The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.
– Jim Morrison, Roadhouse Blues
The movie "Gladiator" did quite well at the box office. The protagonist was a high-ranking Roman general named Maximus Meridius who, through a cruel twist of fate, was forced to become a gladiator and fight for his life in the circus.
The movie was cinema at its grandest. The high points came during the fight sequences where the hero, played by Russell Crowe, overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to win battle after battle.
I wondered how Maximus must have felt as he stood in the arena and faced down every new challenge that was thrown at him. I got a visceral experience of this when I visited the Colosseum in Rome with my family. As we walked around the ruins of that once impressive arena, we learned that it was built to entertain the common people and detract them from creating civil unrest. The biggest attractions were the gladiatorial fights. The battles were medieval, bloody, and deliberately staged with surprises. As the gladiators fought each other, they suddenly encountered exotic and fearsome animals that they had never seen before and did not know how to counter. It was an intentional recipe for mayhem.
I tried to visualize all this from Maximus' perspective. He was a trained soldier and experienced general who had led and won many battles. He had a deep understanding of the conventional battlefield and knew how to run a strong "command and control" operation. But the gladiator arena was a new and uncertain landscape that looked quite different from anything that he had experienced before. He had to not only fight recognizable enemies (other gladiators), but also contend with entirely new and unpredictable creatures that showed up without warning. Then there was the noise created by a screaming mass of spectators, which made thinking difficult and added to the overall confusion.
What leadership skills did Maximus use to bring himself and his warriors across the finish line, again and again? How did he adapt to his new circumstances, and what did he do to build a fighting unit that would persist against all the odds? Could we apply any of his techniques to our professional lives today?
THE 21st CENTURY BUSINESS ARENA
The imagery of gladiators in an arena may seem far from the realities of the modern workplace. I will offer, however, that the fight for survival is metaphorically similar.
Companies and businesses today are literally in a fight for survival. With rapid changes in the technological landscape, industries are witnessing a large-scale disruption of traditional business models and operational strategies. They are trying to stay ahead by developing innovative products and solutions that can provide technological or business advantages against their competitors. In parallel, they are trying to do "more with less" by relentlessly squeezing costs and extracting efficiencies. They are actively outsourcing their products to lower-cost suppliers, offshoring work to lower-cost countries, and automating everything else with the help of computers and robots.
Small businesses are not immune to these pressures. Mom and pop shops have seen their core value propositions of personal touch and responsiveness get redefined. Technologies have replaced the front end, eliminated the middlemen, and automated large portions of the back end. Owners have adapted by becoming digitally savvy, upgrading their tools, and re-training their staff.
As traditional businesses fight for dominance, they are also being disrupted by fast-moving upstarts who challenge the status quo and play by a completely different set of rules. With angel funding and venture capital more easily accessible than ever before, startups have spawned at record rates across the globe. Unencumbered by past baggage and dogma, these newcomers have entirely reimagined the customer experience. They have created radical new solutions that provide greater convenience and eliminate long-standing pain points. They have already sent numerous behemoths into oblivion, with others watching nervously and wondering when it will be their turn.
As if all of this was not enough, businesses must also deal with external shocks that show up with little warning and leave widespread disruption in their wake. The financial crisis of 2008 and the Covid pandemic of 2020 are two recent instances that bankrupted many companies. With "Black Swan" events showing up more frequently, CEOs are starting to ask: "What else lies around the corner? Are we adequately prepared?"
As they navigate this rapidly evolving landscape, companies, both large and small, are actively looking for help. They are engaging highly paid consultants to bring external perspectives and make recommendations. They are also hiring change agents to "shake things up," execute broad changes, and deliver significant financial outcomes.
And they want everything to happen fast. Leaders know that missteps and distractions can result in a loss of time, arguably the most egregious sin in today's business environment. They have watched many established companies go from being market leaders to filing for bankruptcy within just a few years. They do not want to be the next one to go this way.
If you are in a leadership role today, you are likely experiencing some or all of the above. Given the circumstances, is it fair to say that you feel a little like Maximus did in the gladiator arena?
