The ability to create honest value as a guiding star for successful leadership


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 1 2018)

A friend once said, a man is honoured for what he gave and not for what he received. That seems like a common thread with great personalities we adore – be it reformists, scientists, political heroes or business leaders. We remember them for the positive change that they have created not just in our lives, but for many generations. Drawing leadership lessons from their ways may be especially beneficial to the corporate world in today’s digital age. 

Leaders that we cherish typically work towards goals much greater than themselves. They are passionate about making a real difference in the lives of the many – fame and material riches are only by-products of their efforts. They work tirelessly, because pursuing a passion or working for a great cause motivates them, even if it is gruelling. Work and life are generally not viewed as distinct aspects that they feel compelled to constantly balance – life happens at work, too, where at least a third of the day is typically spent. Even when their initial goals are reached, they seek further fulfilment through philanthropic actions and by seeing others fulfilled. Coexistence and interdependency are natural underlying themes of their journeys.

In day to day life too, seemingly small and random acts of kindness and cooperation can make a big difference and seem to lift up the energy of the givers, recipients as well as the individuals around them. The sustainable efficiencies being achieved in the Nordics and other Western European countries are clearly reflective of an alignment and bi-directional flow between interdependent elements. The natural phenomenon itself is sustained by a cooperative mix of the five basic elements: ether, air, fire, water and land.

Corporate leaders have choices to make – whether they want to create wholesome outcomes for their co-workers in a fast-paced world where joy is short lived, or if they want to inspire and produce more such leaders or if they want to make a real difference to the many. If so, it is possible to incorporate many lessons from the above. 

With an acute awareness of their motivations and actions, senior leaders need to objectively examine where they are self-directed versus driven by the common good. This demands a high level of alertness and willingness to rise above the narrow self, hypocritical ways and the focus on short term wins. The gap between thought, word and deed narrows, and leading comes naturally. This is perhaps the only way to inspire in the attention-deficient day and age that we live in. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. are our inspiration here. This also lends itself to keeping a focus on simplification in a constantly evolving complex web of digitally-driven enterprises, and sets the tone for others to follow. Living up to company values is a case in study. 

Individuals generally want to go beyond themselves when they feel adequately secure. They would like to have a purpose in their career, make a difference and be seen as a key contributor in one way or the other, big or small. By relating to this fundamental need in every individual, enabling and empowering them in an appropriate manner, leaders can unleash tremendous potential in individuals for the greater good. Tapping into this aspect at a fundamental level also builds trust and strong long-term relationships. When senior leaders do this, they are directly shaping the corporate mindset and culture. Automation and artificial intelligence initiatives require focused change management along these lines. A brilliant leader once opened up whole new possibilities for a great software architect by encouraging and enabling him to apply himself beyond his legacy focus, and to create unforeseen value as the enterprise made forays into new ways of doing business. The ability to create real value as the business evolves has then become a guiding star for ‘super heroes’ who in the past held knowledge close to their chests. 

That ‘harmonisers are the heroes’ might apply more aptly to corporate situations of today. Thankfully, many of us are not dealing with survival. Recognising the natural inter-dependency and coexistence in all of life enables strong leaders to identify the key moving parts, both internal and external, and harmonise the dependencies between them. The level of success reflects the depth to which this is understood and orchestrated selflessly by the leaders. The digital movement aims to meet customers as well as co-workers wherever they are, whenever and however they want. Hence, the number of entities and movements between them is exponentially increasing and constantly changing at the same time. Technology may be an enabler, but the ability to stay on the real pulse of the organisation, understanding and responding to complex situations in an agile, sustainable and humane manner will become a clear differentiator of effective leaders. Jeff Immelt has written of the imperative for leaders to adopt ‘systems thinking’ to be successful with digital transformations. Harmonisers, sufficiently empowered, can place a clear focus on functional activities and steer their teams away from energy draining emotional conversations and negativity. Views that work is radically distinct from life and can also be significantly harmonised with an approach of considering all daily activity. 

Actions and reactions, causes and effects. Positive energy naturally reflects back positivity. Unscrupulous indulgence in corporate politics, focus on short-term wins over others’ heads generate negative energy, long-lasting grudges and tit-for-tat behaviour. People have an amazing ability to see through the means very clearly and will bring a natural resistance, even if hidden, to the agenda of leaders that get ahead by hook or by crook. A win also naturally means that there is a loss – and most wins are so short lived in the digital world. The clichéd ‘win-win’ is rarely worked towards with a full heart. We quite commonly see this at play in client-supplier negotiations. When both parties bring self-fulfilling agendas to the table beneath the veil of creating a win-win, it drains tremendous energy out of the teams while gaining little real benefit for either parties in the long run. All in all, creating a positive environment that encourages the right means of achieving success is a sustainable choice.

Sustainability and corporate social responsibility efforts typically tend to focus on the planet and on less privileged social groups outside of an enterprise. However, a view that sustainability really starts with the individuals within an enterprise can be a game changer. By inspiring a positive work environment and outlook, we are able to focus the collective energies of the teams in a sustainable and effective manner. Creating a culture that respects reflection time, provides sounding boards in the form of executive coaches and mentors can be instrumental to sustainable success. This can in turn enable better choices and approaches towards sustainability and responsibility from a planet, customer and societal perspective. The Nordic countries, as champions of sustainability efforts, could possibly pave the way here as well. At IKEA, for example, creating a positive impact for people, society and the planet is a key business priority – co-workers and the working environment are central to achieving it. 

Adopting some of the above considerations will likely yield a number of benefits. To organisations, it can bring a mindset of a holistically defining their strategies and execution plans. In the digital world, keeping up with the individual and changing fragments is not sustainable in the least. This understanding can open up new possibilities and better the lives of the many. The focus is on the long term with a well-oiled and adaptable ecosystem of interdependent levers. A positive environment coupled with a sustainability focus leads to a greater alignment of plans and actions, thus reducing stress and enhancing sensitivity and responsiveness to each other and to the organisational needs.

Senior Leaders can take the opportunity to review their current approaches to digitalisation in light of some of the above considerations and streamline them to be more agile, sustainable and effective. This can be done in a structured manner using the right assessments and tools. Additionally, leadership development in the digital age and focus on the ‘employee experience’ are steps that many organisations are taking. This can be further fortified with some oriental wisdom in terms of scientific approaches to self-development. Finally, in the high-paced digital world with minimal attention spans and little reflection time, having sounding boards in the form of coaches and mentors might be an indispensable necessity of co-workers and senior leaders alike – to help them to go beyond themselves in a targeted and contextual manner. 

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Umasankar Diddi is a management consultant with focus on IT and digital strategy, agile and lean organisations and change management. He is a certified executive coach and a Cosmonaut of The Group of Analysts. Umasankar helps organisations and individuals work towards their goals in a simple yet meaningful and effective manner.

Picture credit © pchyburrs/Getty Images

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