Monday, May 30, 2011

Leadership Lessons From Chanakya

Most leaders today in our country are familiar with Sun Tzu and his book ‘Art of War’. Perhaps because most book stores in the country have derivatives of his book on their shelves. But sadly not many people are familiar with another great man and his works which were produced more closer to home.

2300 years ago a man walked amongst the now ruined city of Taxila ( or Takshilla, as it was originally known). He taught at the greatest university of this region and was single handedly responsible for changing the course of history for the sub-continent. That man was Chanakya. A man who spurred on by the threat of Alexander the Great’s ever growing ambitions to conquer the world, envisioned a unified India or ‘Akhanda Bharat’. Till that time India was divided into several kingdoms and most of them were at war with each other, thus weakening their power to resist being conquered.

The manifestation of his vision was Chandragupta Maurya, the first person to rule over an empire which stretched across India and into parts of Afghanistan and Persia. But all that came about due to the vision and tutelage of Chanakya.

Chanakya also known at times as Kautilya wrote one of the earliest books on the subject of governing called ‘Arthashastra’. It outlines the details of the duties of a king and the means by which he can maintain the balance between power and keeping his subjects happy and prosperous.

When I read the Arthashastra, I was struck by how some of his concepts of kingship were still relevant for the modern leader. I have selected some of these concepts and have made an attempt to interpret them for our modern leaders, who rule not over countries, but organizations.

“When in the court, he shall never cause his petitioners to wait at the door, for when a king makes himself inaccessible to his people and entrusts his work to his immediate officers, he may be sure to engender confusion in business, and to cause thereby public disaffection, and himself a prey to his enemies.”

In organization after organization we hear the same story – leaders get ensnared in the entrapments of their titles and entitlements. The higher they are in the organization, the less accessible they become to the very people who at the end of the day are responsible for delivering results. Leaders need to understand that sending people to a communication skills workshop does not improve communication in the organization. Communication improves when the channels of communication are kept open both vertically and horizontally. When leaders are willing to answer people’s queries and take the time to explain the deliverables – that’s when people learn the value of good communication and practice it themselves.

In training after training I keep hearing the same complaint from people – their leaders or managers do not listen nor do they take out the time to explain why something needs to be done a certain way. I usually ask participants if their managers do not volunteer the information why they don’t take the initiative to ask questions themselves? Invariably the answer is – “most of them do not like it when we ask questions”.

It is no wonder that only a handful of managers enjoy the respect and admiration of their team members. Just like Chanakya said most managers suffer the disaffection of their people. There is a distance between them that can only be bridged through direct contact and better communication. No matter how many corporate initiatives the organization embarks upon or how many training sessions they may hold, nothing can replace the direct communication between leaders and team members.

“All urgent calls he shall hear at once, but never put off; for when postponed, they will prove too hard or impossible to accomplish”.

The most malignant of corporate diseases is delayed decision making. I have yet to figure out the mysterious source of this malaise, but it does seem to be a pandemic ravaging most organizations. There are several reasons why decision making is slow in so many organizations.

1. A lack of empowerment down the line is one reason why all decisions seem to get passed up the hierarchy which results in a bottleneck. People who are supposed to solve the problem are held accountable for it but the corresponding authority is not given to them. I can understand that there is an argument here for checks and balances but does the problem understand that argument and wait patiently for its resolution? Of course it doesn’t! It usually compounds in its complexity as time goes on.

2. Processes are at times followed more in letter than spirit. I’ve always maintained that good processes make a good organization. But processes need to be re-visited from time to time. If certain issues are cropping up again and again within a process then it is time to redesign it. We make a process and train our people to follow them but we fail to teach them how to deal with the deviations of that process, hence when a problem arises most process operators have no choice but to look up for solutions.

3. Decision making is centralized or rather in the custody of key personnel in the organization and these people are always busy. The priorities of the people down the line who face a problem may not always be the priorities of those who take the decision.

“In the happiness of his subjects lies his happiness; in their welfare his welfare; whatever pleases himself he shall not consider as good, but whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good”.

Wise words indeed. Many a times I’ve heard the helpless HR manager complain that what he/she recommended got pushed to the side because the CEO had a completely different opinion on the matter or the CEO had a sudden flash of inspiration, perhaps it was a book he/she read, or an initiative he/she heard about or worst of all because this was something that was practiced in their last organization (even though that organization may be completely different to the one they are currently leading) etc. regardless of the source of this inspiration, that’s what gets initiated in the organization.

Each organization is different and though an intervention may work in most of them the timing of initiating new interventions varies. A good leader realizes that his/her whims and preferences come secondary to the real needs and issues of the organization.