If there is one constant in our lives today, it is change. Change itself lies on a continuum with disruption as its most extreme form. Whether it is a department-wide continuing improvement project, an organization-wide strategic transformation initiative, a company-wide response to a competitor's disruptive move, or an industry-wide response to a Black Swan event, each creates stress and comes with its own flavor of noise and uncertainty. What kinds of leadership skills can position you for success in such an environment? That is the topic we will explore in this book.
LEADERSHIP IN THE AGE OF DISRUPTION
During the Industrial Age, companies developed a hierarchical "command and control" model for managing their business. People at the top set strategy and then created work packages that were flowed down to their organization in a cascading manner. This top-down operating model placed a premium on domain knowledge and subject matter expertise. Leaders at the top sported long tenures with significant track records of achievement. They were highly knowledgeable, self-assured, and decisive.
This operating paradigm was successful because business and technology cycles were long and stable. Changes happened at a slow enough pace that leaders and organizations could take their time to learn and adapt. They could afford to make mistakes, take undesirable detours, and still manage to get back on track without too much long-term damage.
In recent decades, the rate of structural transformation in the industry has increased exponentially. Consider that the internet took off only two decades ago, the smartphone was invented just over a decade ago, and artificial intelligence began getting to scale only in the last couple of years. The first two have entirely transformed how we work and live, and the third promises to soon envelop everything we do.
Rapid and radical technological changes have helped entrepreneurs reimagine how customers are served and pushed long-standing businesses into extinction. Amazon has completely changed how we shop and driven many brick and mortar stores out of business. Netflix has transformed home entertainment and is now going after Hollywood. Online travel marketplaces like Expedia and Travelocity have pretty much destroyed the travel agency business. Services like iTunes and Spotify changed how we consume music and, in the process, eliminated the CD industry. The iPhone killed the Blackberry, then eliminated the point and shoot camera, and is now going after the secure payments business. Tesla upended the auto industry and is foraying into the power generation and storage business. Uber disrupted the taxi business, and AirBnB did the same to hotel chains. These are just the first examples that come to mind. I am sure you can name many more.
In less than a decade, we have become intimately familiar with players like Amazon and Netflix. In contrast, healthy and profitable brands like Sears and Blockbuster are now a distant memory. How many people accurately predicted the speed and scale of these changes? When Jeff Bezos launched Amazon, people dismissed the online buying experience as being inefficient and impersonal. Even Bezos said at the time that he was not competing with brick and mortar stores. And who does not remember Blockbuster's famous rebuff of a buyout offer from Netflix because it was a "very small niche business?" These decisions were made by smart people who had lots of experience running successful businesses. How did they get things so wrong?
There was no way to look too far into the future accurately. All people could do was read the trend and decide if they wanted to jump in. The leaders who took some chances were the ones that successfully harnessed the changes. They experimented with new ideas and quickly pivoted when things did not work. When their ideas did work, they further strengthened them and built strong moats around their business models. In summary, they acted as change agents who chose to follow their passions rather than wait and see what the herd did.
All these change agents were fast learners. They were obsessed with their customers and willing to do whatever it took to make them happy. Their clarity of purpose, dogged determination to succeed, and willingness to make hard decisions set them up personally for success. It also inspired the people in their team to come along on their journey of change and transformation.
Conversely, leaders who were slow to imagine the future continued doing business as usual. They felt secure that the barriers to entry in their industry were high, and they would have enough time to react if a competitor introduced something innovative. As technological changes accelerated, however, their reaction time was progressively squeezed to the point where inaction or missteps created unbridgeable gaps. When that happened, the first mover ran away with the spoils. The incumbent was left behind to embark on a tortuous journey of de-growth followed by eventual extinction, sometimes in just a few years.
This unprecedented speed of change and disruption has implications for how leaders must operate from now on. With structural changes occurring every few years, it will no longer be possible to lean on accumulated knowledge or learn from mistakes over multi-year timeframes.
The rules of the game have immutably changed. We now live in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment where the horizon is always fuzzy, and the scarcest commodity is time. In this environment, leaders must be able to learn fast and pivot quickly. They must be willing to challenge their assumptions, acknowledge their knowledge gaps, crowdsource inputs when appropriate, and make radically honest and data-driven decisions.
