It is the age of the CEO leader across the world. The American corporate culture is catching on everywhere. With the sole exception of Britain, perhaps, people would rarely know the names of other members of the cabinet. In the Donald Trump era, it is doubtful how many people will be able to name the US Vice President.
However, this is true not just for the Presidential system of government. Even in countries that still follow parliamentary democracy — an increasing number of people are voting for an individual instead of a cast of leaders. So, the leadership style of the Heads of Government, as distinct from their political acumen, is becoming more important than ever before. And, it is also fair that it is so because the buck stops with the leader. Having voted for a person — the people hold her or him accountable for delivery. Performance is at a premium even in monarchies and dictatorships — where kings and despots also live in fear of being overthrown.
Thus, Presidents and Prime Ministers are always under scrutiny not just by the electorate and media but also their peers and staff. Hence, it is not surprising that Narendra Modi’s method of work has been discussed much more than that of his predecessors or Rahul Gandhi’s versus his mother’s way of managing the party.
Leaders like Donald Trump have become the ‘face of the cabinet’. (Source: India Today)
While many consider the stories about Narendra Modi’s work habits to be an equal mix of facts and folklore, Rahul Gandhi can be a great subject for a case study based only on his public appearances and utterances. At the moment, he seems to be practising the fine art of “leadership by abdication”. Some think it is dialectics at play but they cannot say for sure whether it will result in deconstruction or destruction of the Grand Old Party of India.
In such a situation, it may be instructive to study some alternate models of leadership in crisis. A case in point can be Sunday’s aborted launch of India’s Moon Mission — Chandrayaan 2.
The project must have been in the works for months, if not years. Hundreds of scientists would have been involved. The occasion was momentous as it would put India into the big boys’ club in space. There was nervous excitement and loads of expectations. The country’s ambition of becoming the next superpower was riding on this vehicle.
There was calculated hype and cautious optimism built around the event. The collective heartbeat of the nation could be heard hours before the actual countdown was to begin. Then came the anti-climax and million hearts sank in disappointment.
With high hopes, several people stayed awake past midnight to witness the launch of Chandrayaan 2, but ended up getting disappointed. (Source: India Today)
These are the times when leaders are tested.
One cannot imagine what transpired in those moments before the call to pull the plug was taken. But, to say that it must have been a difficult decision would be a gross understatement.
It is said that leaders are expected to do the “right thing”. But, “right for whom”— is the question.
When the reputation, pride and aspirations of the 130 crore people are at stake — the decision has to be “right” for the country at large.
Next, of course, comes the organisation that is ISRO. A major setback can cause long-term damage to the credibility of the institution, loss of morale among the employees and breaking the trust of the stakeholders (the government and citizens at large).
In a time of crisis, the leader should listen to the scientists and the scientists should back their leader. (Source: India Today)
Third in line would be the people associated with the project. They need to be insulated from any blame game and, in the long term, victimisation. There cannot be any scapegoats or sacrificial lambs on the altar of convenience. The team’s confidence cannot be allowed to falter. After all, it is the same talent that has to deliver going forward.
Finally, it has to be “right” for the leader herself. She cannot let ego come in the way of making the right decision.
The leader has to guard herself against other personal frailties creeping in unconsciously. It could be over-confidence, tendency to take risks or even a gambling instinct that could lead to a catastrophic error of judgement.
But, who pushes the “STOP” button? Here, the leader needs to let go of the hierarchy and listen to the experts. Often, the person raising the red flag or alarm can be very low down in the pecking order. But, her call cannot be ignored just because she lacks the seniority. Every voice matters at the time of a crisis.
Of course, in the final analysis, it is the leader who has to own the decision. Someone down the line, in the front or at the control desk, may have had to jam the brakes to avert a disaster. It could have been a split-second action with no opportunity to check with a senior. The people at the coal face must have the leader’s back.
But, the leader cannot pass the buck. She has to keep her moral compass steady as a rock.
Any similarity of Chandrayaan 2 being aborted with the crashing of Rahul 2.0 is purely coincidental. (Source: India Today)
However, the bigger task awaiting the leader would be to put the pieces back in place, rebuild the energy, boost the spirit of the team to fight another day. A good leader, no matter how accomplished and talented, would also have a contingency plan ready in place for damage control.
Of course, a leader can very well decide to take a bow and make space for someone else to take over. But, she cannot run away from the field leaving the troops orphaned. Handing over the baton to a successor is as much of a leader’s obligation as accepting it was her privilege.
It might be tempting to draw parallels with the crash-landing of Rahul 2.0 soon after launch. But, any similarities are purely coincidental — as standard disclaimers go.