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Selfless Leadership - An Indian Perspective

My latest article in The Hindu Business Line - Selfless Leadership - An Indian Perspective.
Most leadership theories (with a few exceptions, of course) are variants of a ‘hero' based ideal. In other words, the leader is a heroic individual of some sort who summons his followers to accomplish great things. Additionally, there is a tendency to glorify leadership as an achievement or a sort of reward for one's performance in a specific sphere of life.This has led to a situation where society tends to confer leadership upon individuals simply because they are able to function effectively in their individual roles without evaluating whether the individual truly possesses the skill to lead others.Any system that follows such a pattern of leader selection is bound to create a society of unfulfilled ‘followers'.

An Indian definition of leadership
Is there a distinctly Indian definition of leadership? The answer to this may be found in India's cultural foundations. The central idea of the Indian philosophical tradition is the idea of selflessness. An individual begins on his path of spiritual evolution with the initial ego-centric belief that he is distinct and special in relation to others, but as he progresses further he realises that while the particularities of his existence or station in life may be distinct from others, the underlying conscious principle is the same.Krishna's demonstration of his own cosmic form (containing the entire universe within it) to Arjuna in the Gita essentially reinforces the same idea of a universal consciousness that cuts across all beings.It may be argued that an individual who is able to perceive this unique combination of specificity and universality in other human beings is the one who is best suited to lead others.In other words, an individual with a greater degree of selflessness is the ideal candidate to be a leader of other human beings.

Ideals of a selfless leader
A leader whose foundation is the idea of selflessness manifests this in many forms in his relationship with followers.
Freedom: The first ideal of such an enlightened leader would be ‘freedom'. A selfless leader would allow other individuals to operate with a high degree of freedom while providing an outline of what needs to be accomplished.How the follower navigates his way towards the outcome is entirely left to his creative faculties. This approach contradicts the traditional organisational way of getting things accomplished — fear and conformity to pre-defined safe paths.Fear and conformity-based leadership styles are essentially expressions of a control-based tendency which, in turn, stems from an inherent ego-based foundation which demands that all outcomes bear the stamp of the leader.A selfless leader, on the other hand, will demonstrate a lesser tendency to control simply due to the absence of any desire in him to stamp his individual personality on everything that his team produces.

Follower evolution centricity: A selfless leader would be constantly conscious of the specific evolutionary state of his follower, and would constantly try to raise him to higher levels of selflessness.Thus, the role of such a leader is not only to create outcomes through his team, but also to raise followers to his own state of being. In fact, all outcomes are in the distant future, and all that can be done in the present is really to ensure that people working towards those outcomes are raised to higher levels of consciousness (which is essentially the ideal of Karma Yoga).

Enlightened doer-ship: An enlightened leader would constantly reinforce the idea of enlightened doer-ship. This means that credit-seeking would be a shunned practice. This returns once again to the Vedantic ideal that the idea of a specific doer is an ego-centric idea. Ego-centric behaviour in any team pursuit rapidly diminishes the motivation and performance of other players in addition to creating a zero sum situation where people perceive that for one person to win, another has to lose. This does not mean that skilled performers are not rewarded — it only means that rewards are structured on a non-zero-sum, non-relative basis.One may even argue that skilled performance is its own reward and per se does not need any other reward to reinforce that behaviour!

In conclusion, it must be pointed out that a selfless leadership based organisation does not completely shun individualism. In fact, it celebrates individualism in a different manner — through the freedom it offers to its members to creatively express themselves towards the accomplishment of outcomes.All it does though is to check individualism that is expressed in the desire to possess greater control and power.

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Organizations as fulfilment engines

My latest piece for The Hindu Business Line - Organizations as fulfilment engines
Full text follows:

What is the true purpose of an organisation? Is it merely the creation of wealth, or must there be a higher purpose to it? The East may have some answers to this question.Indian culture, as a result of its philosophical foundations in Vedic traditions, has never eschewed wealth. However, it has repeatedly stressed that the real purpose of life is a higher fulfilment whose end goal is self-realisation.Thus, material wealth of any form cannot become the end of any enterprise or human life. It may certainly be one of the outcomes, but is not the central purpose.Our institutions in all spheres - be it business, education or Government - seem to be losing sight of the higher purpose of their existence and have increasingly started viewing themselves as a means to an end. What then could be the higher purpose that an institution must seek to address itself to?

While there could be many ways of looking at this issue, one possible answer is that the reason for the existence of any institution is to provide an arena for fulfilment for its end-users (customers) and constituents (employees and other stakeholders).What might such a fulfilment-centred organisation look like across these two dimensions of external and internal stakeholders?

