During a National HR Conference, a global HR Speaker is sharing his perspective on Leadership practice. Someone, in the audience, raises his hand. He remarks about an ancient thought and urges that we need to develop our own indigenous model basis our Indian-ness. At that point in time with no one from the audience was able to share the Indian way of management.
Executive Coach & HR Consultant, Steve Correa was triggered to write a book about the Indian way of leadership. After years of research, he wrote the book ‘The Indian Boss at Work’. In an exclusive chat with People Matters, he shares his thoughts about leadership amid the crisis, key takeaways from the book, and the Indian way of management.
What triggered you to write the book and how was the journey of writing on Indian leadership?
Back in November 2011, I experienced a moment of epiphany which I write in my book. I realized, my own knowledge of Indian leadership practice was unsatisfactory. ¬ In discussion with others, I discovered for most of us (the Corporate leaders I spoke to), our foundational knowledge of ‘Indian-ness’ itself is woefully inadequate. It dawned on me writing about India and Indian-ness would be a way to continue the dialogue - to blow on the ember of ‘Indian-ness’ and start a blazing fire. I explored questions: is there a characteristic distinctive to Indian Leaders? Is western psychology universal as it claims? Have we in India covered ground on indigenous psychology? Most of all, I wanted to explore the theories of the day, through the lens of my own personal experience. Here I was, all set for an adventure. I recognized I was on a boat ride, and it was equally important to understand the water beneath - to recognize the ‘nature of the river’ as well.
In writing about the Indian leader, I draw on my own experience of leaders in the corporate private sector, though the insights are as relevant to Indian leaders in most walks of life. I augment my assertations, with research data, both Indian and global, as well as quotes from Indian Leaders and thinkers as well which are in the spotlight sections.
What your three key takeaways from this book?
There is a distinctiveness (and I don’t mean uniqueness) about the Indian Leader - how he thinks, feels, and behaves at the workplace. That he acts in response to the ‘kaal’ (existential time and prevalent social character), and ‘desh’ (his inheritance, such as the identity of race, caste, a religion of place) and contextually to the Indian environment ever unfolding. It examines forces that have shaped (not caused) his worldview. It shares insights on how history, and his family upbringing, and prevalent cultural forces, have shaped his orientation. You will discover insights to how he responds to his corporate duties, obligations, and tasks; also ‘tensions’ in managing polarities (two sides that create contrary tensions) that come from responding to the imperatives of business, either in resonance or otherwise, to his personal value, either espoused or experienced. It will inform his behavior at home, in society, and at work. You will discover polarities and how he goes about co-holding the dilemmas, and paradoxes and contradictions, successfully or otherwise. While select leaders have earned a fierce reputation, regrettably most other Indian Leaders continue to remain challenged - to be locally and globally relevant.
Since the book is about the ‘Indian way’ of management. How is the Indian way different from the other parts of the world?
The global forces have shaped his ‘self-directed, goal-oriented orientation’. He is amid modern management practice, yet traditional ideas confluence with modernity, and the dominant idea of the time.
I elaborate on the multiple facets of the Indian Leader. The Indian way is characterized by a fuller, all-round engagement with employees, agility, and adaptability to roadblocks, addressing needs through creative ‘value for money’, and finally, a much longer-term vision and sustainable purpose. The Indian way of conducting business, ‘Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah’ (may all become happy), is inextricably linked to cultural and philosophical roots. Indian leaders view business as part of a wider social vision. To get around the hurdles, of tradition with modernity, there is innovation, with Indians taking pride, to find ‘social hacks’, and ‘temporary fixes’ called Jugaad, to get around things. While materialism is amplified in the West, in India, Indian Leadership is viewed in this complete plurality, most holistically, with all which resonates, evokes, and which is held in dissonance.
These research points to the fact India is a society of high-power distance (a relatively higher levels of acceptance of power hierarchies, but the extent varies from region to region, based on gender, level of literacy, social and ethnic groups) and high acceptance of hierarchy, a mix of collectivist culture and Individualistic culture, moderately masculine, low uncertainty avoidance culture, denoting tolerance to uncertainty, and is long term oriented and pragmatic, and has a restraint culture with an orientation to pessimism. In researching India, researchers stumbled on a distinctive cultural dimension – ‘ethnic orientation’. The ethnicity of an individual creates a distinct cultural identity as he belongs to a certain community, race, minority social groups, etc.
I argue that the Indian leader is multi-faceted. A Desi Leader is ‘this and that and more’. I draw out the ‘Desi Leader’ characteristics as below:
D - Directive and Nurturant
E – Emotional and Intelligent
S – Spiritual and Worldly
I – Individualistic and Collective
L–Leverages Short- and Long-term opportunities
E – Expressive and Restrained
A – Androgynous – masculine and feminine
A – Ambitious and Competitive
D – Dependant and Interdependent
E – Embraces Profit with Purpose
R – Relationship Builder
According to you, what are the characteristics a leader should possess during the time of crisis?
In today’s time, with our world losing its way to ineffective leadership in crisis, plummeting into dubious practices and some outright scams and financial impropriety; now, more than ever before is the need for the emergence of the Corporate Rishi – a ‘Rajarshi’ Leadership style for our times. Rajarshi leadership style has been advocated in Indian thought for centuries. The modern mind is too egoistic to admits its illness. Our own traditions offer us insights on Appadharma in times of crisis and emergency as well. In a crisis, we need to be even more guarded to protect a few citadels.
For one, Values stand out the most. I applaud a few companies who have gone out of their way to do what is right (increments, continued focus on training, etc), while the majority have responded to the imperatives: downsizing, lay-offs, work beyond office hours, etc. The espoused ‘we value our people’ flies against the practiced and the experienced.
The time now is for an Organization (as a community) to show its humane face, sensitivity, compassion, and care. In this, leadership is crucial to steer towards the North Star, a code of unflinching principles and values, despite everything. Adaptability is enhanced rather than hampered when there are ‘core’ principles. We expect Individuals to get on with their ‘leadership development’, hoping that transformation will emerge from this; yet fail to provide the scaffold to support the transformation within the organization. What we need now is humility, compassion, and a new kind of response. The ‘normal’ has changed. It would be helpful for leaders to remember that ‘normal leadership’ will be irrelevant to our current times.
I am hoping we act as trustees, to leave a richer legacy for those that follow us. For each of us, we will be remembered for not just what we did, but what we failed to do.
Do you think this crisis will change the future of leadership?
Business organizations have gone through drastic changes in the last 10 years alone. The current pandemic has not only hastened the need for change but requires us to reinvent ourselves. We need to prepare ourselves to be agile in terms of strategy, leaders, individuals, organization, technology, and ways of working. There will be changes too difficult to ‘crystal ball’ at this phase, and unimaginable at this time. Building resilience and learning agility will be key.