A very important point that gets left out in discussions of leadership is the concept of the necessary knowledge, experience and skills needed to make the right decision. Intuitively, most people associate making decisions with “strong leadership” or “making the hard choice”. Hence there is a leaning towards charismatic leadership. This comes from tradition where the strongest person in the community is usually the best person to lead the community against enemies.
However, in today’s information age, knowledge starts playing a very important role. Let us look at some questions where knowledge and personal qualities work hand in hand in solving some of the problems faced by a typical organization.
- Does the leader have enough information at his or her finger tips? Does the leader have enough experience to understand whether the information is adequate or sufficient? Does the leader have the qualities (like openness) to ensure that ALL the information is arriving at his or her desk without sugar-coating or misrepresentation?
- Does the leader have experience with similar situations to make proper sense out of this issue? Does he or she have the discipline not to blindly apply a cookie-cutter solution to all such situations?
- Does the leader have the knowledge to understand the various systems and processes within the organization and be able to bring them together or break them apart to bring greater efficiencies into the organization? Does the leader have the people skills to get buy-in from employees and customers for the new way of working?
Silicon Valley companies have the biggest problem with lack of business knowledge – frequently brilliant inventors come up with some great ideas, but without proper “adult supervision”, the companies frequently go bust because the companies don’t have the knowledge to run a full-fledged business operation. Companies like Google and Yahoo are the exception rather than the norm and even they have senior CEOs.
Knowledge and experience can be acquired with time and money, but time is particularly important. Most young managers would easily transplant themselves into the CEO’s chair, but without the years of learning and experience, they could very easily fall apart. Any aspiring leader must take the time and effort to get into different scenarios and situations so that they can be ready for the big leadership role.
And this learning has to be continuous. There is an ancient fable (ref: writings of Jawaharlal Nehru) about a person who used to walk around with steel plates around his belly, because he felt that he had learnt so much that he was about to burst with all the information he had acquired. In real life, you cannot learn too much. In fact, it is Darwinian – the more information one receives, the greater the chance of something hitting the nerve and getting implemented. The only thing one has to watch out for is listening to the wrong source or the right source through the wrong filters.
And it is continuous learning. A leader keeps learning about the organizations, its people, processes, customers and stakeholders. A leader keeps learning about oneself – the strengths and weaknesses. And finally leaders must learn to unlearn old habits and thoughts, and learn to let go. Constant churning is what will get the leader to stay in tune with the environment.