“Whoever imposes severe punishment becomes repulsive to the people; while he who awards mild punishment becomes contemptible. But whoever imposes punishment as deserved becomes respectable. For punishment when awarded with due consideration, makes the people devoted to righteousness and to works productive of wealth and enjoyment; while punishment, when ill-awarded under the influence of greed and anger or owing to ignorance, excites fury even among hermits and ascetics dwelling in forests, not to speak of householders”.

Holding people accountable for their results is one of the most important tools of a leader. Unfortunately we see time and time again that performance becomes punishing and non-performance becomes rewarding. Those who perform well are burdened with more and more responsibility and by contrast those whose performance is not up to the mark seem to get away with minimal work – simply because we do not trust them enough with the responsibility. But what it does is create resentment in the high performers, as they see themselves being laden by more and more work while the non-performer seems to be slacking off.

The modern day kings and queens do not reside in palaces but are found in boardrooms across the globe and just as the words of this ancient wisdom were relevant thousands of years ago, they still resonate true in this present day and age.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

If I Could I Would.....

Sometimes I envy the so called 'uncivilized', uneducated and even mentally unstable people. Why? Because they don't hide behind the veil of courtesy and politeness, they say what they want to say and when they want to say it. On the other hand people like us are conditioned to 'bite our tongues' and not act out on our impulses. Obviously this is necessary otherwise chaos, misery and bloodshed would rule- wait a minute... aren't those rampant anyways? But jokes apart, this veil of courtesy keeps our relationships intact, without politeness and courtesy we would not only soon become completely isolated and disliked by most people, but also face very unpleasant consequences.

However there are times when I wish that for just a little while I could push away my conditioning and really act out what is going through my mind rather than just smile and ignore.  Of course sometimes I can't do anything because I don't have the authority or the power to do anything. So if I could do anything, what would I do?

If I could I would yank that VIP by the collar who walks straight to the top of line at the airport check-in or immigration counter.
But instead I merely put on an expression of disgust and desperation and quietly mutter 'this is unfair'.

If I could I would pepper spray every low life who starts singing when he sees a woman. Instead I just ignore it as if it didn't happen.

If I could I would castrate the entire village panchayat who sanctions gang rape as a punishment. But instead I just avoid reading or hearing about that news because it makes me sick to my stomach.

If I could I would take all those TV news anchors who turn their talk shows into a 3 ring circus and damage the little remaining dignity we have as a nation, and put them in the empty cages of Karachi Zoo, where children could make them perform for their peanuts. But like most of you I just watch in disgust and then flip the channel.

If I could I would tell that mother whose child is running around screaming and kicking that their kid is the evidence of the missing link - physically human with a chimpanzee personality. But I just find the spot farthest and safest from that kid instead and hope IT doesn't come near me.

If I could I would start separate flights for adult passengers and passengers with babies - your baby's crying may be music to your ears but it jars my nerves. Instead I count the number of babies on the flight and calculate the odds of  enjoying a relaxing flight.

If I could I would walk out of a meeting with a client who insists on telling me how to do my job even though he/she has no clue of what they are talking about. But of course I just sit there and say 'sure', 'how interesting' blah blah blah.

If I could I would pass the law that only those people can stand for election who pay at least the same amount of tax that an average Pakistani working in middle-management positions does. But of course that's just a pipe-dream.

If I could I would tell the next person who tells me I'm looking thinner, or have put on more weight, or too tanned etc that I wish I could say something about them but they are just not important enough for me to remember the details of their appearance.

Ahhh the list goes on and on but you get my point. Some things we won't and some things we can't. But the one thing we can do is act on them in our minds ... no one comes there unless we allow them, so its completely safe:-)

PS: If you could...what would you do? Please post your comments.

Monday, May 2, 2011

My Political Leaders – The greatest teachers of Leadership Don’ts

Being a management consultant I spend most of my professional life learning, teaching and talking about leadership. So its but natural that I observe everything with a leadership lense, including politics. Our political leaders are truly amazing – they all seem to have studied in the same exclusive university ( yes even those who can’t actually read), which teaches them how to behave absolutely contrary to every leadership principle ever written. Considering that they can’t seem to agree on the most minor and trivial of matters, this unanimous agreement is in itself no small feat.

The fundamental principle of leadership is to have a clear and forward thinking Vision. It is that vision for a strong and robust future which drives all other actions of the leader. A vision is a collective goal for the organization and is for the betterment of the business as a whole. It is what ensures the perpetuity of the organization in the future. A company without a challenging and healthy vision finds itself stagnating and eventually disappearing. A leader’s own career growth is a personal goal and cannot be considered a Vision. However our politicians all seem to have just personal goals – winning more seats in the elections, gaining more leverage and bargaining power, making a profit on the investment made during the election campaign etc. Unfortunately none of them have a vision for this big organization called Pakistan. And since no one really knows where we are heading our leaders behave like headless chickens in times of crises.

