Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Wise – “Dharmic” Leadership

While I am waiting to complete the blog post with my co-author (Mr. Krishnan - CTO, Videocon Mobiles Services) on the “Rule of three and the India telecom industry v2.0”, I read an interesting article and gave an interview on the concept of “Wise” Leadership. This topic is closely connected to the concept of Dharma, I covered in my last post.  Also, several younger team members in Amdocs, India have often asked the following question:

What is the essence of leadership? How can we become successful leaders?

Therefore, in this post, while recognizing that leadership is a complex topic, I would like to share my thoughts on a simple common sense area that I refer to as…Wise -“Dharmic” Leadership. 

 Before I begin, some terms and disclaimers;

a.The meaning of Dharma, I covered in my last blog (Of Anna, Dharma and Corruption) and

b.The concept of Wise leadership was introduced in The Big Idea: The Wise Leader (Harvard Business Review, May 2011) by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi and I leverage some of the concepts

c. I focus on leadership in the business context even though the principles are applicable in personal life

First and foremost, I would like to align on the fact that decision making is how leadership manifests itself.  In the end, a leader is called upon to make decisions whether it is about self, projects, people, organization etc.The leader’s knowledge, skills, experience go into helping him/her make decision and a leader’s true mettle is judged based on how these decisions pan out over time and help improve state of self, team, and/or organization.

Secondly, leadership has an intrinsic but often overlooked connection with “wisdom”. Wisdom being the ability to make decisions based upon a “holistic” understanding of a problem.  “Holistic” understanding comes from taking into consideration the impact of a decision on implicit and explicit stakeholders. 

Exercising wisdom would imply that every decision is balanced, made for the long term, and for the greater good. For sure acting with wisdom requires, that a person has deep subject matter expertise and knowledge of the topic at hand, but this is not enough, “dharma” and its exercise is also a pre-requisite for the decision to be truly “wise”.

The question then is how does one acquire wisdom?

I believe it comes from:

a) experience and lessons learned-formal and informal,

b) stories and belief system that we grow up with and

c) a conscious pursuit of “good”

In the above list, the belief system is very important…every culture has this. The myths and stories that are shared with children have the cultural moral code built into them.  In India, for example ‘dharma’ is central to stories and metaphors that we are brought up with…the “moral” of the stories is the wisdom embedded in the stories. 

Often as we grow up we forget the dharmic concepts, or feel that these concepts are not applicable since we pursue business objectives.  My view is that we should constantly practice and re-visit our foundational belief system so as not to lose acquired wisdom. It is ok to re-read Amar Chitra Katha (famous Indian comic books, founded in 1967) to be reminded of Birbal’s wisdom.

Do“business” objectives get overlooked when we exercise wisdom?

There is a belief that “the business of business is business” and nothing else matters. In my opinion, this is a myopic view. Contributing towards the good of the society and ensuring profitability are not mutually exclusive ideas. It is not an ‘either-or’ selection. They are connected…the organization is comprised of members from society; happy organization is a more profitable organization, profits result in the good of employees and society…the cycle goes on.

Basically, every business/organization would have five key stakeholders:

· Customers

· Shareholders/Investors

· Employees

· Society

· Environment

Wise leaders ideally take into account the impact of every decision on all the stakeholders listed above.Yes,the weights associated with stakeholders are different based upon the issue at hand…but they are never zero. I believe, wise leaders not only recognize the interconnectivity and make the right decisions but also create an organizational culture where greater good does not become subservient to short-term profitability.

If one goes by the recent data on global and local corporate scandals and/or prosecutions, whether it is the Satyam or Enron scandals, global collapse of the financial systems and companies like Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual, LIBOR interest rate fixing, insider trading prosecutions, and even high profile bankruptcies, we see that wise leadership is not as common as one would like it to be…one or more stakeholders were overlooked in all cases. 

On the other hand it is not all bad news; there are positive stories as well. One from India is the Tata group…where the ownership structure of the group is such that key shareholders are philanthropic trusts and hence by default there is a tight linkage between profitability and good of the society.  I have not worked with a Tata group company, but I understand that they do an excellent job in cultivating a culture where the balance exits. 