But that is not all. Success in today's environment does not just depend on the leader's ability to evolve at a personal level. It also depends on their ability to bring others along with them. To move forward with speed and accuracy, leaders will need to engage the organization's rank and file and inspire them to contribute actively. They will need to build an environment where everyone feels heard, and the best ideas win.
Adapting to change at the individual level is already hard. Developing a culture and ecosystem where entire teams and organizations move and adapt with speed is much more challenging. That will only happen if the people trust their leader, fully comprehend the mission, and are empowered to drive action from the grassroots.
Leaders who can successfully harness the power that resides within themselves as well as their larger organizations, will be our next superstars. What changes must they execute to make this a reality? Here are some thought starters.
MOVING FROM BLINK TO THINK
Our society has a positive bias towards people who are intuitive and decisive. We admire leaders who look self-assured and seem always to know what to do, irrespective of circumstances. How do they do it? What exactly is intuition, and how does it work?
In a nutshell, intuition is the ability to know something without spending time thinking about it. When we encounter a situation, our brain immediately searches for similar patterns from the past and quickly re-frames the new problem to fit into what we are already familiar and comfortable with. This lazy brain approach short-circuits the thinking process and helps us move forward with speed. The more experienced we are, the better is the quality of our intuition.
The book by Malcolm Gladwell titled "Blink" has compelling examples of how intuitions (or gut instincts) can be used by everyday people to make decisions and drive successful outcomes. These examples illustrate the accuracy of snap judgments, especially in repeat situations, where past decisions can be referenced to make new ones.
Where intuitions run into trouble, however, are new and radical situations that are unlike anything we have experienced. Because our brain is programmed to serve up intuitions, it still goes and finds many memories that "kind of" fit the situation and entices us to use them as a reference.
There is a parable that somewhat illustrates this. A policeman sees a drunk man frantically pacing under a streetlight and asks what is going on. The inebriated man says that he has lost his keys, and they both start searching together. After some time, the policeman asks the man if he is sure that they are searching in the right place. The man replies that per his recollection, he lost the keys in the park that is just down the road. The policeman, now incredulous, asks why they are searching in the wrong place, to which the man replies, "because there is light here, and I can see much better."
Intuition is much like the drunk man's approach. It sheds light on things we know. Unfortunately, it is also an unconscious process that shows up, much like an uninvited guest. If we are unaware of how it works, it can drive us in the direction of familiar mental frameworks, regardless of whether they apply or not.
To succeed in today's fast-changing world, leaders must alter their orientation from one that always pushes for speed to one that also emphasizes accuracy. They must become more aware of their intuitions and develop ways to figure out when it is okay to Blink versus when they should slow down and Think.
The Think paradigm acknowledges that new and complex situations may sometimes require deeper thought and reflection. It is based on the premise that it is better to take a little extra time upfront to understand the problem and develop a solid plan than to push for quick actions and bumble through multiple learning iterations.
Moving to this mode of operation can be uncomfortable for leaders accustomed to being viewed as supremely knowledgeable and fully in control. When faced with unfamiliar situations, they may prefer to rely on only a superficial understanding to make decisions. They may decide to move forward under the assumption that they can power through any issues that come up later. Unfortunately, whenever I have witnessed this type of thinking on new and complex projects, it has resulted in continuous zigzagging without meaningful progress. With every bad outcome, the leader pushes even harder, leading to a stressful environment and long work hours. After a few painful weeks (or months), everyone realizes that things are not working. The people in charge analyze the situation, make changes, and re-launch the project. If the team is lucky, things get better, and they get across the finish line. If they are not so fortunate, the cycle of endless pain repeats.
This is not a good way to operate in the best of times. It is a terrible way to operate when the stakes are high, and time is of the essence.
When situations feel new and unfamiliar, leaders must acknowledge their discomfort and prioritize learning over intuition. Although it does not guarantee success, it provides a higher statistical probability of achieving it.
What do leaders look like when they operate with the Think paradigm? They show high self-awareness, i.e., they consciously recognize when they are starting to lean on their intuition in the absence of knowledge. They have a strong nose for risk and can quickly sense when people around them are beginning to get uncomfortable. When this happens, they slow down their judgment and actively listen. They bounce thoughts with people and attempt to see things from alternate perspectives. As they collect new information, they force themselves to acknowledge what it is telling them, irrespective of how counter-intuitive it might be. This deliberate process of data accumulation and synthesis helps them gain new insights and make more accurate decisions.
