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Monday, January 31, 2011

Leadership — To be Felt; Not to be Seen

Organizations need people for what they can do for them and what they can mean to them. That need can be direct or indirect but one thing is certain: Organizations have no choice. In the normal course the higher the employee engagement, the better the organization’s performance.  There are six drivers of employee engagement: one, people—senior leadership, peers, culture and values; two, work—nature of work, motivation for work, and availability of resources; three, opportunities—scope for career progression, skill development via training and recognition; four, quality of life—balance afforded between work at organization and personal life; five, procedures—policies and procedures under HR; and six, compensation—benefits and rewards. It is these six drivers that influence people to engage, either positively or negatively, in work, which ultimately defines the return on investment. So, the question is what ensures heightened employees’ engagement and how is it accomplished? One obvious answer is ‘leadership’.

The moment we think of leadership what comes to our mind is ‘top-down’ leadership that is based on the myth of the triumphant individual. These leaders like the Welches, the Gateses have all become heroes. Our current thinking about leadership is so entwined with the notion of heroism that in the opinion of Warren Bennis, the distinction between “leader” and “hero” has almost become blurred. Today leadership is too often seen as an individual phenomenon. But in a shrinking world where technological and political complexity is increasing at an incredible pace, top-down leadership cannot suffice. However gifted the person at the top may be, the top-down leadership cannot all alone identify and solve the mounting problems nor can it build the many connections required to be made across the globe.

Leonard Bernstein once said, “The hardest instrument to play in a symphony orchestra is second fiddle”. It reveals that what is today needed in organizations is “great partnerships”— partnerships between employees and management where management has to play a “second fiddle”. It simply calls for collective engagement of all the employees. To cite an example: who built the varadhi—bridge to Lanka in Ramayana? Was it Rama – shouting commands, giving direction, inspiring the monkeys, leading the way and changing the paradigms? No, it was the monkey-force and their creative alliance with Rama’s need that built the varadhi across the ocean. So where does all this lead us? It tells us that nothing can be achieved by an organization “without the full inclusion, initiative and cooperation of followers”. It is through lifting others up that leaders find themselves lifted up i.e. their organizational objectives are achieved.

It is often said that Rama, unlike the many other kings of yore (why, even of today), is a Purva Bhashi i.e. it is king Rama who, unlike other kings first addresses his visiting subjects without waiting for subjects to address him. That is truly great of a leader. Rama is also described as: “Ramo Vigrahavan dharmaha”- Rama the embodiment of Dharma. He, as a king, meticulously practiced the essence of the saying from the Atharva Veda: “vacham vadata bhadriya” – words spoken should foster welfare. It commands that the communication of a leader should always be loaded with pleasant words leading to positive outcomes.

Being driven by the philosophy of ‘dharma’, Rama even sacrificed his life with Sita to carry out his duties as a king, believing that for a king what matters is his kingdom and its people. That is why it is said that it is not Rama, but the king of Ayodhya, who abandoned Sita in the interest of his kingdom. That is how Rama displayed leadership more by action than by exhortation. True to Kalidasa’s proclamation about leadership, Rama’s kingship made every one of his subjects think to himself: “I am the especial object of the Royal care”, for, like the ocean that receives without differentiation countless rivers, the king neglected the interests of none.

Rama ensured that his leadership was felt by his subjects and in turn commanded “people’s respect”, which is essential for any kingdom to be in peace. The quintessence of leadership is aptly captured in the Ramayana in the stanza: “Truth, justice, and nobility of rank are centered in the king; he is mother, father, benefactor of his subjects.” No one can deny that these observations are equally applicable to the modern day leaders too—for that matter, more intently than in the past.

Today organizations are slowly but surely evolving into federations, networks, clusters, etc., where the top-down leadership has simply become obsolete.  What leadership therefore should exhibit is “far more subtle and indirect form of influence” over the followers. They must learn to appreciate the intellectual power, capital, and human imagination since it has almost replaced the capital as the critical success factor in a globalized economy. The Tao tells us: “When people lack respect, trouble follows”. The only sure way for a leader to command respect from the work-force is to respect employees’ intellectual capital and values and align them with the goals of the organization. That is the only way by which leadership can create an impulse, an urge in others to do something, which the leader desires that they do. All this calls for a totally new set of skills that can make leadership effective without making a bizarre exhibition of it. 
 GRK Murty


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