When we look at the state of the global economy, the US-China trade war, the Brexit drama as it unfolds in parliament which has been prorogued, the immigration debate or indeed, the economic slowdown in India, it becomes quite apparent that what we are witnessing is not greater turbulence, but less leadership. And less of the right kind of leadership that is required to tackle today’s problems.
Let us take the corporate world as well. It is beset with problems of all kinds involving all kinds of companies, from big pharma and big tech to big banks and big auto manufacturers. From scandals linking them to the opioid crisis in the US, to privacy and data breaches, misselling financial products, or setting up of fake bank accounts and emissions cheating, each of these is a symptom of corporate greed and short-termism. What amazes me even more is that even through the financial crisis, many of these companies were racking up huge profits, often stashed away offshore, and were not reinvesting them back into their businesses.
The fat bonuses and compensation packages preceding the Great Recession haven’t quite gone away, though many listed companies at least, are now required to get shareholder approval for executive pay. And another growing phenomenon is share buybacks, which rewards the already wealthy, along with attractive dividends, which has led to the larger share of national income going to capital, as the economist, Thomas Piketty, has pointed out on many occasions.
So, we don’t just have corporate malfeasance, we have corner-office managers and leaders getting rewarded for their aggressive corporate behavior in the marketplace. This relentless drive to meet the analyst’s estimates every quarter and see the share price soar, has become a disease and has blinded most leaders to the long-term growth and health of their organisations.
In today’s world, I think there are a couple of additional factors that leaders need to be always mindful of. First, is the fact that in the globalized world of business, what decisions one takes in one country has an almost immediate impact in several parts of the world, several thousands of miles away. And second, that social media has put all companies and countries under close and constant scrutiny all the time. Social media amplifies many of today’s problems and conflicts in the open space and not all of it is always good or helpful. But business and political leaders need to be aware of just how much weight is attached to their every tweet, statement and action and what effect it has on public opinion.
In the corporate world, we have always been told that “management is about doing things right, and leadership is about doing the right thing”, a quote attributed to Peter Drucker. And there are also debates about whether leadership can ever be learned or taught.
In my long career in advertising and brand communications, spanning several organisations, I have come to realise that leadership is not just about how and where you lead your people, but also about how you respond to certain situations. In that sense, leadership is about the vision and end goal that you want the company to achieve, but also about how you reach there. It is about the ends and the means, and the end doesn’t always justify the means. Having worked almost half my career at Ogilvy, I have been privileged to work with some of the finest bosses and leaders – people who gave adequate consideration to both issues, at all times.
This leads me to believe that leadership, therefore, is about a way of thinking about the future of the organization, society, country and the world. It can, therefore, be taught and it is up to leaders to train and mentor colleagues about how to view and approach problems. I also think that good leaders, because of their clear-headed judgement, create an environment of stability and calm around them. I find the chaos and insecurity that today’s political leaders deliberately spread and thrive in, so unsettling and at cross-purposes with what they claim to be trying to achieve.
Through the course of my career, I have found it useful to develop a few guidelines for leading, especially in difficult situations, and I thought I would share them. They revolve around principles to do with thinking long-term and thinking deep. If leaders are expected to articulate a vision for their work, team, department, organization… they must think long-term. I have always tried to keep that long-term vision at the back of my mind at all times, which guides me in making even short-term or quick decisions. It works as a reference point that I always check back with, and if I find that it is at variance, I then ask myself what it would mean to deviate from the said path.
The second principle – linked to the first – is to do with thinking deep about an issue. If you are thinking long-term, you would also be a deep-thinking person. When I say think deep, I mean delve deep and wide – most decisions one takes tend to have related consequences, other than the specific issue that is being addressed. It means being able to step back and look at the bigger picture and consider all the possible effects.
Does that mean I have always made the best decisions? Certainly not; I know I have made a few terrible decisions to do with my career. Decisions that have set my career back by around 12 to 15 years, and forced me to consider freelancing in Goa, where I live with my aged parents. Since I have neither the temperament for, nor much experience of freelance work, and since there are no work opportunities as such in Goa, I have done very few assignments. Thankfully, I keep busy with my blog. But even now when I look back, I can’t think what other decision I could possibly have made under the circumstances, considering the responsibilities I had and still have, towards my aged parents.
Here are a few thoughts that I leave you with, anyway. Think of them as mental signposts to help you make better and informed choices when confronted with adverse circumstances or tough issues and feel free to add your own.
Leadership is, of course, about much more than ticking the right boxes. Think of how best this checklist might help you: as reference points, or as ways of weighing the pros and cons, or indeed any other. You are likely to find that one set of decisions will give you short-term gains and may even seem the smartest thing to do right then, but the other set of decisions will take you to a better place months and years from now. Not just for yourself, but for all those who depend on you.