It is important to note that thinking is not the same as slowness or inaction. Thinking requires that you make a deliberate effort to step away from your pre-programmed intuitions and seek more data in high stakes situations. It does not have to be time-consuming. It can happen fast if you quickly assemble the right set of resources and get their inputs. What thinking does require, however, is listening and reflection. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts for this.
The Think paradigm has numerous parallels with meditation, where slowing oneself down and focusing on the task leads to a state of calm, followed by new insights. It is no wonder that many corporate leaders are embracing meditation. They are using it to increase their self-awareness, manage their anxiety, and work their way through crises. They have acknowledged that the world is now more complex, and their toolkit of past experiences is no longer adequate.
Once leaders start evolving towards a learning mindset, their next challenge is to expand this operating style into their broader organization. To expose themselves to the highest quality information, they must build a culture of free speech and meritocracy where the best ideas get surfaced and heard.
MOVING FROM DIPLOMACY TO MERITOCRACY
All enterprises are somewhat hierarchical in structure, with management layers that increase in scope and level of responsibility as you move from the bottom to the top. When leaders need to make a decision, they usually listen to what their team has to say, get a couple of second opinions from trusted peers, and then make their call. The accuracy of the decision is highly dependent on the quality of the conversations that precede it.
Think about the last time you were in an important meeting. Who attended, and how did they behave? Did the leaders have a pre-disposition, or did they listen patiently before forming an opinion? Did the presenters meaningfully challenge their leaders, or did they generally defer to their judgment? How did everyone feel after the meeting was over – were they energized and hopeful, or were they stressed and deflated?
Sometimes leaders are larger than life characters who get accustomed to being treated with deference. They relish challenging others but do not enjoy having the favor returned, especially in public settings. Such leaders wield a disproportionately large fraction of power in their relationship with subordinates and create an environment where open and honest discourse is impossible. People can spend a lot of time and effort before a meeting to massage the information and ensure it aligns with what the leader expects to see. And the actual meeting can become a "Kabuki Dance" where people posture and hedge, as they wait for the leader to reveal their hand. By the end, you reach a state of groupthink, where everyone has agreed with the leader's opinion and endorsed it.
Just think about how harmful the above style can be when the stakes are high, and decision-making accuracy is critical. If the truth cannot easily flow upward to top management, then organizations are effectively playing a lottery where they are betting on their leaders to pull out the winning number all the time!
Overheads created by politics and posturing are pure waste – they slow you down or, worse, send you down the wrong path. Meetings are not a forum for leaders to show everyone that they are right. They are an opportunity for them to validate their assumptions and get critical feedback. During meetings, leaders should put on their "listening ears" and relentlessly seek out the truth. They should create an environment where people speak up without fear, and the best ideas are allowed to win, even if they are disruptive to existing plans. In summary, leaders must evolve their culture from one of diplomacy to one of meritocracy.
There are significant positives when leaders act this way. Their inclusive style creates trust and fosters a sense of camaraderie. Since people feel heard, decisions taken tend to have strong buy-in, even by those not in agreement. And finally, because they are not firmly attached to their point of view and willing to accept when they are wrong, such leaders are able to pivot quickly in the face of new information.
PIVOTING WHEN CIRCUMSTANCES CHANGE
A critical decision that leaders face in high change environments is whether to stick with existing plans or change direction as new information comes to light. There can be many reasons for such a decision point. A competitor may introduce something unanticipated, new technologies may emerge that suddenly enable what was previously not feasible, the regulatory environment may change and create risks for the business, or, more commonly, a critical project (on which a lot of money and effort has already been spent) may run into unforeseen challenges. If leaders are unable to take objective cognizance of these changes and evolve their plans quickly, they are likely to lose time and fritter away valuable competitive advantage.
One of the reasons leaders do not pivot even when the writing is on the wall is their innate belief that they can push through any obstacle with just a little more creativity and effort. This mentality has its roots in how we are brought up. All our life, we are taught how important it is to keep going against all the odds. We grow up hearing expressions like "winners never quit" and "the weak never finish." This thinking gets drilled into us during childhood and is further reinforced when we pursue our careers.
