Leadership for the 21st Century: the plague of Power-Intoxication

The senior executive chairing the meeting asks for views but does not seem to be listening. It looks like the others know that this person does not listen. The voices that speak reflect prudence rather than integrity. The words are fancy and the tones are scientific but, when the meeting ends, it is clear -- everyone has taken safe positions rather than actively think, enquire together, and break new ground. There is confirmation of the Chair’s ideas and an affirmation that the seat of power is wise. Despite the lessons of history and so much more education, the mind filled with power seems to be no different from that centuries ago.

In our times, the ill-effects of power-drunk people at the helm are proving to be widespread, deep, and tectonic. This may seem exaggerated but, in my view, this is one of the serious threats to our future as a species. i agree with Yuval Noah Harari (21 Lessons for the 21st Century) that we ”confront….the biggest challenges humankind has ever encountered”. Leaders, more than ever before, must ask themselves if they ”serve power or truth”.

Edgar H Schein (former Professor at the Sloan School of Management, MIT) cautions us about this in Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling.  “In airplane crashes and chemical industry accidents, in the infrequent but serious nuclear plant accidents, in the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters, and in the British Petroleum gulf spill, a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident’ and though ”senior managers….always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates”, “when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment….” 

Edgar goes on to state that “shockingly” people often “settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.”

One of the interesting lessons in Good to Great is that when a company loses a leader (who is charismatic and flamboyant, but power-filled), it falls apart. This is so because the departing leader worked for “personal greatness” rather than “set the company up for success in the next generation.” Jim Collins makes the point that is in stark contrast to companies that keep up a consistent climb to greatness, owing to leaders who, among other things, create ”a climate where the truth is heard”.  Such leaders listen and do not shoot messengers. Consequently, they have teams that are prepared to weather any storm – indeed, teams that are willing to storm the gates of hell at the call of their leaders. Such leaders leave behind legacies that thrive long after they have stepped out of the playing field.

History tells us that this is no new thing. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford writes —  ”Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history.” This he did with an army that at no time exceeded “one hundred thousand warriors – a group that could comfortably fit into the larger sports stadiums of the modern era.” What speaks of Genghis’ leadership is not this but that fact that “he left his empire with such a firm foundation that it continued growing for another 150 years” with “vestiges of his empire” continuing for over seven centuries. While most conquerors died miserable deaths, despised by their own as tyrants, Genghis Khan “passed away in his campbed, surrounded by a loving family, faithful friends, and loyal soldiers ready to risk their life at his command.” In every village, country, and region he conquered, Genghis would call for the learned, the wise, the healers, the writers and the thinkers – and with the help of translators who always accompanied him, he would listen. The man who was probably the most powerful human ever, it turns out, listened, learned – and did not permit power to deafen him.

Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier -- lives of Love and Lessons in Leadership

i continue to be with Jean Vanier  and i am thinking of one of his deep friendships — the companionship he had with Henri Nouwen.

Henri was a Catholic priest and academic who taught at the University of Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, and spent his last years with L’Arche. 

For some, the letters of Vincent Van Gogh communicate a view the he saw life as a pilgrimage of sorts  This is interesting because Henri was influenced by the great artist — and Henri’s life (as i see it) was a pilgrimage.

In The Wounded Healer, Henri writes that ”the illusion of leadership is to think than man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” This view has a long ancestry — the idea that changing the world is rooted in changing oneself. This simple fact explains why it is the practitioners (rather than career-preachers) who are able to genuinely move hearts and galvanise our hands 

A person who has spent time in the desert and seen reality as it is,  (the sages in the Indic region called this darshana) walks out with a deep recognition of the fact that ”at every moment of our life we have an opportunity to choose” and ”the way we respond to circumstances” determines whether we become ”a source of joy” or bitter victims ranting at Fate. (words in quotes from Henri in (Here and Now: Living in the Spirit

This person, the true Leader who has walked the desert and emerged ”radiating joy” , is a ”messenger of hope” — someone who ”keeps speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky.” 