I am an individual contributor or front line leader, what does this all mean to me? My decisions certainly do not impact society?

Firstly, I do believe that every person is a leader in their own right and it is not a designation that confers leadership on an individual. Yes, it is true that an individual or a front line leader need not take into account all five stakeholders for a majority of the decisions they make.  It is likely that most of the time three stakeholders (Customers, Employee, and Shareholders) are relevant.  As role changes and leaders grow and take on increased responsibility, the mix of decisions where more stakeholders come into play increases. Having said that, individuals and front line leaders have the ability to positively impact the other two stakeholders (Environment, and Society).  Let’s take the example of encouraging friends and employees to participate in Green initiatives or CSR activity that positively impact Environment and Society…this should be encouraged without causing a negative impact on Customers, and Shareholders. J

I believe that organizations should cultivate wise leadership at all levels of leadership. Also, in fact building such a culture is a must for a wise senior leader who wishes to create something that will outlast them and future generations.

With the inherent desire to do good, how does a leader ensure that they do not get carried away and overlook business objectives?

Nonaka and Tageuchi talk about the concept of a “Pragmatic” leader. The way, I see that leaders should be romantic and idealistic. The world has big problems that need solved, and these will not be addressed if leaders took a conservative and traditional approach. However, the romanticism should be balanced with a dose of realism and yet again this is not an either-or selection, it is romanticism and realism. As I stated earlier, all stakeholders should be considered and given the appropriate weightage based upon the context of the decision at hand. This balance can be called ‘Pragmatism’. Leadership would not be wise if the balance was missing. 

How does an organization make Wise leadership a culture?

There are two approaches organizations take to make wise leadership a culture. One is to codify the balance as they define the raison d’être of the organization. This balance includes the five stakeholders that I referred to earlier. The organization purpose can be amplified further through vision and mission statements.

Senior leaders must be the role models who demonstrate the balance, communicate/verbalize effectively so that they can bring people along, and also mentor key leaders on pragmatic decision making.

The other approach is without codification, where senior leaders create an environment of sharing wise decision making techniques – through formal and informal forums. Also, I would add that ‘Dharma’ that I referred earlier is a universal truth and hence emphasis on the basics by the leaders, helps to build the right foundation.

Before I wrap up, I want to highlight that we see movement on another front that supports the above leadership thesis. The United Nations has adopted Bhutan's proposal to include “Happiness” as the ninth millennium development goal. The reasoning is that happiness is the ultimate goal of all human beings and hence, it must also be the purpose of development to create the conditions enabling happiness. Organizations are a microcosm of society and it is likely they will have these objectives reflected in their goals.

In closing, I would say that we all want to make a difference and I believe that we can by doing simple things well. In the case of the topic that I cover here…please ask yourself whether your decisions have the BALANCE. Balance does not mean that you do not make tough business decisions, every leaders has to…BALANCE simply improves the likelihood that the decision is the right one for the long-term. J


  1. Liked the following extract from the blog 'leadership has an intrinsic but often overlooked connection with “wisdom”. Wisdom being the ability to make decisions based upon a “holistic” understanding of a problem.'

    One the major issues leaders face currently is that there is a far greater focus on short term outcomes & therefore it becomes very difficult to balance a 'Dharmic' leadership style with short terms actions which might get faster results, but do not fit into the holistic approach of the solution.

  2. Truly believe in this paragraph ... "For sure acting with wisdom requires, that a person has deep subject matter expertise and knowledge of the topic at hand, but this is not enough, “dharma” and its exercise is also a pre-requisite for the decision to be truly “wise”."

    I loved the phrase "Dharmic" leadership". Just wondering if there would be anything like "Karmic" Leadership.

    Reading this blog was as if lot of thoughts were moving from the sub-conscious mind to conscious mind.

    1. @Vipul, interesting question on "Karmic" leadership...makes one be philosiphical and think of past, present, and future. And also about cause and effect.

      In thinking through...rigorous exercise of Dharmic leadership should result in good karma..and in karmic terms; play a role in elevating the person (exercising this leadership), taking them closer to Nirvana.