Grit and determination work. If you are facing a challenging task with a well-defined path, then bull-headed determination and single-mindedness of purpose are reliable recipes for success. These characteristics separate you from the rest of the pack early in your career when you are inherently short on knowledge and experience. If you show that you can stretch and push not only yourself but also your team-mates across the finish line, you are sure to get noticed and selected for leadership assignments.
Once you start leading teams, every good showing further grows your confidence. As you accumulate wins, you are likely to develop a strong belief that you can single-handedly drive success. Unfortunately, this illusion of control can become a significant issue when your path is not the right one. When that happens, no amount of grit, determination, and hard work can bring you success. The only viable option is to pivot.
Another reason that leaders do not pivot is inertia. Once they have developed an idea and put it into motion, they are likely to keep it moving even when contrary information comes to light. The people in their team also play a role in this. When they have put much effort into something, it is difficult to convince them to throw everything away and start from scratch. They just feel better moving forward under the hope that things will somehow work out in the end. Unfortunately, inertia is a bad thing when you are operating in a volatile and changing environment. Instead of cutting your losses and moving on, you can end up wasting precious resources on activities that no longer add value. Leaders must be able to recognize when this is happening and pivot.
The third reason for failing to pivot is ego. Some leaders develop a strong self-image as they accumulate responsibility and power. For such leaders, being wrong in public is not acceptable, and saving face is of paramount importance. This can make them protective of their past decisions and keep them on a path that everyone else can see is outdated and wrong. Unfortunately, staying the course when a change is prudent can result in significant amounts of lost time and opportunity, a luxury that organizations cannot afford today. When circumstances change, it is much better to acknowledge them, salvage whatever you can from the past, and change direction.
Winners never quit, but they know when to switch. Leaders with a learning mindset are willing to change their plans when the environment around them evolves. Pivoting can involve stepping out of comfort zones and taking on new and risky paths that do not have a well-defined outcome. That said, if these new paths seem the most optimal based on the data at hand, it is better to pursue them rather than keep working on things that are clearly not headed towards success.
I will be the first to acknowledge that pivoting away from a well-established plan is not easy. It is risky and puts the leader in a vulnerable spot because they are effectively second-guessing themselves. When it is necessary, however, they must do it quickly and decisively.
But wait! There is more to it. Leaders must not only pivot at a personal level but also get their entire organization to change direction. How can they make that happen?
OPERATING WITH SPEED AND AGILITY AT SCALE
As leaders adopt a learning mindset and become honest in their decision making, their next challenge is to convince their people to come along on the journey and actively contribute to it. Unfortunately, this is where some of them struggle. They do the hard work of analyzing the landscape and laying out a compelling strategy. They develop bold plans with aggressive timelines. But when they start executing, the response from their organization is sluggish. Why? Do their people just not get it?
Here is the fundamental truth. People need to know where they are going and what role they will play before they can decide if they want to get on board. Think of your enterprise as a house where your team lives. The first question they will ask is: Is this house stable? In other words, is this business on solid ground? Is my job secure for the foreseeable future?
Once they feel assured, the next question they will ask is: Is this house growing? In other words, is this business on a growth path? Is it a good place for me to continue investing my time and effort?
When they feel assured about this, the third question they will ask is: Can I help grow this house? In other words, do I have a say in my future? Am I empowered to contribute to this business's success, and am I included in the decision-making process?
If you, as a leader, have created an environment where your people answer yes to all three questions, then you are leading an engaged organization that will actively assist you in making the challenging journey through change and disruption.
Creating engagement is relatively straightforward when the organization is small. If you can fit everyone in a room, you should be able to meet regularly, exchange ideas, and keep everyone on the same page. As the organization increases in size, however, it becomes exponentially harder to keep everyone aligned and engaged. Management layers create bottlenecks. Information gets lost in translation as it goes up and down the chain. As functions and departments get added, poor horizontal alignment causes people to work at cross purposes with each other.
Leaders who want to build fast and responsive organizations must address all the above issues. We are now ready to discuss a framework for this.
