Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reflections on A Leadership Training Programme

One of the propositions on the table for me now is to evangelize a new Leadership Development programme, to be offered in India and other South East countries. My engagement at this time is fairly minimal - all I am doing is answering the questions asked - but the whole activity triggers a thought process. While the offering in question is a fairly straightforward Leadership Qualification, accredited by one of UK's Leadership institutes, this allows me to reflect upon whether such a programme is at all suitable for India and what needs to be done, if one needs to start developing leaders in India.

But, first thing first. Do we need to develop leaders in India at all? The question is an obvious yes, given the fact that we need them at all walks of life. There are so many problems to be solved, so much of human energy needs to be channelled. However, in India, it is often a case of many Chiefs and no Indians, in the Western sense of the expression. In many cases, we do not seem to accept that the necessary complement of leadership is followership, and one must take a complete view of the leadership phenomena. The leader is a sheepdog - says C K Prahalad - and he guides the pack from the behind. We get it wrong a lot of times [and that's not an Indian phenomenon] and think the leader needs to be at the front, an arrogant human being in search of limelight. However, effective leadership, again quoting CKP, is about the moral force and humility, and this will often mean working without the allure of prime time TV.

So, yes, there is a need for leadership training in India, and at all levels of work and in all walks of life. Quite a transformational opportunity this is, not just for the people who should be trained, but for the society at large.

But then, next question, is an English qualification on leadership the benchmark to use? Before we get into the nationalistic rhetoric, one must remember that this could be one of the world's largest leadership training organizations and have a fairly well-acclaimed programme to offer. From my various interactions with Indian businesses, it is important for many of them to hire people with 'global' skills, because India is entering the phase when the businesses must take the outward leap to be successful. Such leadership framework or qualification can indeed be quite useful from that perspective.

However, may be not. I do believe that we need to do a fundamental rethink about what leadership is. The current framework of leadership skills were drawn up in the past, when we lived in a more certain time and had more clear expectations about our lives. The leadership thinking is yet to take the post-boomer leap, and adjust itself in the brave new world post-Credit crunch.

Consider most of our leadership models and you will start getting the sense. Churchill, the old imperialist, will stand apart, as will General Patton [more on him in a moment]. JFK will come to mind, and so will Rudy Giuliani. Jack Welch will feature in any list, along with people like Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela and a few others. The theme will be resilience, courage, ingenuity, and success after all - who remembers failed leaders anyway. One will mostly talk about the unity of purpose - most of these leaders set out with the end in mind - and the dogged focus that one displayed all the way till the end.

CKP makes a reference to the General Patton style of leadership in a recent interview. He talked about the movie actually, which may or may not be accurate account. Indeed, one remembers that unforgettable scene of General Patton standing in front of the huge American flag and talking - no one has ever won a war by dying for his country; to win a war you must let the other bastard die for his country, or words to that effect. He points out that Patton is careful and sensitive about his staff, he never uses the word German - because many of his own staff are from German origin [though I dispute the fact, because Patton was, most probably, fighting the Italians then]. He also points out how Patton focuses everyone to the future, how he talks about every soldier will have a story to tell their grandchildren about their heroics in the great war, an odd thing to say to twenty year olds, but an essential thing - giving them the hope of winning and a pride and purpose of living. This is indeed our model of leadership at the current time.

But this must change. Because all our certainties are gone, and our mental models are changing fast. It is not sufficient for today's leaders just to guide his pack to winning, but s/he must do so sustainably and with compassion to everyone else. In summary, the days of zero-sum leadership is over; what we need is inclusive leadership. CKP alludes to Gandhi as a Leadership model in the same interview. He talks about his moral force, the fact that he upheld the means being as important as the ends. That last bit is all about sustainability. Answer this question, what was Gandhi's purpose, and you will know. If you think all Gandhi wanted was to win independence for India, you are getting only half the picture. Gandhi wanted Indians to become an independent nation, with all the attendant pride and moral force. Gandhi was building a nation where none really existed. Therefore, it was not for him to resort to violent killings, not for him to do petty politicking and attack the British when they were at their most vulnerable during the war. He wanted India to be a proud nation, born with a moral force which will sustain it beyond its independence. In fact, that's exactly what has happened today. India, poor and illiterate, became an exemplary democracy and a stable state, arguably because of Gandhi's attempts to stay the course even if it took longer and the journey was fraught with difficulty.

The other model of leadership which is capturing the popular imagination now is of Abraham Lincoln. This view has star power, Barack Obama famously idolizes his fellow President from Chicago, though he was Republican. Lincoln, unlike most leaders today, actually built an all-star team around him and surrounded himself with very able people who disagreed with him more often than not. He obviously was in control: He did not let his Presidency degenerate into a debating club and indeed left a mark on his country's history. The key lesson of his leadership was that he was the ultimate sheepdog, he stood there allowing his very able team get on with their individual jobs, but reigned them in when he needed to [like when he decided to abolish slavery, despite disagreements within the cabinet].

The current model of leadership, especially the one codified in qualifications, cover none of these. No uncertainty about goals, but an unwavering purpose; no tolerance of dissent, but the ability to get conformance; no moral force, but hierarchical authority - dominate the discourse. My own feeling is that the model is out of sync with the current world, and indeed, modern India.

Now, coming back to the question whether a British qualification will be good enough, my answer will be nuanced - it depends. I have seen this before: Too many times, it is assumed, on both sides, that someone from a Western country can indeed train any number of Indian managers on the subject of leadership. If this has come from the long tradition of Western dominance of the business world, we have come to an inflection point. It is time to clearly define a model of leadership in the Asian context, and develop our leaders accordingly. After all, they are likely to need to solve Asian problems with Asian resources.

This is not to suggest, though, that we must shut the door and reject everything non-Asian. This is indeed farthest from my purpose. I have learnt many things by coming and living in Europe and an essential ingredient of leadership training today will be to cover the global outlook and comfort with other viewpoints. The point I am making is that we must allow a balanced perspective and not let the Western ideas dominate the training.

I shall conclude with an example. In one of the meetings I attended recently on the subject, I came across the leadership training expert who said he trains Chinese managers on Decision Making, prompting a comment 'they certainly need that skill' and a bout of laughter among the participants. I do think this is essentially the wrong view. China is a functioning economy and a successful one. They have indeed mastered the art of decision making, their own way. While they need a perspective on how Europeans make decisions, the last thing they need is to change their own way. This is often the point that gets missed when one tries to impose a framework of leadership from a different culture.

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