”Wherever he goes, whomever he meets, he is able to see and hear something beautiful, something for which to be grateful.....He is a realist....there is nothing sentimental about him....He doesn’t deny the great sorrow that surrounds him nor is he blind or deaf to the agonising sights and sounds of his fellow human beings, but his spirit gravitates towards the light in the darkness....” Henri Nouwen, like Jean, is Light.

In Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Henri exhorts us to move beyond a life where ”we act as if we were simply dropped down in creation and have to decide how to entertain ourselves until we die” and work ourselves  to the realisation that each of us owes Life a vocation.

Viktor Frankl, drawing from chilling experiences of the Nazi pogroms, echoes this when he writes (Man’s Search For Meaning) that ”we need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk....but in right action and in right conduct.”

The way i spend each day is my answer to Life’s question for me.

The cultivation of calm presence -- lesson from a pilot and Jane Goodall

Yesterday, i flew from Chennai to Jaipur with an hour's transit in Bangalore. 

Shortly after the aircraft started to taxi towards the runway in Bangalore, the Captain spoke. In all my years of hearing Captains speak, this stands out!  The measured pace of speech, the simple words used, the casual tone (without any hint of swagger), and something non-verbal (but incredibly present) -- all of it sent out a calm, strong message — ”i am around -- so, you can switch off in peace.”

After we landed, i asked if i could meet the pilot and, after some checks, i was led to the cockpit. i introduced myself and we chatted a bit. She thanked me and said -- ”Today is a special day for me. We are an all-woman crew flying this route today." Then, she paused, and said -- ”Sir, we had some trouble a short while before we landed."*

About a half-hour before we landed, the aircraft started to go all over the place, and probably for a quarter of an hour or so,  it was buffeted by massively strong forces. 

As i stood in the cockpit chatting with Prerna, i remembered that while the plane was bouncing all around earlier, i continued to read undisturbed -- i remembered a peculiar sound that made me wonder for a second if the engines had stalled  but, most importantly, i remembered no fear -- no trace of worry -- i kept reading much as i do at my study table.

i told Prerna this and said: ”i realise now that i was untroubled because i knew you were in the cockpit.”

i remember a piece about Jane Goodall, the great primatologist. She was standing along with a group of people in a deep jungle somewhere in Africa. This was a group from one of her long running initiatives that heals severely injured animals and frees them. That particular day, this group was releasing a fairly large chimpanzee. Jane happened to be around and they invited her along, The chimpanzee got out of the cage, meandered here and there, walked a distance away -- and then strolled back -- went to Jane and enveloped her in a massive hug -- and did not let go! We must bear in mind that this was the first time the chimpanzee had seen Jane. The person who had spent the past few months with the chimpanzee wrote that he was astonished by the fact that the chimpanzee ”knew who it had to thank for its life.” This is not a one-time event. A lot of people have "felt" the Jane-effect. Joycelyn Stokes interviewed her on 2nd October 2018 and writes that ”she has....the sustained calm....of a zen monk."

i have been told (many times) about sages whose very presence radiates calmness in the atmosphere. i have been privileged to meet some ordinary, regular people (like Prerna) -- who have this gift. Though i use the word gift, i believe this is not an supernatural or divine thing -- but a part of them that has manifested owing to years of hard work honing skills and a consistent authentic seeking to learn & make oneself better. 

Such people are actively conscious (using words from Jane) that ”you cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make." In a New York Times essay (24th November 2012) titled "The Snake in the Garden", Pico Iyer makes the interesting comment that if we look close we will find that ”we worry only about....those things we can never do anything about." People like Jane and Prerna live differently -- they focus on what they can do, and do it with all their soul. 

i told Prerna that i learnt a lot from her and walked out of the aircraft with a song in my heart. i realise that i am incredibly fortunate — the universe keeps sending me Teachers every day. 

