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    Anil K Sood

    An Exploration into the Assumptions and Biases in Understanding Leadership

    Our current understanding of the idea of leadership has emerged largely from research and experiences in environments that could be characterised as stable[1], i.e., the situations with a reasonable degree of knowability. In the language of finance and economics, a low-risk environment is considered to be a stable environment.

    In a relatively stable environment, a role/rank based hierarchical leadership model is valuable. The experience gained through progress in the hierarchy enables individuals to master the known, make a reliable assessment of what is likely to unfold in future, and thereby raising the probability of success for individuals as well as the organisation.

    A stable environment also allows the development and use of institutionalised processes, which help identify potential leaders, develop leadership capabilities and assess their performance.

    Scale and Evolution of Technology cause Increased Organisational Complexity and Environmental Uncertainty

    As technologies are advancing in specific domains (e.g., communication, sensing, machine learning, information processing & management, etc.), and are getting integrated with technologies in other domains (robotics in manufacturing, self-driving cars, e-commerce, Agri-tech, fintech, etc.), the operating environment is expected to become more uncertain, reducing the degree of knowability. While it is often possible to sense the direction of change, it is rarely easy to assess the magnitude and timing of change. At the same time, the scale and geographical spread adds to organisation complexity. In an environment characterised by uncertainty and complexity, the hierarchy-based organisation model is less likely to provide reliable leadership choices in a way it previously could.  In a complex, uncertain environment, the willingness to experiment and the speed of decision-making matters more than getting it right the first time. In other words, we need to focus on raising the probability of success through experimental choices.

    Delayering helps speed-up decision-making, but limits the opportunity for Reflective Thinking and Practice

    Delayering has been one of the many organisational responses, but it has come with unintended consequences. Delayering leaves very little time for experience-based learning, as the leadership teams are required to hit the road from day one. While leadership is a learnable capability in certain circumstances, it has a significant component that relies on reflective thinking and reflective practice. Experience of dealing with complex, uncertain environment is as important as the knowledge of how to do deal with complex and uncertain situations.

    A Diverse Workforce helps build a culture of Collaboration and Innovation and enhances the probability of personal and organisational success

    Rapid adoption of new technology (e.g., information and telecom) has required organisations to increasingly rely on younger people, as they are the ones who bring the most recent knowledge to an organisation. Similarly, the increased mobility through local or cross-border migration for education and/or employment has been changing the workforce mix even in the aging societies.

    The shift in generational mix is also being aided by changes in the very nature of work (e.g., fragmentation of value chains combined with increased automation implies that experience matters less), nature of contractual arrangement (e.g., increasing share of temporary workers), increasing entrepreneurial activity among the young as well as the middle-aged, etc.

    Yet another set of factors impacting the generational mix includes social (increasing woman participation and relatively high mid-career drop outs), demographic (increased longevity) and economic (stagnant real-median incomes requiring people to work longer) conditions.

    At the same time, the workforce with higher education is retiring sooner than in the past as they are financially secure and start looking to do what is closer to their heart.

    In short, the nature, technology and economics are coalescing to create a multi-generational, multi-cultural workforce across the world.

    At this stage, we believe that it is important to discuss the role of leadership and see if we can develop a shared perspective about what it means to lead in an uncertain and complex environment. As a conversation starter, we have listed below the following questions:

    1. What is the role of leadership in an environment characterised by high degree of complexity and uncertainty?

    2. What are the leadership behaviours that can help make organisations future-ready, given that a multi-generational, multi-cultural workforce is a reality?

    3. Do we need visible heroic role-models, or do we need invisible leaders who collaborate to build the institutional core?[2]

    We have shared a few perspective papers and insights-based articles on our website:

    1. Changing the Nature of Conversations on Leadership by Dr Anujayesh Krishna at
    2. Capability Building in a Community: A Story from Pre-Independence India by Prof. Ramnarayan
    3. 4 Reasons why you should stay with a Bad Manager by David Wee

    The questions and the ideas above were also a part of our discussion at the IASCC-XLRI Leadership Conclave held on August 10-11, 2018. The summary of conversations at the Conclave is available at .

    [1] We are using the term stable and uncertain environment from Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch’s characterisation of organisation environments.

    [2] “The executive becomes a statesman as he makes the transition from administrative management to institutional leadership. This shift entails a reassessment of his own tasks and of the needs of the enterprise. It is marked by a concern for the evolution of the organization as a whole, including its changing aims and capabilities. In a word, it means viewing the organisation as an institution.” Leadership in Administration by Philip Selznick, Pp 4-5

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