Corporations across the world and the leaders at its helm are often seeking answers to a much-debated question: What are the ideal qualities of a leader? There is no dearth of answers that one can find on this topic. For a simple reason that there are no easy answers. There isn’t a “one size fits all” response. In my own leadership journey spanning over three decades, my experience has been no different. Every corporation and every leader, I believe, discovers leadership qualities through their own unique journeys. What works for one may not necessarily work for another. What I have come to understand is that while certain fundamental qualities of a leader are time and context invariant, there are others that need to evolve with the changing times.
The primary role of a leader is to inspire hope. Leaders have a responsibility to raise the aspirations of their people and enable them to realize those aspirations. They have to lead by example and have to conduct themselves with fairness, honesty and integrity. Needless to say, they need to possess the required business acumen that comprises a deep understanding of current realities and also a firm view on the emerging future. This business acumen is much-needed to enable them to balance short-term organizational priorities with its long-term vision and to build an organization that will stand the test of time. I could talk at length about these widely acknowledged prerequisite qualities of a leader but I will focus on talking about the qualities that are most relevant today.
The events that led to the recent global economic crisis made it widely acknowledged as the crisis of trust. One of the most important qualities that business leaders today, in the post-crisis era, need to possess is the ability earn and build trust – within their organization and outside. Building trust is not an end-state but a continuous journey. At the organizational level, it necessitates the institutionalizing of robust governance mechanisms that promote transparency and ethical conduct. At the personal level, it requires business leaders to have the courage to tell the truth and the humility to say ‘sorry’ when needed. In essence, business leaders need to earn the right to operate by earning the trust of all their stakeholders.
In a little over the past decade alone, I have been witness to three major crises – the Asian financial crisis, the dotcom bubble burst and the most recent global economic meltdown. It is without doubt that such crises are an inevitable part of business and the frequency of their recurrence is only going to increase. The recurring crises notwithstanding, the socio-economic and political environment in which businesses operate in today is becoming increasingly dynamic and complex. Business leaders therefore need nothing short of nerves of steel to take these multiple challenges head-on and keep marching forward. They need to be in control at all times and instill a sense of hope and courage, particularly in the face of adversity. As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. There hasn’t been a better time to use this cliché.
Big picture view
There are various schools of thought when it comes to what business leaders should dedicate a substantial amount of their time to. There is one school of thought that believes business leaders need to focus largely on anticipating and preparing for the future. Another school of thought emphasizes on the common adage – “the devil is in the details.” In other words, business leaders need to be hands-on when it comes to understanding and shaping the realities on the ground. My own experience has taught me that business leaders need to embrace both – a focus on the larger picture and an attention to details. An idea without an effective implementation plan is of little value. Business leaders therefore need to be able to understand and contribute to all aspects of business – be it strategy, operations, finance or marketing. In essence, business leaders today need to be comprehensive in their approach and in the competencies they acquire. As demanding as it may sound, they are increasingly expected to be a jack of all trades and master too.
To conclude, I will reiterate my belief that leadership is a journey of lifelong learning. There are no mantras to success that are cast in stone. There are a few leadership qualities that stand the test of time but others which need to evolve and be embraced with the changing times. Business leaders need to embark on this journey of discovery called leadership with openness, courage and humility. The destination is certainly going to be worthwhile.
S.D Shibulal (Shibu) is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Infosys.