03 Oct 2016 20:06 IST

Here’s how to be a competent leader

Leadership failures can be attributed to the lack of attention, trust, meaning and self

Let’s face it — there is an acute shortage of leaders all over the world. And as a result, both the pain and the consequences are being felt. Schools and colleges are doing their bit to inculcate “leadership qualities” through several extra-curricular activities. Companies are investing a decent chunk of precious resources in developing leadership qualities and skills. The global spend on leadership development exceeded $50 billion a few years ago, according to one estimate. Still, we find a huge gap.

More than five decades ago, Dr Warren Bennis identified four fundamental leadership competencies essential for leaders in any walk of life.

Interestingly enough, they continue to be relevant today. Most leadership failures in organisations can be attributed to the acute lack of these four competencies. Trying to build a tall structure without a strong foundation is no good, as we all know.

Several leadership development programmes are being run from time to time trying to hone strategic thinking, innovative mindsets, problem-solving, decision-making, customer centricity and the list is endless!

The area young graduates, be it from an engineering or management background, need help are the four basic competencies of leaders that Dr Bennis articulated half a century ago. Let me present these in some detail in this column.

Management of attention

Aspirants of leadership roles need to recognise the ability to draw attention to themselves because they have a vision, a dream. Such a set of intentions, an agenda, and a frame of reference is critical to success. Given that the workforce we manage is very gizmo-crazy and attention-deficit, added to which it also operates in an environment of many distractions, such a competence will not surprise anyone. Inculcating such mindfulness and focus so that the most energy and the best of efforts can be obtained, is a major challenge for leaders today.

Some describe this as a problem of “presenteeism.” Simply put, presenteeism is a situation in which “people are present at work, yet not present!” This is where the ability to manage people’s attention and harness it for business objectives becomes a key competence for leaders. For example, traditionally, boring PowerPoint presentations with data and graphs is the the technique leaders use for business updates. Unsurprisingly, the attendance at such meetings is thinning over time. Instead, if leaders can learn and master the art of “story-telling” they stand a much better chance of holding people’s attention.

Management of meaning

Today’s workforce is very keen on contributing to a purpose and doing a job that offers some personal satisfaction. Leaders succeed when they integrate facts, concepts and anecdotes into meaning for people. It is also important to be able to show people the big picture which captivates their heart and soul.After all, employees do not follow a leader who wants them to rally behind only to build an “anthill.”

Much of the management of meaning also has to do with matching words with deeds by a leader. Here, disconnect often distances people from following a leader; we see it almost every day in business.

Finally, leaders also need the right charisma and an executive presence to be able to hold and manage the meaning.

Management of trust

In the last few decades nothing has hurt corporations like eroding trust that people had in their leaders. Leaders earn trust when they keep their commitments, when they respect and celebrate diversity at work, when they are humble and honest, and when they demonstrate exceptionally good listening skills. Trust is often likened to the fine china clay. Yes, once broken, it will take quite a while to rebuild— if at all. Leaders live in glass houses and are being watched every single day by the people they manage. Not only is acting smart is not appreciated, but it is actually abhorred.

I often speak of what I refer to as “management by cutlery set”, something that many managers indulge in. It is a simple way of explaining what I often observe. Managers often wear a façade and put up their best before their bosses, but when it comes to their teams, the façade is dropped and the real personality becomes apparent. Management by cutlery set represents, according to me, a tendency to use the spoon for the boss and the fork and knife for the juniors. Trust is the price such leaders pay. It is no wonder then, that they have a “revolving door” and keep losing good people in large numbers.

Management of self

As Stephen Covey pointed out, sharpening one’s saw is this competence. Many have stopped learning and updating as soon as they take up a leadership position.

Management of self is much more than updating knowledge. It also includes fine-tuning one’s mindset and conduct. Many behavioural flaws grow in the leaders even before they realise that they have become a victim of these.

Of all challenges, the biggest challenge is to keep one’s “ego” in check! Although big egos have only taken leaders to the gutter, there seems to be no brake applied, or until it’s too late. Leaders learn when they receive feedback as habitual as having breakfast. Unfortunately, most have a growing aversion for feedback, which isn’t reinforcing their image of being a superhero. Anyone giving them feedback that isn’t flattering is sidelined and subtly asked to leave.

Leadership isn’t easy, nor is it for the weak-hearted. Even as we aspire to become leaders, it is important to continuously hone these basic competencies. .