[dropcap]E[/dropcap]mbrace of idealism is a must. However, life’s quirk requires that adherence to maturity comes first and, strangely, the two are not exactly aligned. One must understand that the real world is just not ideal; even its axis of rotation is a bit tilted. So, we must first accept that crookedness of life and then try to move beyond.
In the corporate world, that oddity gets compounded. From aspiration to action to expectation — mismatches in the management, employees and customers are prevalent everywhere, irrespective of the size, type and location of the organisation.
It is partly due to some lacuna in leadership at the top; a lack of follower-ship below and the size of the challenge — the purposeful project that needs to be accomplished.
Let us focus on the last one. While the non-ideal world is a universal fact, at the helm, one still cannot be complacent; a leader must acknowledge the same and then act. However, assuming a hypothetically zero lacuna in the CEO’s leadership and the employees’ follower-ship quotient, let us still understand the severe limitations of the corporate leader today. That plight of the leader has a lot to do with where we are, with respect to history.
It may be understood that, in the final reckoning, life is about the choices one makes. A leader’s life, in particular, has always been about what battles were available at the time and which among them was finally picked. The size and nature of the selected challenge that is the dimensions of the purposeful project so chosen, decides the gravity of the mission at hand and thus success or failure of the same speaks about the tallness of the leader.
Before moving further, it is required that we go back in history and then proceed further to exactly understand the shrinking leadership at the top vis-à-vis the progress of time and, at the same moment, take a note of the evolution of the followers or the working class below — travelling along the same timeline.
Alvin Toffler narrated in his book The Third Wave of an initial agricultural first wave in which the peasants worked in the fields, in the hot sun, with bent backs. Presumably, when they stopped and stood straight, just for a moment to wipe the trickle of perspiration from their brow, they would have by chance glanced over the yonder and seen their master’s colossal castle. These workers exactly knew who they worked for and for what. They worshipped their lord of the land residing in that distant mammoth structure; for winning the land that they now toiled upon, keeping the enemy at bay. Thus, the lord-master provided the working class with their bread and security and, in fact, destiny.
However, if the worker was one from the side that got vanquished; he would have hated the master; for, now he must slave on the land. If he dared and stopped work for a moment’s breather, he must bend again a bit more quickly and get back to work, lest his new master’s overlooking men get cracking with the whip. He must be quick to understand that his bread, security and the very lifeline lay in the hands of the new master and so he must quickly fall in line with only that straightforward wisdom.
No matter what, both sides of workers were tiny as compared to their majestic royal masters and they would bow low in his presence. In that era, a leader was all high and mighty in stature and his emblem adorned every prominent activity. That era lasted thousands of years; masters and slaves changed, but not the protocol among them.
Due to the advent of the next smaller industrialisation wave, slowly the fetish for accumulation of more land and thus the need for men to work on them faded away. Securing markets gradually gained dominance over food security and colonisation of distant lands became a reality — to feed the machine, if not so much the stomach. Farm peasants were replaced by industrial workers. In the last century, the era of colonies also completely lost its aura. With it was lost the charm of anything that seemed royal; the gap and size between the rulers and the ruled was also reduced.
The ground having shifted, the process of actual and permanent eviction of the land occupiers became possible because of men like MK Gandhi who belonged to, let’s say, the workers’ side. The Gandhis of the world pointed their finger at the oppressor and that was the good etiquette expected of a leader then. The army of subservient workers needed very little imagination; for, they all exactly knew who their tyrant masters were and what freedom could bring to them. However, none had the imagination on how not to stoop but to stand and remain upright.
Leaders like Gandhi and later Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela who were descendants of such enslaved races and also subjugated to hardships showed the way to overthrow those despotic regimes. These men, sensing the shift in history’s winds, adjusted the sails by relying only on their unique, cutting-edge human insights and traversed upstream against the currents of authority. They engaged the masses, formed opinions and passively rebelled with a cause. A project of higher purpose was at once defined — to stop bending low in the presence of authority and instead take a high moral stand.