The next step in effective leadership is of course to have a strategy to deliver the vision. The strategy needs to be broken down into key deliverables or KPI’s (Key Performance Indices). People are made accountable for delivering these KPI’s which need to be constantly monitored and remedial steps need to be taken if the strategy seems to be veering off the track. But of course since our political leaders have no vision the question of strategy does not come into play.

One of the basics we learn in leadership is that communication is the key to any organization’s success. Communication has to be such that it clarifies confusion, creates an atmosphere of trust and provides a vehicle for delivering the organizational strategy. Our politicians however go out of their way to give conflicting statements, create ambiguity, compound confusion and negate each other (even when they are in the same party). But of course since there is no Vision, there is no strategy to implement and hence no message to communicate. This is not to say that they do not communicate – oh yes they do, they miss no opportunity to open their mouths and put their rather large feet in it every time. I’ll grant them this - at least they are consistent.

Leaders must be role models. They do not exert power nor demand respect, they exert influence and command respect. People naturally gravitate towards those who they feel have a high level of integrity, are trust worthy and are natural problem solvers. Now let’s take our political leaders – integrity is always the last thing one expects of them, they change their alliances based on who can extend their power and who can help them get more ministries and they call this shifting of positions ‘in the greater national interest’. So can they please explain how the people they were openly abusing yesterday and branding as traitors suddenly become the custodians of national interest? Oh and each time they do an about turn they say ‘nothing is definite in politics’. And as for their ability to solve problems, well they do have an affinity with problems that’s for sure – the only issue is that they create problems rather than solve them.

All those Pakistani’s who are interested in learning about leadership and becoming good leaders, you don’t have to read any books, you don’t have to attend any courses (though that will make my job redundant). All you have to do is observe our politicians and DO EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE! You will become great leaders – guaranteed.

A final word to the politicians in our country – we are not stupid. We do know a whole lot more than you do hence we can’t really accept you as leaders, so don’t make the mistake of calling yourself that. You are politicians, merely technicians who are have learned their craft through apprenticeship, just like any plumber or mechanic, but you are not leaders. Our country now needs leaders not politicians.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Yes I Watched The Royal Wedding.

On Friday the 29th of April I watched the royal wedding like billions of people around the world, and I’m not apologetic about it. I’m not a misty eyed romantic who gets all choked up at weddings nor am I someone who gets caught up in the romance of a typical fairytale. But watch I did and I had 3 reasons for doing so.

My first reason has to do with my obsession with all things historic. Reading about things which happened hundreds even thousands of years ago is good but when I’m blessed to be living in an era where through the medium of TV I can witness events which will one day become part of history, I would be pretty silly to pass on such an opportunity. This habit of watching one-off events was developed in me early by my father. As a child I remember him waking me in the early hours of the morning to watch Mohammad Ali fight Foreman in Kinshasa and every subsequent fight after that. I think I realized at that time that to watch something as it happens is so much powerful than reading about it afterwards. Now when I watch any documentary about Ali’s life I don’t watch it as an observer but my memories make me a participant of that event. Needless to say whether it be opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, or be it the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre or the wedding of a prince, I have witnessed them all and in doing so became a participant.

The second reason this kind of an event fascinates me is its agelessness of the traditions and protocols of the British royalty – it is literally the closest you will get to seeing first hand something which could have happened a hundred years ago. The carriages, the venues, the guards etc are all reminiscent of an age gone by. I’m not a royalist but I do think there is a sense of historic continuity about any monarchy and perhaps in a world changing too rapidly (and not always for the best) it is one of the last tethers to an age of innocence.

My third reason has to do with my own life. Most people’s life has a pattern to it, they grew up, started a career, got married, raised a family etc. and most of their memories revolve around those moments and relationships. My life on the contrary has no such pattern, it is only made up of experiences and moments. Perhaps to some I seem eccentric, and some even feel that it is their duty to feel bad for me and try and convince me it is not normal to have a life like mine. But I feel blessed. My life is not an artwork in pastels, it is more like an abstract work of art with an explosion of colour on the canvass. I live from experience to experience and I collect these with passion. All that I have witnessed and experienced has made my life unique.

I came across a comment of Facebook in which somebody had said that with so much misery and so many problems around us we shouldn’t be watching the royal wedding. Come on! That’s like saying that when I have solved all the problems of this world is the day I will give myself permission to be happy or smile. If you were out saving the world in those few hours then definitely you shouldn’t have been watching and wasting your time, but if you are someone like me then chances are if you hadn’t watched you would only spend your time being depressed  and worrying about the state of affairs, and that doesn’t really help. You can be happy and enjoy yourself while still being concerned about what’s happening around you. Being miserable doesn’t make you better than the rest of us, it just means that if you can’t make yourself happy you definitely cannot bring joy to others.