Sunday, November 22, 2009

Leadership in the Connected Age: What We Should Look For

I am trying to develop an understanding of leadership, in the context of today. I think many of our ideas are too industrial age - a concept I picked up from the New Constructs initiative - and also too Euro-centric, though this term is used to mean Europe and America together. I know this is not a new discussion: People like Charles Handy explored these concepts extensively in the 1990s. But, like other concepts, these need to be revisited often.

So, to start with a metaphor. The industrial age leader was almost like the leading horse in the charge of the Light Brigade. First man out. The captain of Titanic. The one chosen to die. General Patton. Focused and Unforgiving. FDR. Unfearing. Dirty Harry. Dispassionate and Professional, though sometimes a social oddball. Warren Harding or Bill Clinton. Presidential from day one.

On a more serious note, leadership so far has been about standing out, standing apart. It was about leading the pack. The leaders absolutely must be 'at the top' - meaning, control. The model is military, the mission is to win. Compromise is a no-no, so is compassion. The leader must be ruthless, unattached - said Sun Tzu - and a generation of leaders, from Jack Welch to Bill Gates, complied.

But, as we decisively enter the Connected Age, this may need to change. Let's understand what we are getting into. 'Connected' is the defining term - suddenly there are communities of people who will never meet one another. There is a bit of a virtualization of life, and of relationships. Distance is a given, though no place on earth looks unreachable anymore. And, life becomes 24x7, not just because of globalization, but because work and leisure blends in, and it is difficult to say which is what. I would not give Internet more than its due credit, but it is largely because of Internet's promise, we suddenly have submarine cables and satellites and very cheap communication tools, without which this would not have happened.

There is also another dimension, which usually remains unmentioned. This is also the age of the commons. In the first phase of the Connected Age, which ends just about now, the mediators gained enormous power. People like hedge funds, which managed the money. People like Microsoft, which dominated our digital existence. Governments, which systematically took away our power while leaving us with the vote [ask George Bush and Tony Blair]. And, big media, which chose to preach, rather than inform [ask Fox News]. But, then, this recession has started doing their untangling. Disintermediation is the term, when suddenly these all-powerful institutions look naked. Fragile as ever. Exposed to its core, and they look much less like their formal all-powerful self.

So, centre of tomorrow's universe is going to be - YOU. Not me, though. It will be a commons centered world, of common men and women. Which is different from the self-centered world that we are just coming out of. Power will shift from nations and individuals to communities, groups of individuals who care about each other and everyone else. You may say that this is an optimistic vision, but one does not need vision to be pessimistic. One needs to look at newspaper headlines or walk down the high street. The closing shops, failing banks, out-of-job Prime Ministers, discredited news channels, shaken big military - all point to the same thing: A Power-shift. It was happening, but the edifice needed to crumble. We needed an earthquake. Happened now.

So, what happens to the leader now? Well, he looks more like Sheepdog than the charging horse. Behind, not front. That's how C K Prahalad sees it. More like Chesley Sullenberger, cool and professional under pressure, who landed a flight on Hudson, and got everyone, including himself, out safe. Less like Winston Churchill, who evoked fear and did not stand down, and remained certain and uncompromising on the goals, whatever the means. The leader looks more like Mahatma Gandhi, who evoked hope, displayed compassion and remained unwavering on the means, but patient about the goals.

So, the leader of the commons is a different leader. Patient, intellectually engaged, flexible, committed to the greater common good. The leader who almost does not lead. Who gives respect to earn respect. Who treats everyone as a full person. A democrat - because he listens - as well as a republican - because he rules by the will of his people. As far as metaphors go, there is another big shift - he is actually SHE.

Yes, like Mother Teresa. Frail. Small. Unremarkable physically. Someone who will not be noticed, except for her sense of purpose. The extraordinary will to make a difference. With a deep and overwhelming compassion. Very subtle, very complex, very feminine. Just like a sheepdog, one may say.

So, this journey, from leading the sheep to herding them, took us several centuries, but we are here now. Now we need New Leaders, who will display a different set of abilities than we looked for before. I shall try to list them down here:

First, the leader must know the way, even if she does not know the destination. We always started with knowing the goal earlier. That was when it was possible to know where we are going. No longer. The leaders today must focus on the journey, while continuously searching for the destination. And, they may experiment with the goal while staying focused on the means. On integrity, on commitment, on truth.

Second, the leader must be ready to compromise. Charles Handy talked about Chinese contracts, where everyone must win. We forgot the lesson somewhat. The connected age is a lot about interconnection. One can't win if the other one loses. The absolute positions do not work anymore. The only way to win in the future is not to remain unwavering, but to know how to achieve the greater common good.

Third, the leader must show humility. Humility is the precondition of learning. On your knees, boys. Humility is also the precondition of love. Of almost all the uplifting things. So, the days of 'You know who I am' is over; it is time to focus on who you really are. There is no shame in frailty or failure; it is human. The only way to win today is to engage with the world, openly and honestly.

Fourth, the leader should embrace doubt and remove confusion. Doubt, questions, is the fountainhead of creativity. Being undoubting is madness in today's world, and doubts do not mean confusion. Being steadfast on the means removes confusion and establishes a sense of balance.

Fifth, the leader should be attached to his people. The military metaphor is OUT - Sun Tzu says that one should never be attached because he will then make mistakes. The family metaphor is IN. We are not fighting a war. We are saving the world, from ourselves.

Sixth, the leader must see beyond the immediate. That is the crux of leadership. Without this, everything else is just good behaviour. The leadership thinking must be strategic, beyond the obvious and the immediate. This is that old metaphor - the leader is the one who gets atop a tree and see the way through a jungle - that remains valid.

Seventh, and last, is that the Leader must be able to tell a story. Not a lie, but a story, which weaves emotions, details and ideas together. Metaphors are important; remember the old fox, Churchill, who saw an Iron Curtain being drawn across Europe, which dominates our thinking even today [for a long time, I visualized Berlin Wall as one made of Iron]. So, are connections - the story is one which we can connect to, not just a parable. All great leaders of all ages talked in stories - it was only the modern ones who dabbled with PowerPoint.

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