Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thriving on chaos while driving process –Leadership in practice

I was asked to talk about leadership as it is practised in industry at the Nanyang Fellows Leadership Series at Nanyang Technology University, (NTU) Singapore on December 16th, 2009. I am choosing my blog as a venue to develop ideas for this talk on leadership. Many of the readers of this blog are distinguished leaders, and I am hoping that you will contribute with your ideas.
The initial thoughts that I am putting down are with the intention of starting what I hope will be a lively discussion. Victor Mieres helped me articulate some of these initial ideas and I would like to thank him.

Leadership in practice:

Thriving on Chaos while driving process and leading from the middle are the top themes that come to my mind when I think of leadership.
I chose the words thriving on chaos to reinforce the importance for leaders to have a high tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty. In organizations that are marked by entrepreneurship and innovation, leaders not only need to be flexible, but also must enjoy the challenge of facing the unexpected. At the same time there must be appropriate levels of development of processes, so that the organization is scalable and that every issue does not become an exception to a process. Leadership of this nature is probably not suitable for all organizations. Large transactional organizations or functional process centric functional groups are perhaps successful because of leaders who enjoy institutionalizing processes and discouraging "thriving on chaos". Does this mean that leadership is subjective, depending on the operating environment? My view is that there are some common elements of leadership, and there are many aspects that are based on the operating environment and goals of the leadership.
In an organization which is innovative and entrepreneurial, trust is of essence. The trust of the organization in its leader and the ability of the leader to trust members of his or her team is critical. This is a time consuming process, since trust is earned, and I have not found a way to short circuit this aspect of developing a well performing team. Leadership in practice also of course involves the ability of the leader to attract extremely competent people, because trust with out competence will take you nowhere.
In addition to competence and trust the leaders should be able to motivate the people in their organizations and have the ability to have genuine relationships with members of their team.
An aspect of leadership that is not talked about too much, but what I consider essential for long-term sustainable growth is the ability of leaders to grow a "secure team" ; that is a team in which members respect others and do not feel threatened when other members do well. A team in which members are secure enough to innovate and not fear failure. Growing a "secure team" is probably one of the most difficult aspects of leadership.
The Nanyang fellows are young but experienced managers from industry and government whose organizations have chosen to send them to NTU with the hope that they will grow to lead large organizations in time. So I wanted to spend some time on leading from the middle.
Leading from the middle involves commitment, competence and entrepreneurship. Often I hear people complain about their management, the environment in their organizations, their customers ….. A leader emerges from the middle by taking ownership and being proactive, and taking up the "cause" of change or success. But again this is not enough to sustain an organization. It is then important to be able to groom a next level of leadership by coaching and then delegating decision making and authority. Once again the concept of atomization of the organization helps both in testing the leadership and grooming new leaders.
A few of my colleagues and friends mentioned that using "thriving on chaos " is too strong; maybe "managing chaos" would be more apt. But I continue to think "thriving on chaos " is essential since it highlights the fact that businesses and organizations change rapidly and often unpredictably, so we have to enjoy this change in order to lead a successful team and at the same time be able to drive appropriate processes required for running a good operation.
I hope to hear your thoughts and arguments so that we can all learn and for a selfish reason that I can put together a useful presentation.