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Needed: Visionaries, Not Foot Soldiers

The bulk of B-school education in India is limited to providing functional skills in the various subject area

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma

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Managers come in two categories: the majority who merely manage, and the few who lead. The former — the garden or common variety — are essential; they are the foot-soldiers of the growing managerial army. Their functions include mainly the traditionally-defined roles: broadly, the efficient use of resources so as to minimise costs; and good or clever marketing, which helps to maximise revenue. There are, of course, a whole host of other elements which cover finance, product mix, customer service, human resource management, etc. A good manager handles one or more of these elements and makes the organisation an efficient one. Many renowned managers have helped to build profitable organisations through their competence in handling these diverse functions. Such professionals — whether handling a single line function, or a CEO — are essential for the smooth and efficient operation of organisations, contributing to the growth of the economy.

There is, however, a different breed of managers too, who may be capable at efficient management, but whose forte is leadership. These managerial leaders have a goal that goes beyond efficiency. They have a larger vision, communicate it well to their team and motivate others to give off their best. More importantly, they foresee opportunities and challenges and prepare the organisation to handle both.

The ‘managerial manager’ continues to work on increasing the efficiency of making and selling successful products. This works well, till an unforeseen change in the market hits them. As a well-known example, think of Kodak: a market-leading brand and a successful company, till digital technology brought the roof down on its traditional products. Its ‘successful’ management suddenly seemed naive and blinkered.

In today’s world of rapid technology advancements and disruptive new ideas, organisations must be prepared to face competition from completely unexpected new products. Even amongst new-age products, some face a problem of infant mortality as exemplified by the early demise of the electronic typewriter and the pager. Could these have been foreseen? Probably not, but a good leader might well have handled the resulting fallout so as to minimise the adverse impact and, possibly, even used the organisation’s capabilities to advantage.

Such leadership is not limited to creating or coping with new products. Innovative business models can be equally disruptive, or can open up new opportunities. Uber or AirBnB, Google, and many software-as-a-service companies exemplify such opportunities, and the life-threatening challenge they pose to traditional services in the respective areas.

Leader-managers not only foresee and cope with disruptive changes, but initiate or create such changes through new products, services or business models. In an era of disruptive innovation, the capability of doing this is a vital skill for managers.

Such disruptive change is not limited to the corporate world. It is to be seen equally in areas like health, education and governance, amongst others. Therefore, ‘managers’ in these areas too need to have these leadership capabilities. In fact, it is in these areas, long ossified in traditional ways, that there is the biggest opportunity to leap-frog, to create transformational change.

How geared are managers to take on this role? Unfortunately, the bulk of management education in the country is limited to providing functional skills in the various subject areas. The focus is on creating efficient managers, with little attention paid to developing leadership skills. The challenges of our time require far more emphasis on this, as the requirement for leader-managers escalates. This is a key agenda for management schools and an exciting opportunity for managers.

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.


Kiran Karnik

The author is an independent policy and strategy analyst, and alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad

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