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Succeeding In A Chaotic Environment

This column endeavours to highlight some facets of leadership that may help organisations in these challenging times.

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Contagion driven disruptions have impacted almost all organisations. While some have perished, most, given the current resource crunch, are struggling to remain afloat. In such times of crisis, companies with inbuilt resilience to cope with the turbulence coupled with their ability to exploit opportunities will succeed. Organisations which have fostered an adaptable, learning and value-based culture will have a distinct edge.   

The army has proven credentials in this regard. It has remarkable resilience to withstand environmental shocks and successfully operate in chaotic environments. Drawing on my military experience, this column endeavours to highlight some facets of leadership that may help organisations in these challenging times.  

Confidence and Positivity are Contagious

Amongst the resources available to any organisation, the import of human capital will always reign supreme. High levels of motivation and morale sustained by agile and emotionally balanced leaders spur teams to do what most people think is impossible. These leaders remain stable, levelheaded and make rational decisions despite high levels of stress and fatigue. Their calm and confident behaviour enthuses people with positivity and generates an optimistic and constructive ripple effect. 

Confidence and positivity in a leader come from competence and self-awareness. Competence in challenging conditions entails the ability to comprehend the situation quickly, examine various options in the wake of various constraints and restraints, effectively communicate the preferred option and ensure its implementation. Right now, these constraints and restraints include the terms of reference laid down by the government to prevent the spread of the pandemic along with the revised regulatory framework and various stipulations, given out by the senior leadership of each organisation. 

People are at ease with confident and positive leaders because of their supportive and undaunted attitude. They trust their judgment and feel secure and assured that come what may, their leader will show them the way and never leave them in the lurch. Such leaders are selective with their words and a dab hand at punctuating their verbal communications with subtle humour. In a crisis, humour, inter-alia, is an antidote to stress and emotional turmoil. But in spite of their expertise, they resist the lure of overconfidence as it impairs judgment. 

Sustain the Winning Spirit

In tough conditions, effective leaders focus on ensuring the highest levels of motivation to sustain the winning spirit in their organisation. Motivated people pursue goals enthusiastically despite the hard knocks of the environment. Verbal communications to inspire people when supplemented by personal examples have a far-reaching effect. Voluntary cuts in the entitlements announced by a large number of leaders from various sectors is a healthy initiative and a much-needed expression of loyalty and solidarity in the prevalent hard times.    

In the army, leaders ignore their ranks and privileges when engaged in combat or disaster relief operations. Driven by mutual loyalty and camaraderie, they share hardships with their men and lead from the front. There are countless examples where leaders have demonstrated selflessness and unflinching commitment towards the needs of their subordinates in challenging times. While every operation deserves a mention, I will quote just one from the eastern theatre, relating to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.  

On September 18, 2011, when an earthquake of magnitude 6.9 struck our Himalayan State of Sikkim around the last light, the army resources under my command, proactively swung into action and did not wait to be requisitioned by the state government. As the roads were badly damaged and vehicles could not ply, senior leaders along with their battalion commanders and troops walked cross-country throughout the night in heavy rain to reach the critical areas. When I reached Gangtok from my headquarters located at Kolkata, I found the Corps Commander along with his Divisional, Brigade and Battalion commanders rubbing shoulders with their men to save lives and to assuage the sufferings of the distressed people. Their disregard to personal safety and comfort to be in the forefront was instrumental in ensuring high levels of morale.   Officers and men went hungry as they handed over their packed meals to the afflicted people and when the cooked meals arrived by helicopters, the leaders ate only after the civilians and their men had eaten.  Experience shows that leading by personal example in challenging conditions helps sustain the inner drive in subordinates, whereby they do not succumb to stress and fatigue and remain enthusiastically wedded to the organisational goals.   

Ensure Right People at the Right Place

Not all leaders are empowered to effectively lead in chaotic conditions. Senior leadership should relieve subordinate leaders, who tend to buckle under stress and demonstrate undesirable behaviours.  Negative vibes in the form of anxiety, anger, contempt or grief can seriously harm the organisational cohesion and motivation. There are innumerable examples from the public and private sectors both in India and abroad, where leaders have been replaced by more emotionally stable leaders to tide over crisis situations. 

In difficult times, organisations would also do well to prune their chairborne leaders. Barring the minimum inescapable requirement at the headquarters and various verticals, the majority should be moved to critical areas. Maximum interaction with the people, while upholding the government announced protocols remains the need of the hour. For optimal levels of motivation, the leaders’ concern for the people should dutifully spillover to their families as well. A genuine commitment towards the basic needs of the people and their families, in times of crisis, will most certainly manifest into enduring bonds of mutual loyalty and trust.

Listen and Communicate with Candor

Effective communications help leaders to understand the emotional, social and security needs of their people besides enhancing their situational awareness. They also help share details of various organisational initiatives aimed at handling the crisis and protecting the interests of the people. Effective interpersonal skills, besides the ability to communicate with candour, include the art of listening and understanding the non-verbal communications of their people.  

Internal communications are critical for implementing changes necessitated by the calamity. Leaders should adopt a distributed and collaborative process to realign strategies, plans, processes and new initiatives. Such a process, besides facilitating the leveraging of collective wisdom and intelligence, helps develop ab-initio ownership of the impending changes. In addition to the institutionalised communication networks, leaders should optimally leverage the secure social media platforms for regular interaction with their people and external stakeholders. 

Realign Risk Management Framework

Anything that has the potential to impede the smooth implementation of strategy and associated plans should be incorporated into a comprehensive risk management framework of the organisation. In the prevalent setting of uncertainty and volatility, a regular analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) is the sine qua non for every outfit.  Organizations should consistently study in detail the evolving political, economic and social contours of the global and domestic environments and identify risks and opportunities. For this purpose, maximum wisdom should be tapped. The tendency to rely on a chosen few for critical decision-making should be ruthlessly curbed.  

Organisations should consider constituting small teams of agile, creative and innovative leaders at various levels to play the devil’s advocate in the decision-making processes and even visualise various maverick contingencies that can impact their organization. Who could have ever imagined risk of this mammoth nature? Perhaps it’s time to start looking at the global warming in earnest. In times to come, it is bound to challenge humankind.

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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Chaotic Environment leadership Disruptions

Gen. Bikram Singh

General Bikram Singh , PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, ADC, is a former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of the Indian Army. Also, he sits on the board of companies

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