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October 01, 2018 Monday 04:24:32 PM IST

DO LEADERS MATTER?

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So sad that most unlikely of corporate leadership icons. Yet what Einstein says distils the most fundamental characteristics of leadership. It becomes even more salient in a world characterised by unparalleled change, uncertainty, and complexity. Spectacular advances in technology, phenomenal changes in social dynamics and attitudes, intense consumer expectations, bewildering ethical dilemmas, and severe environmental concerns are among the issues inducing this contextual change. To succeed, you need to produce astonishing results which usually come from high-performing teams. And where there is an astonishingly productive team, you can bet there is a unique leader. That’s why leadership matters.

Leadership matters at this moment, no matter what condition you find yourself in. Whether you lead a team of one, or a team of hundred, or you lead at home, at the workplace, in one city or across the globe, leadership matters. It matters when you are spearheading an organisation and as you work your way up to the top of the corporate ladder. It matters in a bullish economy or a bearish economy, in a start-up or a mature business, in local business or a global enterprise.

Leadership matters because astonishingly performing teams drivethe cutting edge for any organisation —a business, a non-profit, a sports team, or a family for that matter. Innovative or unique products might get you into the game, but only your team can ensure success and build a “wall” that is tougher for your competitors to climb.

Now, let’s look into three unique leadership stories where humility, compassion, and self-disruption made a sea change in matters at hand.


LEADERSHIP THROUGH HUMILITY

Glenn Kelman,all told, is the epitome of humility. In fact, it was his humility that successfully brought his company into the online real-estate industry. Redfin is an online real-estate brokerage organisation that “gives back” two-thirds of the commission that conventional agents charge. Real-estate agents detested it, and began blacklisting anyone who used the service.

So, instead of sweeping the problem under the carpet, Kelman started an organisational blog that shed light on many shocking aspects of the real-estate business. He also spoke about internal struggles within the organisation and even went on to criticise himself on many occasions. The blog was genuine and customers loved the transparency. They valued the fact that a chief executive could make fun of himself and the slightly less-than-savoury elements of his industry. Since starting the Redfin blog in 2006, business grew radically. In an interview, Kelman spoke about openness:“I truly think that if Redfin were stripped completely bare for all the world to see, naked and embarrassed in the sunlight, more individuals would do business with us.”

And they have.


LEADERSHIP THROUGH COMPASSION

In the 1980s, AIDS came to the world as a new, terrifying disease with no cure as it raged through communities and nations. People thought that you could be affected byAIDS through mere physical touch or even by sitting on a toilet seat used by an AIDS patient. ‘Victims’, (they were then seen as such) were ostracised and more than half of the people surveyed in the United States believed that those with AIDS should be isolated.

On 19 April 1987, Princess Diana, then wife of Prince Charles of England, opened the UK’s first-evermultipurpose unit devoted to treating people with HIV and AIDS. During her visit to the unit, she shook hands withan AIDS patient without wearing gloves and forever changed people’s perceptions about the disease.

Today, it may not seem significant, since we know that HIV — the virus that can lead to AIDS— can’t be spread by handshakes. But the situation was not the same a few decades ago. Reports from that era bear touching stories of AIDS patients — even children — who were stigmatised because of the disease. With this simple act, Diana used her public platform to challenge that irrational fear. “If a princess was permitted to go in and shake a patient’s hands, a person at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same,”John O’Reilly a nurse, who was witness to Diana's hospital visit, once told the BBC.


In her life, Diana was a patron of hundreds of charities working across a range of significant issues. Her philanthropic work didn’t begin or end with that handshake. But in that moment, Diana displayed the depth of her empathy for others. And she did it in a way that speeches and public service announcements and TV interviews never could.

For she practiced what she preached.

LEADERSHIP THROUGH SELF-DISRUPTION

In 2003, Ravi Venkatesan, the Chairman of Cummins in India, was confronted with a predicament: should he keep his decade-old position where he had fruitfully grown their business, or accept the top position at Microsoft, India. Overcoming the resistance of his well-wishers, he accepted the position at Microsoft. Seven years down the lane, he helped the business grow from a $150-million organisation to $1-billion behemoth. This wasn’t the first time he had taken such tough decisions, and it undoubtedly hasn’t been the last.


In a career spanning nearly 30 years, he has moved between industries, geographies, firms, roles, and cultures. Currently, he serves as the Chairman of the Board at the Bank of Baroda and also serves on the boards of Rockefeller Foundation, Infosys Ltd., and those of several others. His career path is the right example of repeated self-disruption, particularly at a time when it wasn’t necessary to do so. Nowadays, technology is almost exclusively responsible for making disruption in business the ‘new normal’. Staying relevant means grabbing new opportunities to change ourselves.

What we must bearin mind while trying to embrace the idea of being a leader is that leadership is an extensively, yet inconclusively, debated phenomenon in the world of business. There is no hard and fast rule to lead an organisation. The growing influence of global culture and workforce diversity makes the task of being an effective leader that much more tough.

In other words, leadership is all about energising individuals and driving them towards a specific goal. A successful business leader ideally gives the goals of the organisation equal weightage when considering the needs of all its stake holders.


To be able to define that nebulous vision beyond the horizon is leadership. In sum, leadership matters. 


Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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