Sinking Ships And Relevant Leadership

Till the ship stays course and sails in fair weather, the captain's effort goes unnoticed, but hit the first giant wave, and his leadership is in the spotlight.

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The most poignant image that will stay embedded in my mind forever is that of a captain, standing at the helm of a sinking ship, drowning with his boat.

This is the man who steered his ship through the torrential hurricanes, hidden icebergs and the worst undercurrents. Till the ship stays course and sails in fair weather, the captain’s effort goes unnoticed, but hit the first giant wave, and his leadership is in the spotlight. Such is the burden of leadership. 

Life of the corporate leader is no different. When the business results are outstanding, it’s a big win for the team, but when business hits a road bump, the leader stands alone to take the blame.

Leadership is the fuel of the corporate engine. It’s what keeps companies going, it breaks banks and destroys economies. Most importantly it keeps organisations relevant during this fast paced, changing per second, dynamic time. And poor leadership nullifies that.

I can think of several examples of companies rendered “irrelevant” when the leadership was complacent and inflexible in the face of change. There are so many enterprises that were part of our daily vocabulary a few years back. Nokia phones, Motorola phones – where are they now? They got gobbled up by larger companies. What about Yahoo? That’s a case study with so many lessons in itself. Look at Xerox. It was considered a leadership factory in the 80’s and 90’s. It was common knowledge that if you worked there, you’d emerge a leader coveted by other businesses. So many ex-Xerox employees went on to start successful businesses on their own. However, with the advent of digitization in the 90s, the copying business was rendered completely irrelevant by the onset of the millennium. And all because their leadership didn’t align itself with changing times while competitors like HP did. 

Such is the burden of leadership. You need to be constantly vigilant, flexible and keep making course adjustments all the time. Mind you, and I’m not advocating burning the midnight oil day in and day out – what I am saying is that we must be on top of things and not sit back and relax just because we’ve had a successful year or decade. We need to keep ourselves relevant. 

Relevance isn’t just about the industry. It’s also about being in tune with the employees of the organization and their personal motivations and aspirations. 

Here’s a story shared by a restructuring consultant.

“I was at this company where I had to look into the performance of a particular division. I kept hearing all the way from HR to a corporate VP and some other people about this one senior sales person who was just a superstar and how this whole division would be at a loss without this one guy who single handedly was doing 25 per cent of the business. That didn’t sit well with me because that shows me a flaw—problems with the procedure. I didn’t let the opinions taint my process. Upon closer analysis, the superstar in question turned out to be cannibalizing business to the detriment of his coworkers. Within weeks of letting this person go, four or five other people increased their numbers dramatically.”

Sometimes, leaders are too proud to admit their mistakes, and the entire company suffers as a result. If the company has to survive, it’s better to let some people go. The survival of the collective is more important than the comfort of the one. Heck, even lizards break their tails to get out of a nasty situation.

Inability to change sometimes stems from fear, not pride. As a Forbes writer observed, “It’s easier to dump a CRM or a manufacturing vendor than it is to let go of the person in the office next to them, or upstairs or downstairs, or to hire somebody that is more knowledgeable and experienced than they themselves are.”

It is this burden of leadership which led to Jack Welch putting GE on the map as one of the greatest companies to work for, in perpetuity and it is this burden of (poor) leadership which led to Marissa Mayer’s downgrading of Yahoo.

(This article first appeared in the Indian edition of Entrepreneur magazine (September 2016 Issue)