Lao Tze, the ancient Chinese philosopher gave a timeless definition of who constitutes a true leader. He quotes, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists and when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Ever since the dawn of civilization, the world was revolutionized by a few people who came from nowhere but invariably, great leaders of men, who could influence, inspire and most importantly empower people. The storms that buffet a 21st century business leader may be entirely different from the times of an Alexander the Great, a Buddha, a Charlemagne, a Genghis Khan, a Lincoln, a Henry Ford or a Deng Xiao Ping. In an incredibly networked and interdependent world, currently reduced to a “global village” and a “global audience”, are the elements of leadership focus only on the timeless and immutable virtues or is there a contextual dimension to it, where effective leadership in 21st century also warrants adapting to a constantly changing world order? The following points examine key attributes, requisites and challenges of contemporary leadership.
Timeless vs Contextual Leadership Attributes:
“Know thyself”, exhorted Socrates to his followers, pupils and admirers of his dialectic method of inquiry into the truth of everything. Character and personality, integrity and ethics serve as corner stone and assume the timeless dimension to the making of any leader, whether business or politics. Open minded and conscientious people, emotionally attuned to taking charge become great leaders than less accommodating and cocooned ones, who will only have subordinates. In the corporate world, great leadership finds its expression in an ‘open door management policy’, that welcomes new and disruptive ideas, encouraging debate, brainstorming and promoting a constructive fight between management teams. An organization should be dynamic, brimming with zest, zeal and vigor and not merely reduced to a bunch of passive order takers in the command and control mode. Discipline, detail, analytics and facts, trusting people and earning their trust everyday are factors of a good leadership that don’t change with time.
A great leader is differentiated from mediocre managers by having followers who are inflamed by passion in their work. A leader creates a conducive atmosphere of camaraderie who believes in empowerment of his employees in their portfolio of tasks, thus bolstering creativity and innovation, resourcefulness and experimentation. In business dynamics, this timeless dimension of leadership qualities translate into clarity of vision that drives long term agenda, inspiration, a relentless focus on achievement and instilling a sense of mission. Thus, emotional quotient (EQ) supersedes or is equally critical as intellectual quotient (IQ) for the making of successful leaders.
Only when employees are treated as assets and not as bottom line costs, will an organization have delighted customers who will eventually become brand advocates of the company. A leader should not only possess customer and competitor insights but also foresight into how they will change their needs and strategies in the future. A leader should devote majority of his time leading his organization into the future through constant innovation and less of managing task oriented day-to-day operations.
Most jobs that are relevant today never existed before 50 years and therefore the skills required and the knowledge warranted to perform in highest level are contextual in scope. So are identifying areas of change, its organizational context and the timing of adoption, consensual decision making, agility in assimilating and processing information. In the 21st century, the pace of disruption is overwhelming accelerated by rapid technological innovations. A leader should therefore exhibit greater propensity for risk taking since he/she will have to often act with less than adequate information and answers at a faster pace, given the speed of change. For example, agile technology means agile management and a leader will have to put in place teams that are much leaner and fewer than a conventional team that required hundreds of people.
Managing Content and Explosion of Information:
If there is one singular attribute that marks a sharp point of departure from the way business was conducted 50 years ago, it is the inexorable explosion of information and incredible availability of content. A leader has to constantly learn, unlearn and have great ability to adapt and modify the excessive content that surround and confront him in everyday business. A leader is evaluated by the way he manages information and being productive, identifying patterns of change in the midst of short product life cycles and ever changing business dynamics, so that he is able to lead the organization to embrace the change. All great leaders were/are visionaries. Classic examples would be tech pioneers Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Andy Grove.
Bill Gates believed in the power of platforms and ecosystems rather than just products for long term market share and dominance, driven by an ambitious, overarching vision to place a PC on every desktop in the world! Steve Jobs was a patron of beautiful products and its seamless integration. He could take market/industry positions through his visionary intellect and design/technical ingenuity. CEO’s knew the utility of computers, the disseminating power of the internet and listened to music before Steve. But he was able to integrate these three diverse, seemingly exclusive platforms into a single iconic product, the iPod that has redefined the music industry ever since. Similarly, iPhone and MacBook revolutionized smart phones and portable laptop industry by their ingenious engineering, exquisite designs and seamless performances.
Andy Grove envisioned the end of vertically integrated computer industry and so focused on specializing in the core component of computing, the microprocessor. The “Intel Inside” marketing campaign was his brain child. The industry pundits, think tanks and doyens of advertising industry thought Grove was crazy. But his conviction, knowledge of future industry trends, astute analysis of changing business cycles revolutionized the semiconductor industry forever. He could conceive branding a product that no one has seen or understood its use into a cult entity, is a glowing testimony to his sheer brilliance and vision.
The 21st century leader should be humble enough to admit that he is not the only reservoir of ideas and knowledge. In an increasingly networked world, characterized by information explosion and digital dominance aided by the power of the internet and knowledge at ones fingertips, brainstorming, collaborations and participative decision making as well as an open door management policy is critical to success.
Many leaders fall into the classic mousetrap of success, who start humble, developing great listening skills and learning from people by virtue of an eclectic mindset and later become arrogant, developing a malign sense of infallibility, invulnerability and invincibility. They relapse into a straitjacket thinking, inflexible and non collaborative, rarely questioning themselves, seldom showing willingness to learn and unlearn as they are wedded to their archaic strategy that once proved successful but no longer applicable in ever changing business environments.
A pioneering concept, a disruptive innovation, an avant-garde idea or an exclusive information that could revolutionize the industry and business, thus offering market-making advantages to the organization could come from a fresh recruit or a novice in a moffusil town in India or China as much as an industry veteran in New York or Silicon Valley or a wizard in London or Tokyo. The rise of platform businesses like Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Airbnb are classic cases of disruptive innovations that has redefined traditional brick-and-mortar businesses in transportation, retail and hospitality. Social Media companies like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn has revolutionized digital marketing, networking and instant communications giving mass media marketing and advertising agencies, recruitment consultants and telecommunications providers a run for their money. The impact of these technology companies on prices, revenues and profits of the asset-heavy, over leveraged conventional businesses is substantial.
Success, more often than failure is the greatest test of character of a leader. The leader cannot command until he learns to obey. The leader ceases to be one until he has love of his people- employees, customers and partners. A leader is committed on creating, developing and maintaining long term profitable client relationships, nurturing key stakeholders and therefore values relationships over transactions. He perceives every business relationship from a lifetime value perspective. The true leader believes passionately that his true purpose is to create new leaders and is best summarized in the words of the great revolutionary Che Guevara, “The best form of saying is being”.
About the author : Jaykhosh Chidambaran is an accomplished management professional with over 20 years of diverse industry experience in MNC’s and is currently an EdTech Growth and Strategy Consultant for India & Middle East. He is an alumnus of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of TAS and TAS does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.