The big question here is - which customer purpose is this organisation trying to fulfil? Unfortunately, the industrial era mindset is one of viewing customers as being no more than `wallets' waiting to be tapped. This is not to suggest that such firms are unethical - they are only responding to shareholder and investor expectations by behaving in a manner that only focuses on financial goals.Additionally, given the complexity of large organisations and the degrees of separation between the producers and end-consumers, it is no surprise that organisations view customers as abstractions.

The post-industrial world needs to view customers and their needs in the light of purpose fulfilment. Every customer is essentially seeking fulfilment of some sort through the consumption of goods and services. This fulfilment could be at a basic level of survival, or at the highest level of self-actualisation.

What if a business organisation were to align itself to this hierarchy of needs and claim as its mission the goal of raising the customer to higher levels of fulfilment? This may mean the creation of increasingly sophisticated products for which there may not be a market at the moment. The exact opposite of this is seen in many privately- owned electronic news media outlets. In the interest of `what sells', these outlets cater to the lowest in their `customers' instead of raising the bar to challenge their customers to evolve. They need to realise that producers of goods and services have a moral responsibility towards customers. In fact, this is a far higher form of corporate social responsibility than the contribution of a share of profits towards social causes.

Within the organisation two axes of fulfilment must be clearly defined - the first is the fulfilment of customers through the work done by a worker, and second is the fulfilment of the worker himself, and the two reinforce each other. However, as pointed out earlier, the distance from the actual customer, and the abstract way in which tasks are parcelled out means that the average worker no longer feels connected to the customer's purpose or even his own purpose.The way out of this alienation is to erase the boundaries between the firm and its customers, and allow customers to `infiltrate' with their views and allow these to actively influence corporate strategy.

The second dimension i.e. the worker's own fulfilment. This involves a systemic reevaluation of how careers are viewed from the traditional give-and-take transactional model to a fulfilment-oriented model. In the latter model, a service mindset (seva) will be very important. Seva, in the Vedic/ karma yoga context, is a work offered without any anticipation of reward, because the work itself is the reward in that it offers an opportunity to expand oneself from one's narrow selfish ego, towards a greater humanity.While this may seem like lofty idealism, it is easy to see its practical function. Activities performed without anticipation or anxiety for future rewards must necessarily bring greater focus to the work at hand, and hence, a greater quality in the outcome, as well as greater fulfilment.

In conclusion, India is well placed due to its unique cultural and historical context to bring alive the vision of fulfilment-centric organisations. The question then is whether we will choose to replicate the path taken by the West and its attendant pitfalls, or will we at some point integrate the best of the East with the West.

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Organizational memory and change

My latest column for The Hindu Business Line - Organizational memory and change. Full text follows.

Memory plays an important role in a human being's tendency to change. As a person experiences more, he creates more memories and as a result becomes a product of his memories.In a similar manner, organisations too have memories which are essentially the sum total of experiences of the current members. While these collections of memories or knowledge are certainly useful in building and scaling expertise contained within the organisation, they often become impediments to change.Such organisations find themselves with a ‘culture' that is unsupportive to change and prefers old habits that are unproductive and safe. The only exceptions are tipping point situations where the cost of holding on to memories becomes far greater than the benefits of change.In the face of such situations, some organisations finally reinvent themselves, while others just become extinct or fade away.Another point to be considered is that even in such extreme situations the change process is designed in a top-down way, and thus there is an inevitable resistance through the levels within the organisation, making it all the more difficult to create change when it is most needed.

Designing organisations for change
The question then is whether change can actually be designed to occur well before such extreme situations. The best way to go about achieving this would be the creation of decentralised change protocols at the micro level ‘sub-systems' within the organisational system. This is because the idea of change is closely linked to the idea of ‘spontaneity', or the ability to respond to a situation without stopping to consider the past (memories) or future.It can easily be observed that within sub-systems, the ability to be spontaneous is far higher than within a complex system as a whole. This is because sub-systems have far fewer moving parts, and as a result are able to quickly change to meet new demands. How then can an organisation be designed in such a way that its smaller sub-systems embrace change?

Decentralisation & capacity building
Decentralisation: As organisations get larger, there is a strong tendency to centralise all protocols for change. This leads to tedious bureaucratic processes of ‘approvals' and over-analysis which inevitably quell not just the proposed change initiative but reduce the tendency for future such attempts.Thus, the first key is to decentralise the origination and execution of change initiatives almost entirely to the sub-systems. There would still be ‘rules' to be followed, but these would be known in advance.

