Article: Leadership today and tomorrow: Rajeev Peshawaria on the rise of the positive autocrat

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Leadership today and tomorrow: Rajeev Peshawaria on the rise of the positive autocrat

Rajeev Peshawaria, CEO, at the Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre talks about the rise of open source leadership and of the positive autocrat in a world where the definition of leadership needs to change.
Leadership today and tomorrow: Rajeev Peshawaria on the rise of the positive autocrat

In a world where the definition of everything (related to work or otherwise) changes at the speed of social media, it is strange how the definition of leadership has not evolved as much as it could have, or as much as it should have over the fast changing last decade. From when Rajeev Peshawaria published Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders: The Three Essential Principles You Need to Become an Extraordinary Leader in 2011 to his latest publication, Open Source Leadership: Reinventing Management When There Is No More Business As Usual in 2017, he says that the way we define leadership seems to have remained unchanged. 

What is holding us back?

We still cling to our basic unaltered believes on who and what a leader should be even when every aspect of the environment where the leader operates in has completely transformed. It is imperative to uncover what is holding us back and making us feel complacent in the face of the blitzkrieg of dynamic changes that characterizes our world today.

Rajeev observes that, “We confuse leadership with formal positions of authority and ironically, also with followership.”

He went on to explain that although the three biggest names in leadership - Martin Luther King Junior, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi had not risen out of formal positions of power, we still, even in today’s age of flat organizations and leaderless functions, seem to associate authority and positions with leadership. 

Confusing leadership with followership is yet another drawback in the evolution of the leader. Growing up, most of us realize that the stress is always on the need to “do as your told” and obedience is rewarded. This philosophy is upheld throughout our lives and we end up growing into an army of pleasers. Even in the corporate world, if not more so, no matter how heavy the emphasis is on innovation, it is rare that management heeds suggestions that do not fit the framework of proven best practices thus actively and often unconsciously reducing the scope for leadership.

So, what is leadership is after all? Leadership is the art of harnessing human energy toward the creation of a better future. The main ingredient in leadership is leadership energy – the force that prevents leaders from caving in when faced with the most formidable resistance. Rajeev stresses that this emanates from a deep clarity of values and a values-based purpose. “King, Mandela and Gandhi were considered great leaders not because of their position, authority, appearance or personality, but because they created better futures for people around them. No matter how tough the going got, they never gave up.”

Harnessing the power of enterprise leadership 

There are three tangible elements within any organization that Rajeev believes to have the key to unlocking enterprise or organizational leadership. These elements are interesting because while they harness the energy of the whole organization  to drive long-term sustainable growth , they also pose as barriers if not planned, managed and operated in ways that are conducive to maximize organizational longevity and performance.

  • Brains – Just like our brains are the control centers for the neural network that runs through our bodies, a compelling vision and mission serves as the control that helps every organization map its strategies. The mission, vision and strategy of the organization are what frame the overall leadership direction within the system.
  • Bones – The skeleton of organizational leadership stands on people, processes and structures. This edifice should be such that creates nimbleness to execute the strategy instead of bureaucracy.
  • Nerves – The nerves are constituted of culture, which is what contributes to the tenacity and endurance of the organization’s long-lasting excellence. Organizational culture is often misunderstood in management parlance although it is the key to getting the people puzzle right.

The culture of the organization forms the backdrop, provides the context and sets the stage for leadership energy to manifest itself. Since the culture rests heavily on values, organizations need to make the necessary distinction and remember that values trump rules since while the former are everlasting, the latter gets outdated. That said, personal values need to be linked to organizational values for relatability and relevance. 

Rajeev says that even when it comes to nurturing leadership, companies need to bear in mind that “Culture is what your people do when no one is looking. Values have to be lived and not just read and that is the difference between values’ inaction and values in action.”

Being uber-connected, digitally dependent and uber-populated

While legacy management practices are still followed, they have lost all relevance in today’s open source era where ordinary individuals have increased power and freedom. Leaders, on the other hand, are totally exposed and almost naked. Every word they say and everything they do is now scrutinized, discussed and evaluated. Nothing is hidden any more. Everyone and everything is completely open. An overhaul is thus mandated, says Rajeev.

That the traditional industrial age thinking needs an upgrade, is a given. That said, are there any core legacy philosophies that still have room in the modern workplace? Are we losing touch with certain age-old learning in our herded, blind sprint for the future? These are questions that often plague us when we see the need to change surge towards us. 

Rajeev says that, “Some basic principles are timeless, for example, nobody can motivate another person.” In order to change while being rooted in select basic principles, “it has to be beyond Tuesday pizza and Friday casuals”, he added.

The 21st century leadership dilemma

While most books and articles glorify democratic leadership, leaders like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs have built their respective empires on the polar opposite philosophy of autocracy. 

“Moreover,” Rajeev says, “ in a recent research we conducted, it turned out that 28 countries actually prefer autocratic leadership over its democratic alternative with 78% of the population in the countries preferring autocratic leaders on an average, 93% being the highest and 51% being the lowest preference percentage tilted towards autocracy.”

That stated, how does one be autocratic in today’s world where ordinary people are more empowered and leaders more exposed? This is where the concept of autocracy has altered a bit and the seed was planted for the rise of the positive autocrat. Positive autocracy in today’s hyper-connected, opinionated and expressive world needs to satisfy a few conditions:

  • The leader must earn the right to be autocratic with a powerful purpose 
  • S/he needs to master the dance of the naked autocrat and balance between the poles of being an autocrat and being an enabler 
  • The leader needs to be able to allow freedom within the framework
  • The ability to build a culture of forgiveness, empathy and compassion, is an art and a science that the positive autocrat needs to crack every day.
  • To be able to continuously listen, learn and respect, to drown the background noise and make time for silence and reflection

The gig: live and unplugged

When it comes to leading the growing army of free agents or contingent workers, the need to set the right culture becomes even more important. According to Gallup, 13% of global employees are highly engaged and energized but 78% of Uber drivers are engaged. These metrics point towards the inherent differences between gig workers and full-time employees. Contingent workers represent the organization even though they are not direct employees.  For Uber or Airbnb for example, the reviews that customers leave affect the organization although the rating is for free agents. The management system needs to reward behavior that is in accordance with values and thus needs to monitor behavior remotely. 

Full-time employees need to be provided the same freedom as gig workers because whether full-time or part-time, we are all used to an increased level of freedom when it comes to operating in an environment.

What positive autocrats needs to master is also the art of less micromanagement. When a leader accepts that out of all employees, 20% would be high performers, 60% would fall in the average range of the bell curve and 20% would be low performers, s/he also realize that closely monitored stretch goals are not always the best solution to assume. What if you could allow people to choose where they want to be on the 20-60-20 curve? That’s not all. They not only get to choose which segments they want to be a part of but also choose their pay accordingly. This would firstly lead to de-stigmatizing less work and consequently lead to increased ownership and enable employees to look at their jobs as their businesses.

These shifts in leadership cannot be as instant as we have made ourselves used to. Innovation and change requires a culture of failure and ownership. While Google is proud to fail 80% of the time, Satya Nadella said that when employees can move from saying “I work for Microsoft” to saying “Microsoft works for me”, that is when transformation can truly happen – with ardent passion to change and the will to actually be a leader and not just become one.

Topics: Best Practices, Leadership

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