Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Leadership Today

Most of us are familiar with the story “Who will bell the cat”. It is a story about a bunch of mice whose lives are troubled by a menacing cat which slyly sneaks up on them and kills them. They hit upon a brilliant plant to avoid this ghastly encounter – they decide that if there were a bell around the cat’s neck, they would be well warned of its presence and the cat would not succeed in eating them. But after their initial enthusiasm about the efficacy of the plan, they realize that the task of putting a bell around the cat’s neck remained to be done. And as nobody could do that, they had to give up the plan.

In the real world, Leadership is looked upon to provide solutions to problems as daunting. For Leaders are only required wherever the task is complex. A simple, routine task does not need leadership. The goal of the leader is clear – to enable the achievement of a goal by motivating the group or team. However as we can see from the story, the world of mice and of men is beset by problems that do not find easy solutions. Given the facts, what are the qualities needed of a leader?

Vision is often seen as a fundamental attribute of a leader – the ability to visualize the attainment of a goal and to believe in the necessity of that goal. From Buddha to Hitler, people who have influenced others towards working for a purpose have had this ability. The obvious faith of the leader is an inspiration to his followers. Historically “leaders” have been people with a vision of their own which they have successfully “transferred” to their followers.

Today, however, the ability to combine the talents of a group of people and build a vision that appeals to each of them so that they will work together to achieve that common goal is of more significance. In this case the Leader is the person who synthesises others’ goals to arrive at a vision. In Management this ability is what substitutes “vision” in the traditionally understood sense.

Having articulated the common objective, it is also the leader’s task to motivate the team in order to achieve the goals. The ability to motivate people with their individual attitudes and preferences so that they work “together” towards achieving the objective is the challenge for leadership today. As such, qualities like Creativity, Openness and Dedication inspire teams to follow the direction charted out by the leader. Integrity is an important attribute of a good leader as this gives people the impression that the leader can be trusted and relied on.

It is upto the leader to mull over strategies like “who will bell the cat” or “how can the cat be belled” ; it is also upto him to decide the extent of risk that it is possible to undertake. People have literally laid down their lives for the achievement of goals as personal as Alexander’s - to rule the world. While such situations no longer exist, at least in the context of the corporate world, risk-benefit analyses are no less daunting and the ability to rally forces around a robust bottomline is just as rare. An emphasis on leadership skills is therefore an eternal requirement.