In the age of information and digitisation, the paradigms that define a leader, the workforce and productivity stand altered and some vital requisites have particularly been added to the call of leadership.
The traditional ‘leader- follower’ equation or the ‘boss-subordinate’ relationship does not hold because the yardstick of leadership is not determined by the number of followers alone nor would a ‘boss’ command the respect even of the limited count of subordinates one had, unless he or she was also a ‘leader’.
Working online and from home, brings in a new challenge of oversight and control being exercised from a remote end and pushes to a new level the importance of the ’emotional intelligence’ of the leader – reputations could be made or marred by any perceptible ‘flaw’ in these spheres.
Equally important is the communication skill of the leader – the messaging has to have clarity, brevity and logical sequencing regardless of whether it was done verbally, telephonically or online.
The thought that all businesses or professional ventures are ‘human activity’, has been revalidated and the concept that the ‘individual was the centre of all productivity’ has been reinforced despite the rise of technology.
‘Smart’ working has received newfound importance since being smart means being able to produce more per unit of ‘resource’ – whether of money, manpower or machine – the exalted level of ‘competition’ in a fast-moving world, had made ‘time’ a new resource as well.
Performance evaluation and measure of ‘productivity’ were becoming relatively freer of how well you were ‘dressed for work’, bound by ‘office hours’ and placed in the vertical hierarchy of the organisation.
A leader today has to have a ‘comprehension’ far greater than what one could do in earlier times and has to be far more effective than before in a situation of operational ‘remoteness’ and reduced ‘visibility’ forced by digitisation. At least five prerequisites of leadership have to be met for the latter’s success.
The first is the ability to take knowledge-based decisions and to ensure that an unwarranted gap between ‘decision’ and ‘action’ did not result in failure of the project. With this goes the competence about initiating a mid-course correction should this become unavoidable in the interest of the mission.
A successful leader has to have flawless communication – verbal, audio based or digital – since inadequate or faulty communication from the top can be the cause of failure too.
A leader has to be a well-informed person – being well-informed means having the right information at the right time, having the information that made a difference between a decision and a ‘guess’ and accessing ‘complete looking’ information since ‘knowledge’ came in ‘integral packaging’ all components of which had to be understood.
As an illustration, the CEO whose organisation employed women workers must in addition to his professional ability to manage the business, know that an adequate system had to be in place to prevent and look into any case of harassment of a woman at the workplace, as required by law. A good leader realises that ‘though nobody knows everything, everybody knows something’ about how the business was doing and makes arrangements to garner this tacit knowledge available within the organisation. This helps the leader to remain well-informed.
Successful corporate bodies establish a well-funded ‘Intelligence and Analysis’ unit to systematically collate and analyse information about the external environment – besides the internal feedback – to help knowledge-based decision-making. This is also the reason why major players in a business participate in the intra-industry get-togethers and business conferences within the country and outside – this is an exercise to keep the leadership well-informed.
The second important trait of a successful leader is the capacity to ‘distinguish essentials from non-essentials’ or in other words to practice ‘effectiveness of differentiation’.
Pareto’s law famously said: “There are a significant few amongst the insignificant many”. A leader should be able to see the difference between a major problem and a minor irritant, between the ‘macro’ and the ‘micro’, between the long term and the short term, between the ‘journey’ and its destination and between the decision and its implementation.
Steve Jobs – founder of Apple – is said to have remarked: “Don’t let something that does not matter cause you to lose something that does”. Somewhere, the leader has to have the capacity to see things from their larger perspective – a bird’s eye view helps to realise how something that looked ‘big’ in proximity became small in a comparative showing. Also, ‘awareness’ when ‘complete’ leads to ‘acceptance’ of what the reality was and allows for a stress-free mind at the leadership level.
It is the remit of the leader to establish an environment of peace within the organisation so that everyone was able to work with concentration and enhance productivity – the relationship between ‘concentration’ and ‘output’ per unit of time is not difficult to fathom.
A leader while assessing a person who worked for him can see the relative value of ‘brilliance’ and ‘hard work’ and draw a line between an apparent ‘dynamism’ and the test of ‘delivery’.
Being seemingly busy is not the same as being productive. A healthy sense of discretion in the exercise of authority sets apart a leader of distinction from others in the pack.
Thirdly, a leader wields the power of ‘authenticity’ – not merely the strength that the chair provides – and this can be developed with a conscious effort.
A person at the top must remember that there was a ‘leader’ in him or her and that ‘all leaders could manage but all managers could not lead’.
Credulous people never look powerful. A leader must act only on reliable information – not taken in by gossip, live in integration with certain principles and values and function out of self-esteem, not ego. These qualities show up on their own.
The leadership of the organisation creates the right ‘boss-subordinate’ relationship down the line. The senior must provide nurtural supervision and allow the junior to express his opinion while retaining his right to overrule the latter with a logical explanation. A boss should not be short on listening and long on dictating.
A leader distinguishes the failure of ‘result’ from the failure of ‘effort’ and faults the ‘action’ of a subordinate without attacking the ‘persona’ of the latter. A good leader is ‘respected’ more than he is ‘feared’.
A fourth dimension of leadership is inevitably linked with the way the latter handles interactions within the organisation since – as already mentioned – all business is human activity. This traverses the entire range of situations from assembling the team to the perceptions about credit-sharing in the enterprise.
No two persons are equal in every respect and therefore leveraging individual strengths and remembering that a multicultural group can be a powerhouse of creativity, would be very useful while constituting a team.
A leader realises the importance of the ‘power of relationship’ that manifests itself when within the organisation members give and seek legitimate help.
Leadership must understand how emotions shaped the responses of any person – this will help a senior with the right EQ not to misread the doing of an employee who possibly could be under some stress caused by a situation in the family and to note the body language of the latter at the same time. The success of a leader lies in getting more from a team and retaining the organisational loyalty of the workforce.
Finally, the leaders today should not miss the trend that there is an evolution of management- particularly because of the COVID experience- whereby organisations were becoming flat needing a participative role of leaders, a downward shift of decision-making and a greater requirement for the seniors to know their men closely. Vertical interaction is a means of creating a grid for maximising production. Bosses can not afford to be aloofist in exercising control of the operations as they had to be ready to provide guidance to any team member who would ask for it.
The world economic and geopolitical scene was prone to quick changes and the leaders were required to take responsibility upfront for course correction, monitoring of demand and supply and the fixing up of the supply chain both within the country as well as globally.
The strategy of undertaking re-skilling or upskilling programmes, promoting multi-tasking and framing a flexible policy for a Hybrid Work Environ (HWE) – all need the direct involvement of the leadership at the top.
Leaders have to be confident of themselves – there is a saying that ‘courage is a love affair with the unknown’. Perhaps they should remember also that doing the right thing is always the right thing.
Above all, today’s leader has to develop a new level of identification with the workers since in a situation of dispersal, the importance of the individual becoming the anchor of productivity beyond technology, had shown up on a stronger note.
(The writer is a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau. Views expressed are personal)