Strong Leaders- Weak Leadership

More than two years back, in a blog post “Intoxicating Invincibility”, I had speculated about the rise and fall of brand Modi and how it may impact BJP. So far, the events have unfolded, more or less in line with what I had anticipated. Whether or not, they continue to follow the same script is yet to be seen.

I am not a political analyst, nor am I very well informed in such matters. Essentially, I am a student of human behaviour and dynamics of human collectives such as organisation, families, communities etc. My speculations were based upon my understanding of the interesting relationship between systems(human collectives) with charismatic leaders, particularly of the alpha male variety. The script that unfolds has an eerie commonality across different individual narratives. It goes something like this-

1. An individual with some outstanding capabilities emerges,often from sections which are not central but peripheral in the system. He/she has a meteoric rise and becomes the most significant and powerful person in the system.

2. Under the leadership of this person, the system experiences some early successes, which enables the individual to consolidate his/her position as also the grip over the system.

3. Very soon, the person gains almost complete control over the system. All significant role holders are handpicked by the leader, with loyalty to the leader being a major criteria.

4. While a facade of openness and accessibility is maintained, the operating norms are-
a) The judgement of the leader is never to be challenged, and
b) No “bad news”should be allowed to reach the leader i.e. he/she should only hear what he/she wants to hear.

5. Over a period, the gulf between the “grass roots” and centres of power begins to widen and consequently, the performance of the system begins to slip. This is often attributed to individual failures and sought to be corrected through scapegoating and/or enhanced controls. The end result is further alienation of Leadership from the people at large.

6. At this stage, the disillusionment with the Leader begins to simmer and his/her sheen starts eroding.However, often the disgruntlement is not directly acknowledged or engaged with.

7. In a sense the System is now caught in a double bind.It is far too heavily invested into the belief that leader is invincible and hence can not release itself from the stronghold which the Leader has over it.Simultaneously, the Leader who till now was its greatest asset, now starts appearing like a liability. Simply put, the System can neither get rid of the Leader nor go on with it.The problem is further accentuated by the TINA factor, as usually under such leaders there are very few alternatives.

8. Most Systems at this stage go into a “free for all” state of drift and start waiting for the next Messiah to arrive, who invariably meets the same fate.

The only way that Systems can break this double bind is through unclogging the channels of upward communication which have got blocked. This is easier said than done, particularly in “high power distance” cultures like ours, where a high power distance between the leader and the follower is taken for granted. In case of strong charismatic leaders the problem is even more acute.

In relatively smaller systems, strong leaders take care of this problem through direct personalised connect. Thus one often hears of great leaders who knew each and every one of their employees by name. This is clearly not feasible in large complex systems, where one needs institutionalised processes to facilitate upward communication.

It is therefore not surprising that exercises such as “employee surveys” are being increasingly used by several organisations. While such exercises have their utility, they rarely go beyond identifying what people are feeling “good” about and what they are feeling “unhappy” about.

The feelings of “happiness” and “unhappiness” are mere symptoms- they may have little connection with what the real issues are. This is so, because all collectives have both “wisdom” and “noise” and what the surveys throw up is a peculiar mix of the two. To take an example from the socio-political sphere, a survey may well reveal that a large number of people are unhappy about “minority appeasement”. On this basis, it would be downright foolish to conclude that “minority appeasement” is either factually correct or is indeed the “real” problem.

In a way, such surveys are attempts to “by pass” the intermediary levels and connect the “top” with the “bottom” directly. This would be akin to a political boss who believes that he/she is directly in touch with the “masses”, even when, people who are directly working with him/her are scared to open their mouths in his/her presence.

The problem of clogged channels of upward communication can not be addressed through structural arrangements and introduction of systems like employee surveys. It requires us to revisit our basic notions about leadership. So long as we see leadership as vested in a person, we will continue to create the same double bind.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that leadership is a process to which all members of the system contribute. The so called “leader” is only a medium through which a collectivity expresses itself. How this leader is created, how he/she functions, how he/she is dethroned, has much more to do with collective (its myths, its aspirations, its anxieties, its mythology etc.) than with the individual concerned. This is not to suggest that the individual is of no consequence, but only to emphasise that over-emphasis on the individual blinds us to the forces which create and destroy leaders.

Efficacy of leadership process in a system is hugely dependent upon the quality of communication and state of communication channels, particularly of upward communication. If these channels get clogged ( which they often do, in case of strong leaders) the efficacy of leadership is bound to suffer. Ironical as it may sound, Strong Leaders often mean Weak leadership. Thus perhaps we need to let go of our obsession with Leaders and pay more attention to Leadership.