If defining the challenge is the first part and the method to achieve success is the second, the definition was as easy as self-evident. Thus, the greatness of these leaders rested in their methodology to achieve the objective and not their ability to define the problem. Getting others to do what you want to do because they want to do it was an understandable simple equation that each of these leaders churned out. They could thus unite the individual men into masses, irrespective to where and from what background the followers came from. The challenge was omnipresent, distinctly obvious and large.
Freedom became a giant project of purpose that gave birth to these giant leaders. It must be understood that these were gentle giants who dethroned the rulers, their propaganda and their agenda but did not themselves become new crowned lords. They did not possess the absolute and arbitrary power to garland or hang anyone they so desired.
We now live in a world that, generally speaking, is a place where kingdoms don’t exist, countries are independent, racism is defeated and human rights are established. The era of giant problems and thus the need for giant men ended a few decades ago. It was the outcome of their deeds that paved the way for the next even smaller wave.
The times that followed opened new avenues for different kind of leaders — the knowledge masters. These men ruled from the highest roost. They were not fighting against some oppression; rather they were fighting for control of some specially acquired knowledge. However, the size of their project — of effectively sharing the knowledge for profit or suppressing it for gain — was not so grand. Thus, in size, these new leaders matched their average projects.
Soon, the internet and advent of the worldwide web created an e-revolution of sorts where information and knowledge became available for almost free to all. It pervaded the life scopes of millions. Globalisation happened! Thus, the monopolistic perch of privileged knowledge gurus ended as climbing up the information tree for anyone so desirous, became less of a steeper clamber.
That brings us to this day in history. Let’s understand the deep dichotomy of our oppression-free and king-less times. It seems man is born to serve up to a challenge. With the kings gone, Gandhi had also preached us: “Customer is the king.” This made up king is no challenging tyrant (tongue firmly in cheek, I’m sure it’s debatable at times) and calling one so makes life difficult.
Gandhi would have therefore failed today, if he dared to suggest a boycott of, say, all videshi goods, as he may do more harm than good to the country, as protectionism is a bad word now and following it would lead to retaliation, killing our exports.
Besides, patriotism is not so sexy anymore. The American politicians say that Indians are taking away their jobs, namely outsourced, low-cost BPOs, and want to stop that. So, by that logic, for India, is the western world a challenger or a customer? And are Indians relieving the Americans or burdening them financially with inexpensive services?
Conversely speaking, calling a challenger a customer in one peculiar business makes life easy — say, that of any Islamic jihad leader. The mujahid sells hatred; he would welcome Westerners to his land and then have them killed. His customers are different in looks and, ideologically, so are easy to identify.
Today, why would a mujahid with very limited resources be better off than a ‘corporatised’ Gandhi? The jihad peddler would relatively have a more visibly clearer enemy (challenge) while Gandhi would be pointing his finger to a rather blurred target. Think! How do you sell this idea? Let not there be any drain of precious foreign exchange, but let’s bless Ratan Tata who bought English beauty Corus worth several billion dollars; recall that Tata had done so by tapping foreign investors and not just local ones. Why? Because our Indian laws prevent forex outflows beyond a certain limit. And why are such laws in place? Well, we got to keep the balance of payments situation balanced, stupid!
That soldiers are killers, yet not murderers is a concept easy to understand and sell, so long as there is no direct monetary consideration. But the message that we now get is: free the country, die for your cause, but don’t forget to balance the damn budget!
On the other hand, the jihadi may quip that he picked his career for ‘convenience’ and add that it is perhaps easier convincing someone to sacrifice his or her life in the form of a human bomb, which takes a few customers (Westerners) along to the grave, than convincing someone to take a salary cut!
But then, there are no Nobel prizes for the jihad creed as they are branded terrorists and not freedom fighters; their projects are not purposeful at all as viewed by the society at large.
Who then can be a leader of our times? How does one rule from here on an assembled army of knowledge-soaked men and women? The leader points a finger against whom? For what?
The politician is definitely not that leader; for he or she often lives because the person is not already dead; often survives even with dismal approval ratings, just because the elections are yet far or because the other guy is even worse.
The CEO is indeed the new age leader, though this creed will never get a direct Nobel prize for being just that — a fantastic CEO.
And what is a CEO pointing at for followers to look at? Sadly, the balanced budget.
