Monday, June 01, 2009

Preparing Leaders in India

In India, I met several people this time who talked about the requirement to create leaders. Not Netas, of course, India has no dearth of them. People I spoke to were speaking from a purely business perspective - they thought they needed staff who can cope with uncertainty, handle independent responsibility, be entrepreneurial at work and stay the course despite difficulties.

One has to take such realizations in perspective - not just of the current gloomy economic climate, but also of the unique staffing challenge in India, where, it is thought, that the Senior Management talent is high quality and low skill manpower supply is abundant, but there is acute shortage of Front line service executives, Middle Managers etc. And, this is where the leadership skills, defined by the four dimensions mentioned above, are critically required.

The Indian businesses today are inextricably caught between the global recession and an undying confidence in the prospect of their businesses. Recently, a Senior Executive in a Health Insurance company was telling me how things are very bad and the situation will not improve before next month! And, besides, I still see the Indian companies are ready to hire people and more and more companies are talking about instituting tailored induction/ preparation programmes before hiring. This is a paradox, given that corporate training has taken a dip and the Indian job portals are reporting a 70% contraction of open vacancies. Yet it is hard to find the recession mindset in boardrooms, except in industries which are completely export facing.

The only way I can reconcile the two opposite observations is by thinking that a rationalization, exactly the kind free market economists perceive recessions to bring about, is under way in India. Salaries which were inflated and out of step with productivity, and which were climbing up because of the paucity of skilled people in certain sectors, are being trimmed down, rationalized. People who filled a position but did not bring much to it, who were mere passengers, are being asked to go. The companies are not in a hurry to fill out the positions with anyone they came across, and this will possibly explain why job boards are suddenly facing a crisis and most recruitment consultants are rediscovering themselves as a Career Consultants. However, the sense of optimism about the long term prospects of the economy, and the respective businesses, remain unscathed, and there is a rationalization of recruitment channels and a demand for new skill sets.

However, preparing leaders on demand is certainly not easy. For a start, India is a collective culture, where being too prominent in social life is actively discouraged and the Western idea of leader as a lone ranger is certainly too foreign and out of sync. On the other, Indian society is deeply hierarchical, with an embedded legacy of the Brahminical system, and while everyone wants to 'manage' others, getting one's hand dirty, as leaders are expected to do, does not come naturally to Indian students. Most Indian students crave for certainty, and given that more than 50% of the young Indian graduates come from a family with one or more people working for the Indian government, which offers lifelong and easy employment, they wish to settle after graduation. Expecting them to handle uncertainty, chart their own course and be prepared to sink is indeed too much to ask.

Besides, for reasons cited above, most Western models of developing leadership skills, which my interlocutors were looking for, may not work in India. For example, an integral part of leadership training in the West would involve personal effectiveness, and thus, time management. But then, the perception of time in Indian culture is so dramatically different from that of the West. In the west, time is discreet and a resource - which can be spent, saved and wasted. In India, people live inside time - it is like air and the environment that engulfs them - and everything in life waits for the right time, a divine conjunction in Indian mind which creates favourable circumstances for work. So, in India, one waits for time, while in the West, wait is a waste of time. So, an Western model may not necessarily allow Indian graduates find the best way to make themselves very effective, as it will mostly be at odds with their core values and will therefore induce only cosmetic change in behaviour.

So, what indeed is needed is a model of leadership development, at ease with India in our hearts. A model which is at sync with the Indian belief of leader as servant, one who shoulders the collective responsibility and pulls others by example. For example, Gandhi will stand out here rather than the charismatic Winston Churchill, a frail man reconciling diverse points of views and steering through a fumbling course with a singularity of purpose, rather than a pompous, self-serving aristocrat spinning a web of high sounding words to lift the morale of a frightened nation. A model which defines attainment of goals in Indian terms, a collective harmony rather than a stellar brouhaha, and emphasises the equal primacy of the correctness of means with the appropriateness of the ends. One may sure argue that business is a western concept, but this is indeed not historically correct - Indian businesses still remain deeply Indian, and its requirements can only be appropriately served with a leadership development model at ease with the ethos of the country.

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