The trap(pings) of leadership

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
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  • Updated: Aug 02, 2012 00:35 IST

Napolean Bonaparte, the legendary French military and political leader, perhaps best exemplifies the trap of hubris in which several leaders get caught — with Waterloo now a generic to indicate the nemesis of many a leader. Napolean’s military successes are as much a part of the curriculum at military schools, as his defeat at Waterloo, where, perhaps blinded by his past successes, he over-reached himself.

“A leader should be willing to make changes, if obvious and necessary — it is better to do it quickly as people are “anticipating” changes anyway,” observes Amitabh Chaudhry, MD and CEO, HDFC Life. “He should also avoid the ‘success’ trap — classical case of assuming ways of the past will always work or one cannot fail.”

Chaudhry, of course, speaks from personal experience, and a successful one at that — swinging from financial services to ITES and back again.

There are of course some well documented instances of leaders failing to deliver on their hype. Notable among them Leo Apotheker, formerly of SAP and Hewlett Packard, both of which, incidentally, have proved Waterloos for not just the mercurial German, but also for his two predecessors — Mark Hurd and Carly Fiorina.

Didier Michaud-Daniel, CEO of Bureau Veritas, and erstwhile CEO of Otis Elevator Company, blames it on the cult of personality which inhibits CEOs from harnessing their full leadership potential. “You need to adapt your personality to the new company to be accepted by the team because most of the time it’s not the issue of the technicality of the job, it’s an issue of rejection from the company,” he told HT in an earlier interview.

Greater is the risk of leadership failure when a CEO moves from one industry to another, say corporate leaders, which is when most leadership failures occur. “The experience of all industries and organisations stay with you whichever industry you move to. However in a new industry, the context and reference point of application of the skill changes,” points out Devendra Chawla, president-food and FMCG business, Future Group.

Transference of leadership skills — which remain the same in macro terms but may differ from company to company at a micro-level — is thus paramount for CEOs who exchange one corner office for another.

Lalit Chaudhary, a former Lehman Brothers employee who now runs the Aston Martin dealership in Mumbai, says it is imperative for a CEO to keep his leadership strategies relevant to the challenges ahead.

“You have to understand that there are people who spent long years in the industry and will have to work doubly hard to catch up and settle in,” he said. “If somebody fails in the new sector, the stigma of being new to the sector will remain and as a result one doesn’t get accepted in the new fraternity.”

A CEO, therefore, says Chawla of Future Group, needs to have a “learning agility” that will enable him to be aware of what does and doesn’t work. “If he is unaware of the changing business landscape, he is bound to make mistakes,” he said.

Chaudhry of HDFC Life says one of the most time-honoured mistakes leaders commit is to hide their ignorance, especially when they are shifting from industries. He says that while the core leadership skills that involve articulating a long term vision, having the passion and commitment to execute the vision, inspiring people, decisiveness and being close to customers, are relevant across industries, understanding the history and culture of the organisation before deploying those skills is crucial. “The leader should have the humility to learn the context  and should listen, ask questions that reveal his ignorance and be open to changing himself,” he said.

That said, however, leadership does remain a double-edged sword as many CEOs have discovered at their - and the company shareholders’ - expense.

Chaudhry terms leadership a solitary phenomenon. “Leadership is about being personally accountable. You share the success while you own the failures,” he said.

Deep Focus

How to recognise individual achievement in a team effort?

Kumar: asses  & motivate

For many travellers, hotels are more than just a place to stay. These are destinations in themselves where every interaction with a member of the hotel team plays a part in creating the overall experience. Success is therefore founded upon coordinated team effort. We use the online PMS tool offered by SuccessFactors to formally review senior management’s performance bi-annually, and a similar process is followed for other members.

Additionally, our ‘Team Member Recognition Programme’ aims at acknowledging and rewarding individuals with monthly, quarterly and annual awards. We also have a unique 'Catch Me at My Best' programme that offers guests, managers and team members the opportunity to recognise all the acts of hospitality, big and small, that make our hotels special.

(Sunil Kumar, regional director - India, HR, Hilton Worldwide)

Menon: reward performers

Rewards and recognition to individuals or teams have always been a conundrum. However, organisations with a powerful and enabling rewards strategy ensure that they devise a dual-focus reward system, which drives stellar performance at both individual and team levels. Individuals who help move the team  forward, must be rightfully recognised.

There are some individuals who generate “ideas” or “innovations” for their team, then move away and let the team work, or say who “go beyond their role” in helping fellow colleagues, such people need to be recognised and motivated. The organisations must clearly specify reward criteria that facilitate a collaborative culture and should also foster intrinsic rewards — sense of achievement by performing tasks, excitement about career opportunities and pride in their organisation.

(Radhakrishnan B Menon, Founder MD, LBW Consulting)


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