until they received reconciliation and forgiveness toward each other.

At Mandelas inauguration, on the left-hand side, in the front row, were his loved ones. On the right-hand side, in the front row, were his jailers. And President Mandela bowed to them and said, Good morning gentlemen. Then he had choirs sing the anthem of apartheid, South Africa and the anthem of the black resistance. In other words, rival, enemy anthems were sung by both the white and black South Africans alike. By doing so, President Mandela became a tremendous source of reconciliation and forgiveness. He truly is very inspiring. (His story) taught me that moral authority is really not based on position at all.

I also deeply admire psychologist and author Victor Frankl for his moral authority. I also had the privilege of meeting with him towards the end of his life.

The book talks strongly about winning the race in the mountains, but what does it take for an organisation to continue the winning run when it again hits the flat and easy plains

Never stop learning. Invest in your peoplethey are your single-greatest assets. Help them with training and development for continuous improvement. If you want to keep your competitive edge, you cannot sit on your laurels. Arnold Toynbee, the great historian, said it best: Nothing fails like success. When we have a challenge and the response is equal to the challenge, thats called success. But once we have a new challenge, the old, once successful response may no longer work. Thats why its called a failure. Ask yourself: is my response equal to the challenge Am I using an old (once successful) approach that doesnt work anymore