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Leadership Amongst Leaders

Organizations often rely heavily on the decisions made by the Board of Directors, some of whom may also hold community, state or national leadership positions

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Leadership has often simply been defined as the ability and willingness to take ownership of the organization (or the division one is managing), combined with an intrinsic drive to do what is best for the organization. However, for leadership to be effective, it must be built on a strong foundation consisting of a clear mission, a clear vision for the future, a clear strategy, and a culture conducive to success.

Since the mission is the reason an organization exists, keeping it in the forefront is crucial while formulating leadership decisions. Vision is a conceptualization of the future and should be formulated based on an analysis of demographic trends and scientific innovations in the field, as this will impact the volumes of sales (of the product/service offered), staffing needs, and finances and facilities.

Strategy refers to the plans that the organization must follow to be successful and competitive, whereas tactics refer to the specific steps that the organization takes to achieve and implement the strategy. Tactics may include providing advanced training to its staff, undertaking R&D, improving the quality of products and services and communications, and/or increasing media visibility, among others.

Organizations often rely heavily on the decisions made by the Board of Directors, some of whom may also hold community, state or national leadership positions, and so their role may be leveraged to achieve more, and on a larger scale. But other Board Members may or may not be able to make decisions. They are often not involved in the operations and so are “alienated” from actual challenges being faced internally or have “inherited” their positions. Thus, it is important to develop a strong Board of Directors to achieve the organization’s Mission and Vision. 

For this purpose, there are effective Board Leadership Development Programs that are specifically designed to enhance the leadership skills of Board Members. But these orientation or training programs and tools should be designed by joint consultation with top management, to assist Board Members in becoming more knowledgeable about good governance practices, roles and responsibilities in the areas of financial, program and CEO oversight; strategic and performance management; fine-tuning the Mission and Vision of the organization; while highlighting the importance of Board meetings, strategic planning, and building a planning cycle. Modules should also include tools to effectively recruit and communicate with prospective Board Members.

Today, organizational culture is a crucial component that all leaders at all levels (including the Board) of an organization must understand to achieve maximum effectiveness. In addition to cultivating a conducive working environment, effective leaders must exhibit specific skills and attributes. These traits include excellent communication skills, empathy and emotional intelligence, team-building skills, an understanding of the competitive landscape, strategic thinking, and courage to take steps to deal with situations or improve returns, although this list is by no means exhaustive.

The most important tool that leaders need to possess is communication, which is a two-way interaction. Leaders should practice active listening. Getting feedback (negative or positive) or listening to others’ ideas displays maturity and is a sign of mutual respect. 

Leaders are often called upon to deal with challenging situations (e.g., conflicts, annual performance reviews, and so on). Dealing with such situations objectively without missing the underlying issues is important. An empathic leader will be a much more effective communicator, team builder, and “change” manager. 

All the above relate to building effective teams of talented individuals (e.g., President Lincoln’s “team of rivals”) with complementary areas of expertise who are comfortable with expressing their opinions. An effective leader delegates responsibility and lets others handle difficult situations or make the right decisions, even if this presents challenges in the short term. 

Though many are born leaders, leadership skills can be developed over time. At the start of one’s career, an individual typically proves himself or herself in an area of expertise, often related to his/her education. Initially, outcomes and innovation are sufficient to stand out “from the crowd”. But it is only during operations that the individual attains financial and operational knowledge and quantitative skills (such as understanding costs) that are relevant to the role. If the individual has mastered that level, he or she may move on to higher-level roles that are more strategic in nature.

Today, networking and keeping up with the “times” and the competition is crucial. A senior leader is required to understand the competitive environment, macroeconomic trends, and upcoming regulatory changes, and formulate policies to succeed in the rapidly changing environment.A common mistake is for leaders to get too involved in day-to-day operational issues, thereby taking their eyes off the “ball” and potentially missing new opportunities or emerging threats to the organization. Besides making the right decisions for the organization, the “leaders” should ensure that all other team leaders are making the correct decisions on time. 

Finally, it is important to recognize that leadership skills can be learned, improved, and should be practiced, for which feedback is crucial. What is required are structured 360-degree evaluations and training (which can be used to design and execute personalized developmental plans).

As per Insala, a leading global provider of talent development software and consulting, typically, employers begin to implement leadership development programs for three main reasons: to increase their organization's internal pool of leadership candidates, to reduce gaps in their current leadership skills, and to develop new leaders. But while many employers know what a well-developed leader looks like, the process of developing talented individuals into new leaders often becomes elusive.

Leadership development is not simply a process by which employers make people better leaders. Organizations must focus on the development aspect - ensuring that there is a holistic plan in place that recognizes and fosters the growth of individuals' skills, strengths, and talent to maximize their potential. 

Great organizations require great leaders, not just great managers, and the best organizations understand that cultivating leadership skills should be strategic. As American statesman John Quincy Adams said, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Ritu Agast

The author is Director - HR at Pearson India.

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