Look for Leadership at the Bottom of the Pyramid
The professors of doom are pitching their tents once again on the pegs of a “leadership crisis.” This is nothing new. In fact, each time the world heads into an economic downturn we see soul-searching begin on the quality of leadership.
These drums have begun to sound in the past weeks, louder in the US and a little softer in India, yet clearly audible. So, what’s new about the recession this time? Sure, the magnitude of the downturn is far greater now than it has been seen in recent times. But leadership is not something you seek to drum up or find afresh at the time of a crisis. You nurture it on a continuing basis. We need to switch the lens. Change from a short-sighted vision to 20:20 far-sightedness. And we need to break the mold of our pre-existing mindsets about where to look for leaders.
But we have always focused on our people, right? Geoff Colvin, senior editor at Fortune, after he attended one of the innumerable conferences on talent, made a telling comment: “CEOs always say that,” he wrote, “But they almost never mean it. Most companies maintain their office copiers better than they build the capabilities of their people, especially the ones who are supposed to be future leaders, and for decades they’ve gotten away with it.”
People have been and are our greatest asset. We just need to look at these assets differently.
In The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, C K Prahalad revolutionized the way we thought of the bottom of the pyramid as he championed the concept of “co-creation.” The key was breaking the mold of the existing thinking about the base of the pyramid.
We need to do something very similar on leadership. We need to look at the bottom of the pyramid. Not the man who occupies the cabin next to the C-suite, but the young man or woman representing your firm at the customer site is the leader waiting to be discovered.
My question to those ringing the alarm bells is simple: Are you looking at the right places to find the future leaders, the torch bearers who will lead the way ahead? Where is the leadership fortune?
It is staring at us from the front lines. To see it, we have to get out of the ‘grooming caterpillars to become butterfly’ mindset. The next generation does not respond to autocratic signals such as these. They belong to an era of collaboration and co-creation of value.
They look and work differently but are effective in today’s world. They collaborate and work across hierarchy, are more in tune with data and distant signals. Generation Y comprises ‘digital natives.’ Few of us can deny that they are far more comfortable with — even hungry for — technology and adept at using it to their advantage than most of their seniors (in both age and hierarchy).
These young Millenials have been multitasking since they were kids. It comes naturally to them — to listen to music, do their homework, text a friend and catch up with their social networks on the web simultaneously. They like being connected 24-7 and cruise through multiple mediums and applications without batting an eyelid.
They’ve grown up in the fast lanes of change and deal with disruptive influences like business as usual. They are open-minded and take their time to form an opinion or pass judgment. I have no doubts that they possess much more resilience and maturity than their managers or helicopter parents credit them with.
So if you want to respond to the current crisis, you need fresh thinking and fearlessness that dares to dream of tomorrow even when there is a fire raging today.
Those leaders are at the bottom and you need to go looking for them. It’s not true that an organization does not have leaders — it is just that most management is afraid to look at them and recognize them. They may think it is a big risk to take. I do believe, however, not taking that risk is a bigger risk.
Originally posted on Vineet Nayar’s Blog site on Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2009/01/leadership-at-the-bottom-of-th.html