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.


Santosh said...

Some thoughts:
a) I think you can break up your thoughts into thought leadership and organizational leadership.
Thought leadership to me includes :
i)Having a clear medium to long term vision
ii) Making some clear strategic choices which will truly enable that vision to come to life
iii) Make the decisions based on a mix of data and gut- and not with either one alone.
Organizational leadership touches upon the aspects you have covered, which to me comes under:
i) Picking and building a capable team - a mix of security and complementary skills to each other and the leader being important
ii) Getting the team enrolled to the vision so there is a common goal
iii) Knowing how to achieve a balance of process and decision making depending on the kind of organization

b) This is more a structuring comment, and I am sure you will get there as you consolidate every one's inputs . I have typically seen leadership talks work very well when it breaks it up into " 5 tips to be a great leader"/ " 7 leaders I have learnt something from" kind of story lines that have numbered points. I also find using anecdotes/ inspiration from other leaders as a powerful engagement tool, and wonder if you would consider it as a way in. ( My favorites are always situations from Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs and Bill Gates/Steve Jobs, though with your breadth of reading you may have even more powerful leaders and examples in mind).

Chandran Nair said...

Thank you santosh for some great feed back

Anonymous said...

Am no Management Guru and cannot contribute any fresh ideas. I feel “… thriving on Chaos..” is more apt and for the very reason you mentioned. And, yes, “trust” is a must in every field of life to build a “secure team”.
Very well written, Chandran. Looking forward to reading the version presented to NTU.

Allan said...

Thank you very much for these great thoughts. Below are some comments and observations from my nascent experience in leadership.

Comments on the mixture of ‘leading from the middle’ and process:

I am a firm believer and practitioner of ‘leading from the middle’. A life defined by proactivity combined with a genetically inward locus of control caused the ‘leading from the middle’ muse to resonate. This mentality and a quantitative background, led me to model my incredibly dynamic world of technical sales. The resulting model, which I recklessly termed a process, gave us a deeper understanding of causality. More importantly, it helped us understand how an idea or action could impact our business. In the end it led to a sharpened intuition when selecting which ideas to invest our time implementing.

It is critical to note that this model is a living creation and is flexible and updatable due to a rapidly changing environment.

Expanding on a comment from Santosh:

"Knowing how to achieve a balance of process and decision making depending on the kind of organization"

Rigid processes greatly limit innovation, while the lack there of can destroy efficiency. As Santosh suggested, innovation and process are not mutually exclusive. It is striking the right balance which will maximize innovation and value.

From my experience in an innovative and entrepreneurial firm, a leader’s ability to strike the right balance is greatly influenced by an understanding of how the organization brings unique value to the firm or market. Once this is deeply understood a team can strategically decide which functions potential value warrant innovation versus which would be better viewed from an efficiency standpoint.

Often times in practice the decision for innovation vs. process is made at a very high level e.g. strategic vs. functional level or marketing vs. back office. If time was taken to look a bit more granularity, it may be seen that, for example, the widespread autonomy can drastically limit innovation because of inefficient resource investment. The root of inefficiency can stem from a function that never actually receives innovative attention and the function’s output doesn’t contribute any unique value to the whole.

‘thriving on chaos’ is an appropriate term to describe our environment. People generally seem to loath, fear, and deny change. This intuition, time after time, seems to destroy value. Therefore a superlative is necessary to counteract what seems to be human nature to deny it.

Chandran Nair said...

Thanks Allan for your valuable comments

PCV said...

Well done Chandran...I liked the idea of leading from the middle and being pro-active rather than 'fire-fighting'.

I feel a leader should possess some vital qualities like Vision, Trust and the ability to communicate and 'get connected' with all the stake holders.

I recently attended a course which all people in management and leadership in our Trust had to attend.I was very much attracted by 'perceptual positions' based on 'Gandhi model'.ie a method to increase the range and depth of personal understanding of an issue, situation or person, therby increasing choice and flexibiity of behaviours. This is based on first person(through our own eyes) , second person (through the eyes of the communication partner/ partners) and third person (impartial observer) thinking. I felt this was an additional way of increasing our mental flexibility and the ability to understand and respond appropriately to a situation as a leader...

Dr Pradeep C Vasudevan
Leicester, United Kingdom

生日 said...

easier said than done. 一起努力吧! ....................................................