Let me begin by stating unequivocally that I come from an ideology where leadership is seen as a dialogic and transformational process – a process that gets anchored by an individual and or by a group, that struggle with double binds and ‘dharamasankatas’ of the context. By this definition the notion of leadership does not get personalized and monopolized by the omnipotent CXO.
All of us speak of the importance of leadership in the modern organization, and yet simultaneously there are also myths propagated today – myths are central to the ideology of capitalism – that destroy any potential and real engagement with leadership.
A bit of history before we delve into myths that destroy leadership within the modern corporation…
- The word ‘Double-bind’ was coined by an anthropologist – Gregory Bateson in 1950s, and is defined as paradox that goes beyond a simple contradictory situation created by two conflicting demands, but where this contradiction lays unexpressed and invisible; yet it creates tremendous anxiety. An act of engaging with a ‘double-bind’ is seen as a leadership act.
- The word “Dharamasankata”, a not so literal corollary of the double-bind, and more akin to Indian thought, has been used by Raghu Ananthanarayanan in his recent book on Leadership Dharma, where he uses the Mahabharata text, and particularly Arjuna’s Tapas, to explore nuances of leadership within. Ashok Malhotra, another mentor, has been working on leadership, and how it means to engage with paradoxes and polarities.
So what are these myths that destroy and deny any leadership process to emanate and sustain within the organization …
Myth 1: THE RAISON DETRE of the MODERN ORGANIZATION is to MAXIMIZE PROFITS
Let me begin with my favorite myth propagated with vehemence, and without any questioning or exploration these days – a quintessential quote of Milton Friedman is celebrated in business schools – “The purpose (or the Raison Dêtre) of the organization is to maximize profits”.
I believe that this myth is leveraged and deployed to destroy leadership processes within the organization when stakeholders need to engage with a critical dharamasankata or a double bind – that of “Seed versus Harvest”.
Across layers of the organization, every manager wakes up on a day to discover that he or she has to make a tough choice between ‘seeding’ or investing into capability, into teams, into people, into systems, and is torn by the opposing forces of ‘harvesting’ or demonstrating immediate results (quarterly), immediate impact, and immediate ROI.
This double bind or a dharamasankatas and its potential to demonstrate leadership is unconsciously sabotaged – and immediately by leveraging the abovementioned myth – where under the garb of next month’s EBITDA and quarterly profitability imperatives, all necessary dialogue and soul searching is collectively eschewed.
Thus there a DENIAL of needing to engage with critical demands of the organization today. Questions such – what are we seeding today, what do we build for the future that cannot get translated into ROIs and cash flows, what is the institution we are collectively building… remain unexplored or postponed. This double-bind is denied by the factory manager, who has to take a stance, it is denied by the Marketing head, who needs to take a stance, by the first level supervisor who needs to take a stance … if at all it surfaces at a CXO level as a capability building problem.
At best this myth creates a charismatic ‘leader’ – for his or her historical stance that may have generated wealth in the current – but it takes away all legitimacy from others who need to dialogue and engage with the double-bind. So I see managers abdicate from having to anchor “seed versus harvest” dharamasankata – this double bind is pushed and escalated upwards till it joins several other pending decisions required from a top management that remains burdened.
In this myth, nobody wishes to even explore Friedman’s assumptions and allied questions – who is our investor, what does the investor or types of investors seeking, who is a stakeholder and who is not …
Myth 2: The CUSTOMER is the KING!
This is a myth that does not allow any leadership dialogue and transformation of a key double-bind or a dharamasankata that any organization faces. The double-bind is “ENDs versus MEANS”.
It is frightening how this myth of the Customer being a masculine regal omnipotent head is deployed to kill any dialogue and transformation potential around the double bind of ENDS versus MEANS. Thus managers abdicate their ownership of investing into means and or committing to the end, by simply citing that the customer is the King.
At best this myth can create ‘JUGAAD’ – something that Indian managers are getting noted for; but at its worst, it creates oppression of people, underinvesting into technology, poor researching into methods and means, and in the name of ‘Results orientation’, creating a regime of aggressive oppressors that get work done out of others.
The Customer is the King is a myth that does not allow internal stakeholders to co-anchor a leadership process of even exploring which customer would they want to serve and delight, what happens to the customer of the tomorrow, what are the customers’ latent needs …
Thus all decisions around innovation and customer delight get pushed onto an already depleted senior management, and the rest of the organization chooses not to engage with the double-bind. It is scary how this myth is deployed to silence new ideas, new questions, and change.
I believe these two myths and many others may create ‘leaders’ but actually destroy leadership within!