If the CEO is pointing at the obvious, that is profit, then God save him! To achieve profits, there are innumerable and complicated factors on which no CEO has any control. In fact the CEO’s very organisation and thoughts are controlled by the environment of the industry, the approaching technologies, the exchange rate, the political party in power in one’s own and trading countries and, thus, the national policies affecting the business.
Late Nani Palkiwala had said,
Single-minded pursuit for money impoverishes the mind, shrivels the imagination and desiccates the heart.
So, if profit is all that the CEO’s imagination can point at as a chosen purposeful project, s/he must be prepared to explain “why not more?” at the end of each quarter. At best, it’s a moving target that generates greed and, at worst, the project is self-defeating as it generates fear, as the followers will jump the ship at the first sight of an approaching financial iceberg.
Alas, money tends to fill the wallet but not the soul. The pursuit of profit is thus a cheap project from which only dwarfs can be born and not leaders.
So what can a wise CEO point at for followers to look at? A balanced mind!
The CEO is the latest but the smallest leader in history. Not wanting to accept fate and finding no real life-threatening enemy to defeat, he thus attempts to have largeness of size bestowed upon the self by pointing the finger at a more self-created purposeful project, a challenge of sorts that can maybe bring meaning to everyone’s lives, including of his followers, but mostly his own. That can be to, say, maximise employee satisfaction, to attempt to have the company become renowned for CSR work, to foster an environment of innovation, to serve the nation through indigenisation, to work towards a global cooling cause or whatever else — sometimes, vague as may be, so long as its sounding ‘in vogue’. A midget-ed CEO may then plagiarise some Gandhi and dispense wisdom by sermonising “service to mankind is also service to God” to justify his self-created purposeful project.
Globalisation and access to knowledge have now got deeply entrenched and entwined. This has also produced asymmetrical stimuli, making leadership that much more difficult.
In our shrunk world, wars among nations are not for land but for markets, fought not by soldiers but by companies; they take place not in battlefields but in boardrooms and they are fought not with weapons but by ideas. Heading the army then are no longer generals but CEOs. Not necessarily all the corporate army men and women perfectly fall in the desired rank and file below, as each have their own ideas. In our modern democratic times, all have been encouraged to express ideas freely. As if listening to demanding customers was not enough, hearing out every employee’s idea demands new patience from the already stupefied CEO. Some even take the liberty to advise the CEO rather than seek the same; shrinking the CEO even more… ouch!
So, can only powerful and obvious challenges, with no direct monetary price tags attached, give rise to powerful, obvious and invaluable leaders? In the absence of the same, is the authenticity of real leadership severely threatened or nearing extinction?
In the absence of a mega common foe or challenge, the onerous task of inventing a genuine challenge in the form of a mega corporate ideology and bringing it to the boardroom for sale within the organisation rests with every wise and inspirational CEO. The ideology so made, the CEO must then attempt to align the employees to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to face that self-designed challenge.
However, an ideology from a CEO, say, who wants employees to find a meaning in their work by chasing prospective customers and green environment movement alike, would sound something like ‘the planet’s safety is a must, as employee satisfaction comes first; that of customer is a consequence and profit is a desired side effect but not a medicine for panacea’.
Realise, no matter how noble, this ideology is a very difficult concept to sell even to the beneficiaries. Also, the CEO is no spiritual guru that gets donations even when the most meaningful project is being pursued. So, on the one side, even when all employees are expected to subscribe to the agreed ideological doctrine for the well-being of the earth and the organisation, the same must not become a self-defeating distraction as, on the other side, they must also not forget that the business of business must still remain their prime objective and revenue. Its essential resources are a must for the entity’s very survival.
Therefore, the oxymoronic message from the wise CEO’s desk is ultimately a fuzzy sounding ‘aim here, focus there — by order’!
The corporate world is not just tilted, lately it’s gone topsy-turvy. Unlike the leaders of the past, if defining the challenging project was the first part and the method to achieve its success the second, the greatness of the CEO today lies in somehow to get the followers to synthesise his fuzzy-logical order and figure out just the first part first.
That task alone is a killing one. Honey, the CEO then is the minuscule living martyr of our times.