03 February 2022 15:32:24 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

The art of balancing peacetime and wartime leadership

Source: Getty Images

The pandemic shows no sign of loosening its grip on businesses completely. During this time, we’ve seen that some businesses survived, some thrived, and some died. In most cases, one of the big differences was whether the leaders in charge were peacetime or wartime leaders. Even if they were peacetime leaders, were they able to switch to wartime leadership mode? Some leaders are natural wartime leaders — they’re built for scrap and almost their entire lives and background have been preparation for that critical time when they have to lead from the front during wartime.

Churchill was such a leader. Britain would have struggled, and most likely lost World War II had they relied on a great peacetime leader like Neville Chamberlain. But cometh the moment, cometh the man. Churchill was the right leader for that time. The people themselves knew his time as a leader was done when the war finished, peace came, and he was voted out.

A wartime leader in peacetime can be a loose cannon, literally creating issues that need his considerable wartime skills to be engaged with. Gandhi, a man of peace was quite counter-intuitively a wartime leader, built for the battle and struggle. It’s quite probable that his leadership style might have been less than effective in the relative peace that followed.

In business, we see the same parallels. Steve Jobs was your classic wartime leader — able to galvanise a whole organisation to battle, set unbelievably high standards, and beat them. Tim Cook, on the other hand, has done a fabulous job as a peacetime leader expanding markets and revenues while not necessarily disturbing the universe with any radical innovation in products. In India, Dhirubhai Ambani was a made for war, ready to tame the tough regulatory system and decimate competition with a mix of street smartness and ‘ jugaad.’ Of his sons perhaps one is more peacetime and one more wartime.

As we develop into business leaders, we need to develop the self-awareness to realise which type of leader we naturally are and build the capability to switch modes, because it is unlikely that one style will suit us well all the time. What are some things we will need? There are several things a wartime leader must push for that a peacetime CEO might not. Let’s look at a few.

Straight talk

In peacetime, you can afford to be nice. You can afford to start the meeting by going around the table and checking in on how Rakesh is doing at cricket and how the party was at Kavitha’s house last Saturday, and whether the new dog the VP has just bought is keeping everyone on their toes. A wartime CEO comes in and cuts straight to the chase. There’s no time and energy to be wasted on ‘the dance’. Niceness should give way to blunt, and sometimes brutal honesty. There is no need to be disrespectful or humiliating but there is also the need to quickly get to the essentials of what the business desperately needs in wartime.

Ben Horowitz (of Andreesen-Horowitz) tells of a time early in his career when he attempted to deliver the carefully crafted shxt sandwich — some positive feedback to open, the negative feedback you intended to give, and then again, a positive piece to soothe the hurt employee’s feelings — to a senior employee. She handed out some straight talk — “Spare me the compliment, Ben, and just tell me what I did wrong.”

Not only does the leader need to do a lot of straight-talking, she also needs to demand that from her team. If an idea is bullsxxt, there’s no point if the team calls it bovine scatology. Euphemisms and round-about descriptions of reality can be deadly to a wartime business and the leader should set the tone on the expectations here.

Action vs debate

While action should always be prized over debate, in wartime this can make the difference between defeat and victory. A leader must make it clear that sometimes there may be less consultation than the team is used to, and they may just have to get cracking on action that she has decided on. As the saying goes, it’s better to be wrong than confused. Confusion from the leader as he tries to create an appearance of taking everyone along could be fatal. Often in wartime, the majority is wrong. The leader needs to lead from her conviction. Its trust earned in peacetime, that the leader needs to cash in with her team at wartime.

“Often in wartime, the majority is wrong. The leader needs to lead from her conviction. Its trust earned in peacetime, that the leader needs to cash in with her team at wartime.”

There’s an emphasis on speed. There’s less of an emphasis on perfection and good enough should be good to go. There’s less tolerance for just efforts and a laser focus on results. A wartime leader is not going to be satisfied with the feel-good sweat-on-the-brow reports back from his frontline, he wants to know whether a lost customer has been retrieved, a poor performing employee let go, a quality issue fixed, a product version rolled out on time and under-budget.

Wartime leaders will also get rid of the optionality culture that may be prevalent in peacetime. “If you’re free and can make it please be there for this meeting.” will be replaced with an “Everyone better be there or else…”. Showing up is not going to cut it, in wartime. Everyone better come prepared to roll up their sleeves and fight. There are no spectators needed, only warriors.

Consistency vs change

Several industries that are right in the middle of being disrupted need wartime leadership — automobiles, for example. Traditional car and bike companies are seeing entirely new competitors emerge.

Rajiv Bajaj, Managing Director, Bajaj Auto

Rajiv Bajaj will need to don the wartime leadership hat. Perhaps the opening salvo was his statement at a media conference. “We are champions and champions eat OATS for breakfast.” (of course, referring to Ola, Ather, Tork Motors and SmartE — all new-age electric bike and scooter start-ups). For good measure, he added, “I’m going to bet on BET. They are champions and they have a proven track record.” Here he was holding up his company, Bajaj and its well-known peers — Enfield and TVS. But ‘track record’ can be a disadvantage in today’s VUCA wartime which prizes imagination over knowledge and agility over consistency.

TVS Motor’s acquisition of electric bike maker Swiss E-mobility displayed atypical chutzpah that has the stamp of a wartime leadership move. This is again a difference between a wartime leader and a peacetime leader. A peacetime leader is prized for her consistency and predictability but the wartime leader — is willing to change rapidly, even reverse decisions she has made as new information comes in. As the Chinese saying goes — “Great generals should issue commands in the morning and change them in the evening.”

A leader will never be an all-weather leader unless she can prove herself not just in peacetime but in wartime. It needs a different set of leadership skills. If a peacetime leader can’t provide it, he needs to step aside or be prepared to develop the wartime mindset. He needs to don warpaint and lead the organisation through whatever crisis it is navigating. It’s not a time to be liked, it is a time to lead.