Peter Drucker's prescience -- "managing" others and ourselves

In a 1992 HBR essay, Peter Drucker observed that we are in an age of profound transformation where “knowledge is the primary resource for individuals and for the economy overall.” Conventional factors of wealth and production (Land, Labour and Capital), will not vanish but “become secondary.” Ever the humble scholar, Peter was conscious that it would be impossible to accurately predict what kind of a society will emerge from this period of transformation but he was confident that the changes we would do well to make were already evident.

The two primary changes Peter saw are about the ways we “manage” others and ourselves.

“Managing” others

In Management Challenges for the 21st Century, published just before the dawn of this century, Peter points out that “"employees" have to be managed as "partners"--and it is the definition of a partnership that all partners are equal.“  In my work consulting, training, and coaching, i find this is probably the biggest and hardest challenge that individuals and organisations are wrestling with. Even in Information Technology Teams that proclaim to anchor themselves to the Agile way in projects, i find that our habits of management have yet to change. It is indeed interesting to see Scrum Teams where “tasks are allocated” and Project “Managers” operate with a “command-and-control” approach that is far removed from the “partnership” spirit that is at the heart of the Agile thinking — a thinking that Peter subscribed to with his view that workers (seen as partners) “cannot be ordered” .

Summarising research and insights from the trenches of some of the most innovative organizations in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink identified “autonomy” as the most important of three factors that are key to motivation. Autonomy is not, as Daniel explains, “the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice — which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others.” The prophetic Peter foresaw that the emerging era is one where people will seek greater autonomy and prefer “to be led, not managed.” This calls for a significant shift in the approach to management — something we are struggling with.

One of the consequences of not fundamentally changing our approach to working with people is increased workplace disengagement. Gallup’s 2017 State of the Global Workplace report presents the eye-popping conclusion that 85% of employees are disengaged. This new global norm translates to, among other things, direct productivity losses and fragile loyalty. The Forbes-Silk Road 2018 Report articulates employee engagement’s central role for firms to succeed in “the Age of Digital Disruption”. About two-thirds of CFOs surveyed indicating that their firms are having a hard time retaining the employees they want. “Eight out of 10 high-turnover firms say that more than a quarter of their company’s labor costs go to unwanted turnover, with three out of 10 saying that employee churn eats up more than half of total labor costs.” This excludes the cost of productivity losses and losses owing to impact on customer-experience. Organisations with low employee-turnover report fair pay, environments that empower, and training opportunities on the job as factors that help retain and engage their people. While remuneration is a factor, creating “environments that empower” (an idea right out of Peter Drucker’s mind) is key. It is imperative that we change the way we “manage” others.

“Managing” ourselves

Peter was alive to the fact that, more often than not, organizations are slow to change because when faced with turbulent change, individuals “act with yesterday’s logic.” In 2005, as the Knowledge Revolution was sweeping around the world, he called on each of us to embrace a new personal ethos — “to learn to manage ourselves….learn to develop ourselves….to place ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution.” In other words, each of us would do well to actively create conditions for our growth by continuously learning, and seeking fulfilling ponds that give us room to put our capabilities to meaningful use. The wise Peter’s powerful advice is that each of us must “think and behave like a chief executive officer” of our lives. Daniel Pink’s remark is a hat tip to Peter — “This era doesn't call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” Each of us is not a pawn but a player with potential to actively change ourselves and, consequently, the fate of the game.

A significant part of this new ethos is acting on the reality that Peter discerned a long time ago. Any organization, to be genuinely successful, “has to be an organization of equals, of colleagues and associates” without “any inherent superiority or inferiority” and a culture of relationships that is the opposite of “boss and subordinate.”

This idea of taking sole responsibility for our careers (indeed, our lives) while genuinely working for the good of the collective is Peter Drucker’s message for our times. The state of the world today provides ample evidence that we would do well to act on this wisdom.