Leadership, Personality cult and Institutionalisation

imageAdam (as) came down a father and leader and so from the beginning, man has been cast into this mould.

From my years of witnessing, leadership really falls into two broad styles. The first is iconic and driven by the personality of the leader. The second type is one which is built into the fabric of the system, where the personality of the leader is less visible and the institution is important. Its not my wish to judge, as depending on the need, either could be right for that particular moment.

Personality driven situations happen a lot in developing countries. The reason is simple. There are not enough institutions in place and moreover, the mindset is not controlled enough to have it any other way. So the personality of the leader is dominant enough in the minds of the followers, to ensure they follow his/her direction. Emotions have to play a larger role; trust is the basis of the system. At its extreme demagoguery occurs. A crisis normally has to have such a leader. Pakistan/India politics is very much just such a game. Hence families have thrown up leaders (not necessarily competent) where the family profile has given them that thrust. The Gandhis, Bhuttos, Shareefs are very much from this mould. Imran khan, too is a personality cult. Though to be fair, an attempt has been made towards some institutionalisation. But the recent dharnas have stamped his personality very firmly over his party and this country. This also happened in his cricket days in the Pakistan team, where the gulf in personality between him and others, made his dominance inevitable.

Institutional leadership is something you see a lot in structured systems. The leader is an arm of the system. He/she derives their authority and power from it. The followers respect and follow the seat and system, rather than the individual. Change the leader and it should not make a difference. Many corporates have followed this regime and it has worked well for them. Its cold, calculating, systemised and sustainable. And that is why particularly, it is not ‘Us’ in Pakistan. An army is one institution where the rules of succession are such, that there is very little difference between one leader to another. So then institutionalisation of leadership occurs.

Now within these broad guidelines are variations of style. You might get authoritative people, softer people, people who are loved and people who are hated. This does not shift the eventual effectiveness of leadership, as long as control is practised on the direction and goal of the leader, there is sincerity of purpose and there is the backbone for perseverance. If all these happen, success will come eventually.

Within established systems you will get the odd outlier. Jack Welch of GE was one such leader who created a personality cult within the system. Others one can think of in recent years are Iacocca of Chrysler and Goizueta of Coca Cola. Typically, such outliers will rock the system and make things happen in the short term. But since they differ from the system DNA, they cause longer term damage and eventually the system reverts back to its institutionalised DNA.

Can a system migrate from one to another? Above examples are of those where a personalised leadership was foisted onto an institutional based approach. I have never really seen these work. Typically the system reverts to an institution over time or it will crash and disappear. Think of India and Indira Gandhi in the mid 70s. That attempt to create an authoritative leadership failed and India moved back into democracy mode.

The reverse migration of institutionalisation from a cult personality, almost always happens over time. Mao and China is one very obvious example. There are so many others. The Magna Carta is one very poignant example of how the cult of a leader was replaced by the participation of a system.

We in Pakistan are witnessing this very battle in so many places. The Supreme Court, the Army, the democratic institution and also in many local corporates. If we desire sustainability, then eventually we have to learn that dependence on the cult of a leader will always give us variability and uncertainty over the long term, not sustainability.

The picture is from Wylio.com a free picture site

Melinda and Coke

Melinda and Coke

Recently I heard a TED talk by Melinda Gates, of Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. Melinda looked at the operations of Coca-Cola, which if replicated in the field of development, would drive change and realize the  Millennium Goal targets. This could eventually eradicate poverty from the world. A very laudable objective, even though she used Coke as an example, whereas I am partial to Pepsi due to my past affiliation with the company.

Melinda’s theme was that Coke’s standard operating procedures (SOP) be replicated at the implementation level, with focus on three key components: using systems that incorporate real time data, using entrepreneurial talent and spirit and last but not the least, marketing to address the happiness aspiration in the context of local culture.

Melinda Gates is an icon. One hopes both she and her equally iconic husband succeed in their mighty goal of eradicating poverty from the world. Along with Warren Buffet, they will hopefully be a great example of how to return what is earned to the needy.

So where is my beef in all this good work?

Over twenty eight years of working in several MNCs and iconic organizations, I have been taught that for something to be successful at any level, we take a certain logical course. It involves the following four elements, in various shapes and forms: Vision, the purpose and the goal; Concept & strategy, as they say, “the big picture”; Implementation, actual middle level management; and execution, doing it right at the work force level.

Vision is a no compromise situation. No vision will always result in failure. You might get a flash in the pan short term respite, but over the long run, a vision is needed to sustain success.

Concept and strategy would look at the playing field from outer space, deciding if the shape of the effort will fit the playing field. Strategy does not worry about potholes and patches, it concludes whether the fit is there at all. Once correctly fitted, you can make changes based on operational feedback, while remaining directionally grounded. Many large companies have failed at this stage. Wrong concept can lead to death, though often you can repair it through timely action.

Implementation is done by expert operating guys. They know the nuts and bolts and their resource capacity. They will form systems and implement through the mire of day to day management. There are thousands of these middle level managers in Coke and many other consumer companies. I myself was such a manager some 20 years ago. The magical mechanic! Things should never fail at this level. The error spread is small. Very rarely catastrophic stuff like Fukushima nuclear plant or Bhopal leakage can be attributed to implementation. Rare! The spread of error is repaired by a revision of system or by changing personnel.

Lastly, doing right! This is where the foot soldiers, the sales, production and system guys play their part. They labor un-ending! One needs to inspire them to do their back breaking work, which is largely a human resource function. They are very important, but a good organization must make them effective.

So where is Melinda pitching herself in her talk? Well, to my eye, she is slap in the middle of implementation and how it’s going to save the day. I am actually a bit taken aback. She is touching on areas, which are core to millions of managers much better suited for the role. Melinda’s strength would be providing a vision and maybe a concept. In my opinion, she should not be drifting out of that area, as that is where the developmental battle will be won and lost.

I would also advise against using Coke as an effective benchmark to her purpose. Those ‘implementing’ at Coke are successful, career driven, high earning and upwardly mobile young managers. In developmental sector, you will always get the Abdus Sattar Edhi or many others driven in their own right. I have a friend like that who works in strange regions of the world. But this level of motivation and inspiration does not just happen, if you look at the bell-curve.

Secondly, organizations like Coke are driven by the profit motive. That is nature’s way. This is where more philanthropically inclined organizations are fundamentally different. Surely the same principles of hard-nosed, no nonsense environment cannot be applied there.

My advice to Melinda would be to go back to the drawing board. Craft a way to motivate those driving developmental work, without a profit motive or a high profile career – get the concept right. That may not be easy, but hopefully with the clever people at her disposal, she may achieve it.

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