What They Don't Teach at the B-Schools about Leadership!

Date:   Thursday , December 09, 2010

Jim Collins, co-author of "Good to Great" and a few more best-selling books said:"at this moment, leadership has replaced God in filling our gap in understanding!" Nothing can be closer to the truth than this statement.

Despite decades of research into this exciting subject of leadership, there still remain more questions than answers. B-Schools syllabi on the subject of leadership have not changed for a few decades now. It is the same old stuff – nature or nurture, situational or dominant, democratic or autocratic and so on and so forth. Not that all this is outright irrelevant, just that most of these models and frameworks seek to put the leaders and leadership on a high pedestal.

In the knowledge era in which we live, leadership requires to be deglamourized. Leadership therefore becomes a quality that is in every knowledge worker. Such a belief and behaviors that follow ensure that organizations potentially have leadership in abundance. Great companies have recognized this and transformed themselves into becoming leaderful organizations! Conventional belief that the tasks of leadership is to establish a vision, enroll people of an organization in it, and hold them accountable through measurements and rewards seems no longer valid. Such a belief that reinforces the notion of leaders as an elite group, singularly capable of determining what is good and what is not does not seem to fit the belief of the human capital era which seeks to reinforce that everyone has peak performance potential and is capable of realizing the same under appropriate and nurturing circumstances.

Leaders or Managers: Yet another absurdity of understanding revolves around raging debates as to whether organizations need leaders or managers. In discussing so, one tends to put leaders on a high pedestal and look down upon managers. John Gardener, one of most revered and referenced gurus on the subject of leadership has the following to say: "many writers on leadership distinguish between leaders and managers. In the process, leaders generally end up looking like a cross between Napoleon and the piped-piper, and managers like unimaginative clods! I am beginning to believe this is not true."

Leadership fundamentals: If we agree with the foregoing perspective about leaders and leadership, then the focus must shift to certain leadership fundamentals. A suggested list of these fundamentals is briefly presented below:
Those aspiring to be leaders must continuously increase their self-awareness. This includes reflecting and asking a few important questions such as advised by Leadership Guru, Warren Bennis of Marshall School of Business: (a) Do I really want to lead? And am I willing to make the sacrifices leaders must make? Prof Bennis is of the view that “there is really no difference between being an effective leader and becoming a fully integrated person.”

Self awareness is key, but personal conviction is a must for value-based leading. Emory University recently revamped their leadership program based on a set of seven core values: courage, integrity, accountability, rigour, diversity, team and community.

Creativity including an ability to think on the feet is yet another critical fundamental for successful leadership. Leadership challenges are very unique and diverse. Therefore the ability to search for an answer to the question: here I am and what do I do now becomes very important.

Drawing on the internal capacity to inspire oneself and others is critical to success as leaders. When you look at leaders who have made a difference, they have all tapped into this energy, for without inspiring oneself, one can hardly inspire one’s colleagues! The precise challenge in organizations today is that we are asking managers to engage their teams without ensuring that these managers themselves are engaged.

Enough and more has been written about the ability to listen, but as with most leadership fundamentals, it has remained more discussed than done. I still remember what our professor taught us 25 years ago: “waiting to talk is not listening.” And precisely that is what most of us do when someone is saying something to seek our attention and understanding!

Ability to reflect on experience on an ongoing basis is yet another attribute of those successful in leading others. Hectic schedules and jumping from one activity to another represents the maddening pace of the world of work in which most us spin our lives!

Leadership is the Hardest Soft skill: Leadership void in organizations is becoming more and more evident today, increase in leadership development programs notwithstanding. Canned programs, packaged in jazzy power points, delivered by trained trainers have at best turned out to be an entertainment. Character has to be at the centre of leadership building. Without this focus coming through, any amount of skill building will only deliver a leadership bench that falls short of what organizations need today. We are living in what may be increasingly characterized as times of raplexity- a coinage that represents rapid complexity. This calls for leadership caliber of different intensity and intent.

We can glean lessons from Boston Philharmonic Orchestra’s conductor, Ben Zander whose master class on leadership focuses on certain refreshingly new ideas: Stepping into the world of possibility, leading from any chair, giving everyone an A, being a contribution and stop taking ourselves too seriously (Rule No 6!) and some more. There lies our answer to understanding the ever-expanding enigma of leadership and embracing the most promising fundamentals discussed above.