Leadership, and leaders by extension, cannot exist in a vacuum and can only survive if there are followers who feel a genuine connect with the leader, says Harish Manwani, COO, Unilever and non-executive chairman, HUL, in an interview. Excerpts:
How would you define leadership?
It has a few dimensions. The first is that leaders need followers. If you are a leader who believes you are setting the pace, and then look back and see that no one’s following you, you got a big problem. I can say this because I have been a leader and I have been a follower.
So how do you build a following?
To build follower-ship, you need to do a few things right. First, you have to have a sense of destination. Leaders always give companies a sense of destination.
As leaders you must be connected with your people and the society in which you operate because otherwise you will not have a point of view. Look at millions of political leaders who lost it because they were not connected — business is the same.
I don’t go to a single market unless I have spent half a day visiting shops — that’s my job. See how people are buying, what are they doing, talk to the customers, go to retailers. Then I go to consumer homes — so you have to remain connected.
The third point about leadership is values. There is something non-negotiable that you have to define. If you don’t have any non-negotiables, you are an un-anchored ship.
Does that mean leaders have to be intransigent?
You must have all the flexibility, all the dynamic source planning and everything else, but at the end of the day, you have to anchor your company with some non-negotiable values, and what you stand for.
How do these qualities play out in your leadership style?
I believe that being authentic, and being yourself is the best way to be a good leader. A lot of people try to mimic leadership. Be yourself — that’s the best thing you can do. When I walk into my office at HUL or Unilever, I am not a different person inside the company as I am outside.
Why is leadership so important today?
Because there is a big value now, on what I call the fourth dimension of growth. We have defined a firm’s agenda in terms of consistent, competitive and profitable growth. I believe that a very important fourth dimension, in terms of leadership is now responsible growth.
So is it lack of responsible growth that has caused the failure of the entire leadership?
First of all it would be wrong to say that the entire leadership has failed. Just because there is a part of the corporate world, the financial world, where we had the kind of things that should not have happened, does not mean that every single leader has dropped their standards. It’s just that we are going through a time where the extent of damage done by irresponsible leadership, has overpowered anything good happening.
Do you feel today there is an rising enquiry among press and regulators on the leadership issue? Do you feel more watched?
I don’t feel so but I know that we live in a world where we have to always hold a mirror to ourselves. Therefore we have to be even more exemplary in the way we behave and come across.
What is the process of a manager becoming a leader — are there born leaders?
I think it’s a bit of a theoretical discussion about whether leaders are born or made. If you take the corporate world, there is a hardware dimension of leadership that you need to have and you acquire — which is all about functional expertise, experience, learning how to take good decisions and analytics.
Then there’s a software — about the ability to have a point of view, to be authentic. The transition happens as you grow up in the organisation and you move from managing businesses to ensuring management of businesses. That is where your growing up process starts and I think there’s no such thing as born leaders.
In leadership, do actions count more than words?
Little big impact
In this era of economic uncertainty, the challenges faced by organisations are much more complex than they were five years ago. It’s not the hyperbolic rhetoric that gives direction, but the little things we do every day that have the biggest impact. In times of crisis we need to ensure that we effectively communicate with all stakeholders.
A CEO’s every move is closely scrutinised. Actions trump everything else when it comes to communicating strategic priorities. For example if we want to implement cost-optimisation initiatives we should be willing to sacrifice our business class travel to send the right message across the organisation.
Our actions count for a lot more than our words. When we strive to model that advice each day, our leadership muscle grows stronger.
(Gaurav Malhotra, MD &CEO, Patni Healthcare)
Walk the talk
Words, no doubt are important but only to the extent they allow the CEO to articulate her vision and strategy. She has to get her core team to understand, debate and finalise, and her stake holders to understand the way forward. Beyond this limited task, saying a whole lot and not having anything to show as results, can be counterproductive for the CEO.
In a crisis situation, the CEO’s task becomes more challenging. Often in such times, the world around relies more on perceptions and the CEO’s words are not believed. It is then even more critical for the CEO to keep her composure.
In conclusion, a limited and focused communication of the task at hand, a comprehensive plan and relentless implementation will help the CEO to effectively walk the talk.
(Deepak Kapoor, chairman, PwC India)