People@Work

‘Being self-aware is the most difficult thing for a leader’

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on May 22, 2019

D SHIVAKUMAR, Group Executive President, corporate strategy, Aditya Birla Group   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Is leadership training getting commoditised? Can you really define leadership? D Shivakumar, Group Executive President, corporate strategy at Aditya Birla Group, and one of India’s finest management thinkers, takes on these questions and more:

Leadership development is a $15-billion industry today. Every one seems to be a coach. But can leadership really be taught?

Leadership is a huge industry, bigger than $15 billion and you see it everywhere around you — self-help books, leaders’ biographies and autobiographies, training courses, coaching, mentoring, consulting on leadership, etc. Leadership is not an exact science and a lot of leadership is about the context.

If the two are matched well — that is leaders’ strengths to the context — then there is magic. Some leadership principles are common. At the heart of being a good leader is being authentic and being a good person. A lot of leaders are self-centred and simply bad people. There is no end to training and development to making someone a good human being.

The typical approach to leadership development seems to be to list out some competencies and try and identify managers who have these attributes. But can you really cast leadership in a one-size-fits-all mould?

Yes, no two leaders can ever be clones of each other. If you look at successful companies, they tend to choose someone very different from the current CEO as the successor. This helps propel the organisation in a new direction.

A typical leader has about 15 people reporting to him at senior levels. In the fast changing world of today, some leadership traits are a given — time management, learning ability, presence, communication, connecting with eco system partners, authenticity, among others.

In the past we valued strategic ability, in the future we will value strategic agility. Being self-aware is the most difficult thing for a leader and being self-aware makes a leader more authentic and more trusted. If you look at start-ups, most enlightened start-ups get a CEO from outside the moment the start-up has reached a particular size and scale. This is more in the western world and not in the eastern world. This is a path to a professional organisation.

In your talks, you have argued that leadership is not overhyped and it really matters, giving the examples of Sachin Tendulkar and Mike Brearley. But is it the leadership that matters or the followership?

Leadership and followership are both important. Sachin chose to focus on batting but did not interfere in matters where his captain was the decision maker. He offered advice when needed. A great team player always contributes to the team and is never interfering because he is producing good results.

Stars are important but when they start interfering with team culture then that’s a challenge — the example being Kevin Pietersen in cricket. Understanding people and aligning them to the goal is what a good leader does day in and day out. Most football coaches have been average football players, like Alex Ferguson. In football, the manager is a different type of leader, someone who doesn’t play on the ground but is accountable for results. Leaders get credit and the flak, both are sometimes justified, sometimes not.

Many have criticised Dhoni’s captaincy and choice of sending out the wrong batsman as they chased nine runs in the last over of the IPL final. If Mumbai Indians had lost the match, most people would have said that bowling Malinga in the last over was a fatal mistake.

So one has to take the good and the bad when you are a leader. Virat Kohli is a great India captain but has achieved little as Royal Challengers captain. He must take the credit when due and the flak where due. A leader lives and dies by the decisions he makes!

One of the things about management thinking is the parallels from the world of sports and war. But is this appropriate — given that the world of business is a different ball game?

Leadership has drawn from armed forces leaders and sports leaders. It is now beginning to draw parallels from society’s leaders, like NGOs, people who build communities.

Because leadership is not a hard science, we tend to look for as many examples and take learnings from these situations.

Most people agree on who or what characteristics make a bad leader, very few agree on what is a good leader, this mix is still evolving. War has casualties, people lose lives in war. In business people lose jobs, not lives. In sport, you always have another day to fight. In some sports you have a draw. But there is no draw in war or in companies.

As times change and contexts change, do you require different sorts of leaders?

This is linked to the evolution of business. In steady times, we valued leaders who were good at analysis, who could look at the future and roughly get the future right. Most early leaders in business, especially in America, were from the armed forces, most leaders in the early 19th century had no education — only 11 per cent of CEOs in the 1920s had a degree. In the East, most leaders came from family backgrounds and family companies are the norm in Asia.

I think we all recognise that the world is changing too quickly and no leader has the answer to every problem a company faces. The average life of a company was 60 years in 1960 and is 15 years today. So, a leader is expected to hit the ground running on Day 1 and produce results on Day 2. That’s a wrong expectation. Take GE as a company, previous CEOs had tenures of 20 years, the last CEO, Flannery, was moved out in 14 months! The shareholders are more demanding today as they have choice of investment and are asking probing questions of the board.

The structure of ownership has changed too, we have many PE firms owning companies, their focus on value creation is immense, some of their decisions might not be in the best interest, of long-term success, but that’s how the PE model works. As a result we have what I call serial CEOS, people who move every two to three years.

Every leader has strengths and has areas to improve, when a leader overplays his strength, then that becomes a de-railer.

For example, if a leader is articulate and keeps talking in a meeting, then he will be accused of being a poor listener. If a leader is a good listener and keeps listening, he might be accused of procrastinating. So being aware of how and when to use strengths is critical.

Finally, speaking from practical experience, what has been the most challenging thing for you as a leader?

The most challenging thing for a leader is to call underperformance of his direct reports. It is the ability to segregate the underperformance into problems that ail the company and problems that are inherent to the manager. Making that distinction is important to be a respected leader. Every company that has changed leaders because of the problems the company faced has failed, Nokia being the best example. We tend to assign all blame to the manager as opposed to the company. Good leaders do not do that. It is difficult to accept that the company does not have its act right. That degree of honesty is rare and needed in a fast changing world.

Published on May 22, 2019

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