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Tomorrow’s leaders are doing just fine

This Diwali, I saw a new wave of leaders rising. From the depths of a dark past, it rose and lit up a present whose beam shows a secure future. This leadership neither carries nor needs a designation, writes Gautam Chikermane.

business Updated: Oct 18, 2009 20:39 IST
Gautam Chikermane

This Diwali, I saw a new wave of leaders rising. From the depths of a dark past, it rose and lit up a present whose beam shows a secure future. This leadership neither carries nor needs a designation. It doesn’t have an organisation in the traditional sense of the word. It doesn’t even know it leads. But in the relatively silent Diwali 2009 lies a future that has already happened — the leadership of India 2020 is in small but safe hands.

Corporate India with all its size, wealth, jargon and management theories, courses and gurus can learn much from these children whose spontaneity carries a force that many leaders of today would give their bonuses to get. In its need-of-the-hour, spur-of-the-moment simplicity, our children are unknowingly directing us towards not merely an ideal world but a new leadership.

The idea of not bursting crackers and avoiding pollution — noise and smoke — is a positive but difficult rebellion of school-going children against popular norms, prevalent culture. Celebrating Diwali, they have realised, is no longer about burning money. It can be done by lighting lamps, giving charity. It is the harmonious mutiny of the next generation comprising my daughter, nephew, niece and their classmates, who said: “No crackers for us.”

They did not have to convince or coerce their friends into their belief system. That has been evolving for the past two years. This is a leadership that has germinated from the raw power of an idea that has drawn followers by its compelling logic and emotive appeal from ground up. It displays a rare and unexpected mass-scale concern for society and the environment, an experiment of a generation that is going to take up India’s leadership in the next decade. A generation that is already looking generations ahead.

This is the changing face of Leadership 2020. It has the three essential qualities that any leader — soldier, politician, executive; in corporations, schools, hospitals, non-profits — of tomorrow must have. One, a clear goal: reduce smoke and sound pollution. Two, responsibility: one school, one class, one child at a time. And three, participative: those who wanted to follow the old noisy and polluting ways, did; but their percentage fell drastically.

When our children — collectively the largest chunk of young people in the world — will turn into voters a decade from now, not only will they carry this conviction, they would have learnt to live and lead in a constantly-changing world. If 2009 is any indication of the many economic Tsunamis that will — most certainly — hit nations as they globalise, the leadership of tomorrow, to keep pace and manage these turbulent times, will need to be born again.

But this changed demographics brings with it another challenge. With 20-year-olds joining the workforce as call centre operators and retail executives on one side and improved healthcare keeping 70-year-olds mentally — and physically — active on the other, the new leadership will have to deal with four generations of workers simultaneously. Is it prepared?

Keeping a 20-year-old excited about his job needs a different skill of youthful engagement, constant excitement. A 35-year-old needs a different incentive of more challenging and deeper work to keep her going. A 50-year-old, in the prime of his experience, action and knowledge, needs stability to turn his assets into wealth. A 65-year-old has accumulated wisdom but since traditional organisations can’t offer her an executive cubicle, she is an independent consultant offering small tips that add big returns to multiple organisations. All seek purpose.

In dealing with them, hierarchies will have to give way to knowledge. And that knowledge will not necessarily reside in higher education. A genetic engineering firm would need the services of a PhD directing high-tech research, as much as the college dropout who can fix mobile phones (the children in my daughter’s class have taught me how to use my Blackberry more efficiently). The leadership of tomorrow will have to organise such diverse talent pools — across compensation structures, designation races, and of course, personal idiosyncrasies —and first attract and retain them, then extract wealth from them, turn them productive.

The leader of tomorrow, in an organisational creative destruction, will have to build an organisation where stability and entropy, the individual and the team, the specialist innovator and the generalist manager, all work together to deliver a goal. And if that’s not enough, remember, that goal itself would be a moving target, carrying multiple challenges --- markets that disappear overnight as disrupters-at-large innovate their way into them.

But apart from focussed action and tangible results --- the defining signature of any leadership at any point in history or future —there is one more aspect that confronts corporate captains today: trust. In its reaction to the financial crisis that matured to full bloom in 2009, it is on this factor that many leaders have fallen by the wayside.

Be it a 20-something who would expect her leader to be cool (so get your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and blogs going) or a 70-something veteran who would embrace conservatism and might be a little slow in email replies or Google chats, the only glue that will bind the four generations of people is trust. To build trust, a leader does not have to be loved or even liked. On that front, the only thing a leader needs to be is fair. Trust, in fact, is the only common element between past and future leaders.

For every other leadership assumption, I am borrowing one expression from future leaders: control-alt-delete.