Building capacity for change:
The immediate criticism of the first suggestion is that too much decentralisation may lead to excessive risk-taking or poorly thought out initiatives that fail to take into account the larger impact of the changes in the sub-system on the system as a whole.Thus, the second key is to actually build capacity within the sub-systems so that there is a deep understanding of how changes within the sub-system impact different parts of the larger system, as well as the ‘whole' of the system. This capacity could be built into individual change agents within each sub-system.

Emergent change
From the foregoing discussion it may appear that the entire process of change can only be autonomous at the micro level, and not at the macro level as a whole. However, one may argue that the best change for any organisation is the sum total of the spontaneous changes in all its sub-systems.

In other words, if the mechanisms for rapid, spontaneous change are embedded into sub-systems, there is no need to worry about the system as a whole. It will automatically reach the place where it needs to be.
Thus, change at the level of a system is essentially an emergent property of change at the levels of the sub-systems. As such, there may be no need to be too concerned about where the system as a whole is headed as long as the sub-systems have the required capacity to design and execute change. In such a situation, the only ‘central' role in the organisation as far as change initiatives are concerned would be the design of efficient and simple change protocols for the sub-systems, as well as capacity building to understand the impact of sub-system change on the system as a whole.

In summary, any process of change is dependant on the capacity of an organisation to temporarily discard its memories in favour of spontaneous responses to the environment. However, in most organisations, particularly the large ones, this process can happen easily only at the sub-system level. The key then is to ensure that there is adequate intelligence built into all these smaller units that make up the organisation, while believing that the sub-systems' process of change will automatically result in the evolution of the system as a whole for the better.
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Leadership phases in society

My latest column for The Hindu Business Line: Leadership phases in society .Full text follows:

Stagnation is the bane of any social order in that it disallows a full expression of society's potential.
Leadership is the lever through which society casts itself out of periods of stagnation towards periods of possibility. There appear to be essentially three phases of leadership in society (or for that matter any institution or organisation). These three phases represent three states of being or collective will, and not necessarily a sequence.

Capturing the mood of the times The first phase is the formation of a strong collective mood due to various circumstances. This leads to the arrival of an individual who effectively expresses the current state of the collective consciousness, and is thus elevated to a leadership role. Political history is rife with examples of such leaders who brilliantly capture a prevailing mood to their own advantage. Such leaders may later be viewed harshly by history, but the fact remains that the collective will, at least temporarily, was in sync with the aspirations of these leaders. Thus in this first phase, the leader is very much a part of the collective, and a representative of its wishes. This phase may be termed as an `Expression Phase'.

Arrival of a transformational leader The second phase of leadership in society occurs with the arrival of a transformational leader. This leader's views may often not even match the will of the collective on a number of issues. He may craft a completely new agenda or vision for the future yet unforeseen. Yet, the persuasiveness, and the moral character of such a leader may cause the collective to suspend its current way of looking at things in favour of a completely new future. So, in this second phase, the leader is almost outside the collective, and yet successfully charts a new path for it. This phase may be termed as an `Evolutionary Phase'.

Collapse of old orders The third phase of leadership is a complete erosion of boundaries between the leader and the collective. This tends to occur in certain mass movements where the objectives to be accomplished become so ingrained in the collective that the leader may just become a figurehead, while the collective marches on, often crafting strategies and tactics on the go. This phase is based on a sense of distributed ownership, and is also characterised by a breakdown of existing norms and institutions. This phase may be called as a `Revolutionary Phase'.

The entire process may be quite long drawn, and when finally the goal is accomplished, society reverts to the first phase, wherein a leader is selected who will preserve and maintain the current will of the collective. TRINITY Interestingly, the three phases have a close relationship to the Indian idea of cycles of creation and destruction. The triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the tendencies to create, preserve and destroy at a cosmic level. Thus, the evolutionary phase of leadership represents a creative era in which society reinvents itself. The preservation phase represents an era when society maintains the status quo. The revolutionary phase represents a destructive period when all old ideals and institutions may be cast aside in favour of a desired future state, sometimes without even knowing the precise contours of the future state.

It is interesting to note that in the first two phases, leaders continue to operate within the boundaries of existing institutions, while in the third phase the desire for rapid change far exceeds the need to preserve and work with existing institutions. Also in the first phase, there is a fairly precise articulation of how the future looks, while in the last there is only an articulation of how the future must not look. In sum, viewing leadership through the model of these phases enables us to get beyond the current personality-centric or heroic definition of leadership towards a new definition that is based on the complex relationship between what society `needs' at a given point of time and how it chooses to accomplish the same through a tool called the leader.

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