Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Making Leaders

I have spent a last few months working, and reworking, on models of a leadership institute that I wanted to set up in India. I have gone through various discussions with business people, academicians and students and learners, and have looked at various options that are available to take a leadership training in India.

Obviously, there are quite a few alternatives as far as Leadership training is concerned. First of all, there are the business schools, starting with IIMs and Executive Leadership programmes, the Leadership training function/ facility at ISB Hyderabad, and countless others in all the major cities. Then, there are the special Executive training facilities and programmes, which come in both Western - the likes of Franklin Covey and Dale Carnegie Institutes - and Eastern - in the form of Art Of Living and various other soul-searching sessions - varieties. I have been particularly intrigued by a programme by Landmark Education, which is an international programme, but also available in certain Indian cities. These are typically a few days' programmes, which are held as Open programmes as well as In-Company programmes. I have met at least one company which prides itself for being a Landmark Graduate company, which means every employee of that company has been trained by Landmark Education. Besides that, indeed, almost every training facility inside every company run some kind of leadership programme, using content licensed from training content publishers or recycled from earlier training programmes. In short, there was no scarcity, but an abundance of options, in the leadership training market in India.

I must admit that, looking at such huge array options, I was slightly overwhelmed and started looking at wrong options. Much of my work over last few months were focused on how to adapt a Leadership Qualification programme from the UK for the Indian market. While I chose a top-grade qualification, there were several problems with this approach. It lacked the culture perspective, and I was making the same mistake I accuse others of doing - I was being culture-blind. Besides, I was succumbing to the lure of thinking about leadership in a mechanistic way, believing that this is something which you can pick up in a few sessions, and worse, pass an exam on to become a 'certified' leader, what travesty! I was so blinded by the need of novelty and differentiation, the marketer's holy grail, that I almost forgot about the value proposition.

Besides, I had a very supply side point of view. It was almost like - I think there is a good market in leadership training [Why I thought that way will be discussed in a moment] and what can we do to take advantage and make some money. The problem with that approach is that while this sounds entrepreneurial - identifying a gap in the market and thinking about a solution - it is not. There is always a very thin line between entrepreneurship and opportunism, and I think this is it: Both starts with looking at the gap in a market, but then, the entrepreneur tries to solve the problem and the opportunist tries to take advantage of it. The entrepreneur wishes the problem will go away; and, goes after big enough problems which takes awhile to go away and builds a sustainable business. The Opportunist wants the problem to stay - indeed that is the opportunity - and usually gets myopic, because every pothole looks like an opportunity.

But, I digress: the differences between entrepreneurship and opportunism should be left for another day. The problem with my thinking was that it was neither original, nor solving a problem. It was more about how do I stand out from this crowd and say that I have something different to offer. The worst temptation is to say that this programme is from UK, though I have learnt that it is actually an illusion. Those days are past when people wanted to pay a premium for anything UK: Today's India is a different, proud country. People want world class service and recognition, but globalization, awareness and competition have taught them to demand good value from everything that they look at. This was the problem with my solution - I never cared to think about what the leadership training is attempting to achieve.

I think my Deja Vu moment came while talking to Sudhakar Ram, the Chairman and MD of Mastek, who has set out to challenge the assumptions that our lives are built on. He is writing a collaborative book on the New Constructs [www.thenewconstructs.com], the key ideas that we inherited from our Industrial Age past and those that are in a state of dysfunction in the current 'connected' age. Sudhakar Ram identified seven such areas - Success, Learning, Work, Consumption, Wellness, Governance and Globalization - and started exploring each of these concepts to see how our ideas have become disconnected from the realities of the time we live in, both practically and morally. While we talked about various things, and after a while, I was very excited and peppered him with various questions, the futility of my idea was laid bare in front of my eyes - I was trying to build a leadership training programme on a framework which belong to another age.

And, indeed, the leadership programme I was working on till then was very 'industrial age' that way. I was even planning a full fledged module on time management, for god's sake! And the concept of time - as you can guess - was mono chronic, a simple straight line which you can get onto and time was a commodity you could save, waste and utilize: the straightforward Anglo-Saxon view of Time. Obviously, my Indian learners would have attended the programme with the concept of poly chronic time in their heads, where time is like air which you live inside, and you don't waste time because it is not a commodity to waste, but rather you wait for the right time to come for anything to happen. In the industrial, rather Victorian, perspective, the programme was alright - it was teaching the participants the most 'productive' way of using time. However, this is such a waste of effort in the connected age, today, because, to delve into Mr. Ram's thinking, work is not what you do but the role you play in the world. Suddenly, you control much less than you think, but your actions can have a much greater impact than you could imagine. It was rather obvious that I needed a complete rethink about the whole leadership training business.

This is what I am planning to do now. I have taken seriously another of Mr Ram's advise - some of the big problems can only be solved if the accountability of the business culture can be combined with long term orientation of a non-profit. This made me go back to where I started : Why did I think leadership is such a critical need in India? I thought India is at the moment of a huge demographic advantage. Nandan Nilkeni has written recently about India's demographic dividend in an essay in Strategy & Business, where he referred to a number of historical parallels. The message was obvious to read: This window of opportunity need to be taken advantage of. Now, India's education system, both the old and the new incarnations of it, is too focused on mechanical excellence, discipline of followership and conformity. It is hardly aligned to what we need to steer this demographic divided to our advantage. This is the time when we need great and good leaders, not just in business, but in education, public service and creative trades, who will bring a global perspective, ambition, integrity and much creativity.

I don't think the business schools, at least most of them, will offer this, because that's not what they are meant to do. Nor will the various short and sweet executive programmes - they mostly have a spatial, almost a mono-syllabic, view of what makes a leader. In fact, many of these programmes, and I have met some real cowboys who ran them, are actually counter-productive: They promote an Dirty Harry version of leadership, which does more harm than good. Besides, most of our leadership thinking is deeply industrial age, as Mr. Ram would point out, and are in dire need of repair.

So, this is my new project - a non-profit dedicated to developing leaders in India. This isn't going to be a high profile school with sprawling facilities to make prime time leaders. My goals are modest: this will be about discovering leaders among us and nurturing them. I know my abilities are limited and I plan to connect up with everyone who are interested in building this up. This blog post is my first step.

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