Does a leader really matter? – Part II

In the first part of this article on whether a leader really matters we saw the fortunes of Manchester United in successive years under two different leaders. (Does a leader really matter? – Part I)

The second of these events is from the arena of politics. Dr. Manmohan Singh took over as the Prime Minister of India on the backdrop of his achievements as Finance Minister when India opened its markets and changed its socialistic stand towards a more capitalistic stand. At that time of his taking over India, the India story was really blooming over a decade of consistent growth under leaderships of PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Though the “India Shining” campaign flopped to woo the electorate of India, the India story was really on a high. After a decade, when Dr. Manmohan Singh demitted office, he was de-rided as probably one of the weakest Prime Ministers of the country. His tenure has been ridden by scams, controversies and appeasement that seems to have burst the bubble of the India story. The Prime Minister’s inability to communicate and his reluctance for accepting the responsibility for the actions of his ministers brought about a pessimistic outlook in the country and that seemed to impact all aspects of India story. One of the defining moments of this tenure was that on the biggest diplomatic stage on a one on one with President Obama, Dr. Manmohan Singh came out as a leader who has given up on the poverty of the country and is asking for outside help to help him solve the problem. And finally, when in his address to the nation the leader came out and said that he hopes that “History would judge me better“, it was a cry of a weak leader to his nationals to somehow forgive him instead of really leading them. The result of the subsequent election is a clear indicator of how the public reacted to it.

Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of India in the backdrop of a decade of scrutiny for his first attempt at governance. Within 4 months of his starting on governance journey in Gujarat the crisis of Godhra event created what could have been a Waterloo moment for his career. With a hostile media and hectic lobbying from the world wide media, he was shunned by world leaders and was famously denied Visa to United States of America. The subsequent period of peace in Gujarat and the development of Gujarat notwithstanding the Indian and World media seemed to have been stuck in that moment. Modi decided to take the battle to the people and went out on his limb to address the public of the country. Immediately, the connect that he enjoyed with the people and the fact that he had worked his way up and had faced adverse situation for over a decade and had emerged successful out of it, started building an aura of confidence and trust between the people and Mr. Modi. He transcended the credentials of his party and emerged as a mass leader and his outreach was instrumental in the huge win that BJP enjoyed. Since then his continued outreach to people has helped reduce some of the hyperbola that was created around one event and helped balance that view with his most vocal critics now talking about Godhra being a Greenhorn moment for him rather than a moment of vindication. The positive narrative in these events and an engagement with people is beginning to raise the spirits within the country and the global leadership is able to see the impact and is immediately beginning to embrace the leader and his views even with their initial skepticism.

This stark change in the mood of the country is due to communication skills, larger than life image and a vision that is clear and articulated. To add to it apt symbolism which seems to add to this narrative and the response from other leaders is what a nation as large as India needs at this stage. Most of the ideas and strategies will come from the bureaucracy but they will need to know that they are answerable to someone and he will hold them responsible for their actions which was sorely missing during the tenure of Dr. Manmohan Singh under the garb of coalition politics.

But, another interesting lesson from Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure is that a strong leader can ensure success during one’s tenure, but that does not guarantee a sustained success after that person’s tenure. So the difference between good leaders and great leaders is that great leaders not only ensure success during their tenure, but put in place processes and strategies for continued success over an extended period of time. This is going to be the biggest test of Mr. Modi as to whether he can sustain this goodwill and build on top of it with process and policies that would help India succeed in its stated missions against poverty and for inclusive growth.

Another facet of Dr. Manmohan Singh story is one that is true of India’s IT sector and its struggle with middle management that has characterized the last two decades. People who are good programmers or designers are moved into management roles on the basis of their programming skills. The result is the disaster which is characterized by late working hours, increased stress levels and high level of discontent amongst teams. For too long these managers have hidden behind the fact that India’s IT industry is booming and there is someone else who is always ready to pay more and that is why the attrition levels are too high. These might be valid reasons, but in reality they are not the main reason. The main reason is often the discontent that employees have under managers who do not have the skills that is expected of them and thus a fear to entrust their careers to such leaders. As the nation moves onto the next stage of its development, having managers with real managerial skills and allowing people with programming skills to continue to flourish in their area of expertise is going to be the key from an ability to meet the global demands as well as sustaining a working class that is contented and motivated.

So in my opinion, though the goods are delivered by the team, a strong leader is able to get the team motivated, focused and energized to get the maximum out of the individuals comprising the team. This often leads the teams to contribute more than the sum total of the individuals. On the other hand, a weak leader will allow infighting to fester, strong egos to dominate and soon the team members would start to drop their commitment and contribution margins thus leading to output being significantly less than the sum total of individuals.

– Ram


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