THE INPOWERING LEADERSHIP FRAMEWORK
I wrote this book based on what I learned over my career about effective organizational leadership. I based it in part on my personal experience of leading global teams and programs. I also drew from my observation of inspirational leaders who I worked with over the years.
My journey of professional growth was like that of many other leaders. I grew by taking on assignments with progressively increasing scope and responsibility. What was different, however, was my willingness to take on roles with new content. I started my career in corporate research and went on to work in product development, operations, and marketing, all of which challenged and stretched me in different ways.
During my early years as a manager, I learned a few important things:
1. The world was too complicated for me to know everything. To solve meaningful problems, I would need to collaborate with other smart people.
2. I could not possibly do everything or be everywhere. To increase my contributions, I would need to empower other people and give them end to end responsibility for portions of my work.
3. If I could not be replaced, I could not be promoted. To take on new and exciting growth assignments, I would need to build a bench that could replace me.
The above learnings shared a common theme. They showed me that my success and growth as a leader depended on how well I could harness my team's inner powers and capabilities.
I got the opportunity to put these learnings to the test when I went to India on a three-year expatriate assignment. The country was emerging as the next big market where some of our competitors had introduced new and disruptive products. We were working hard to react with speed and maintain our dominant position in the market.
My job as an expat was to be a change agent. I was expected to bring in new ideas and build a world-class engineering team. I waltzed in, confident that I would quickly sum up the situation, execute changes, and start delivering results. Within a few weeks, however, I came to the realization that despite my experience and strong track record, I was not equipped with the knowledge required to navigate this new environment. All my prior work experience was from the US, whereas I was now in an emerging market where customer expectations and organizational culture were quite different. I would not succeed by merely leaning on my past learnings – I would need to combine them with the local team's knowledge and experience to develop a complete picture and create the best possible plan.
In the beginning, every moment felt rushed. The business pressure was urgent, and the demands from stakeholders were unending. Advice poured in from everywhere, and we seemed to be working on too many things.
To cut out the noise, we held small and focused discussions with customers, stakeholders, and team members. I personally also carved out solo time to process my thoughts.
Over time, a picture started to emerge. We developed a strategy and identified some clear priorities. We discussed and aligned the strategy with our stakeholders and the entire leadership chain to ensure that we would get their active support in taking the various initiatives forward.
Next, we communicated the plan to everyone in the team concisely and understandably. We encouraged each person to personalize the information and think about what they could do at their level to drive positive outcomes for the organization.
We held several cross-functional brainstorming workshops and launched many joint projects with stakeholders. As the projects went forward, we maintained a regular stream of communication. I personally ran "all-hands" meetings to ensure that everyone was aware of the latest developments and changes in priorities. I reminded everyone that we were looking for good ideas and created some small awards to recognize submissions.
I soon started getting unexpected visitors. People walked into my office with questions, ideas, and on occasion, piercing insights into our strategy. I also started getting suggestions from stakeholders in other departments who saw that we were genuinely trying to help. These interactions not only brought in new thoughts but also increased overall engagement and buy-in for our strategy.
It was an eventful journey, but in the end, the hard work paid off. The products we introduced did quite well in the market and the financial metrics improved with every passing quarter. The team was recognized for its contributions and won numerous corporate awards. It did not end there – we built a set of best practices that were leveraged for further success in the following years.
After I returned to the US, I reflected on how I, along with the larger India organization, had navigated this turbulent and disruptive period. I recognized four discrete enablers that had been critical to our success.
The first was establishing an aligned purpose for our mission. We set a clear "North Star" that everyone could understand and use to guide their day to day decisions. We worked at the C-level to ensure that the entire leadership chain had bought into this North Star, and all stakeholders would work together to make it a success.
The second enabler was speed. We did a lot to decentralize decision-making and empower the organization to take initiative. This created huge multipliers on efficiency and enabled us to deliver way more than would be possible in a top-down operating model. It also made bandwidth for the leadership team to think and strategize rather than spend every waking minute in a firefight.
The third enabler was accuracy of decision making. We proactively reached out to all our stakeholders to understand their pain points. We solicited inputs from all parts of the organization. We encouraged people to speak up even when they disagreed with me or anyone else in the leadership chain. We learned quickly from our mistakes and pivoted when it was apparent that we were on the wrong track.
The fourth enabler was building resilience. I, along with the leadership team, worked 24/7 to motivate our people even when things got rough. We visibly demonstrated energy and enthusiasm for the mission and helped everyone visualize success. We actively coached and mentored people to build the next generation of talent and instituted best-in-class processes that persisted even after many of us had moved on.
These four enablers helped us build an organization that moved with purpose and delivered meaningful outcomes despite all the distractions. The experience also taught me something fundamental about leadership. It taught me that leading an organization through change requires more than individual brilliance. It requires an ability to get people excited about the cause and create an environment where they can shine and make a difference. It requires an Inpowering Leadership style that powers people from the inside, ignites their passion, and extracts the best out of them.
The four enablers of purpose, speed, accuracy, and resilience provide a framework that can be used by any leader to power themselves as well as their organization through difficult times. Earlier in this chapter, I mentioned that change lies on a continuum with disruption as its extreme form. All change events, small and large, create their unique noise and come with their own set of uncertainties. Inpowering Leaders cut through the noise by setting a clear horizon and inspiring their organization's rank and file to participate in the journey.
The leadership team in India employed this exact approach to achieve success. We worked together to align around a common cause, listened to each other objectively, learned collectively, and then put in some good old-fashioned hard work to cross the finish line.
The Inpowering Leadership framework is built upon a foundation of thinking and learning. It requires a willingness from leaders as well as their people to challenge personal assumptions and honestly interpret ground realities. Its success depends on building a meritocratic environment where difficult decisions get made quickly, and pivots get executed with speed. The four enabling steps in the framework provide the building blocks to make all this happen.
I have applied the framework on various change initiatives during my career, experiencing both success and disappointment, depending on how well I executed the individual steps. I have also benchmarked this approach with peers in the industry. The feedback has been consistent – in today's world, companies that learn fast and fully leverage their knowledge and talent have the best chance to survive and thrive. The Inpowering Leadership framework provides a practical and repeatable approach for this.
Many companies and organizations are already operating with some version of this framework. They are flattening their organization structures, fostering autonomy at all levels, making hard decisions, and moving forward with speed.
There are also companies, however, that are still operating in the old command and control construct. Their leaders are trying to do it all – interpret the landscape, develop strategy, define projects, (micro) manage people – and finding it difficult to make meaningful progress. It seems like they are stuck, constrained by old rules and operating paradigms.
Are you a leader looking for a way to break out of the old construct and try something different? If so, this book might be able to help you. In the next few chapters, I will take you on a hands-on journey through the Inpowering Leadership framework and help you apply it to your specific context.
Chapter 1 will talk about creating clarity and focus for your organization and giving it a strong sense of purpose. We will discuss the importance of setting a North Star and how you can design an effective one. We will also discuss mission alignment across teams and up the leadership chain, a critical prerequisite for success.
In Chapter 2, we will discuss how you can compound your impact and move your organization forward with speed. We will discuss mechanisms for empowering your people and creating an army of trusted lieutenants who understand the mission and work with little supervision.
Chapter 3 will talk about how you can open yourself up to radical learning and build a data-rich environment. We will explore techniques by which you can leverage your organization to make honest decisions and drive high-quality outcomes.
In Chapter 4, we will talk about building resilience – how you as a leader can set a positive tone, walk your talk, and inspire your team to persevere through difficult times and achieve more than they thought possible. We will conclude with some final remarks at the end of the book.
IT'S DECISION TIME!
It is time for you to make a choice. You can close this book and go back to your world with my absolute best wishes. Or you can keep reading and come with me on a journey of personal exploration.
Before you start, I must caution that the journey through the coming chapters will not be comfortable. Moving to an Inpowering paradigm of leadership is an inherently disruptive process. It will require you to examine your personal style and make changes to it. It will require a willingness to deviate from social norms. If you have been set in your ways for some time, it may take much work to re-imagine yourself and put the changes into practice. That said, the journey will be worth the effort because irrespective of the outcomes, you will emerge on the other side as a better, stronger, and more self-aware incarnation of yourself.
Are you ready to take the plunge?