RThe Russian invasion of Ukraine over the past fortnight has exposed, among other things, some perceptions and myths about rulers and leadership. Vladimir Putin is seen by many as the marauding “strong leader”, with reckless and diabolical designs on a helpless neighbor. A section of columnists were quick to paint US President Joe Biden as the “weak leader” for his failure to intervene effectively.
The idea here is not to get into the complex geopolitics of the situation and justify either Putin’s aggression or the arguably lukewarm retaliation from the West. Rather, the effort here is to explore the myth of strong (and weak) leadership – and not necessarily political variety.
This is, after all, Forbes India’s annual leadership issue, in which we pay tribute to the best leaders, from entrepreneurs to top professional bosses, in the national business landscape. The Forbes India Leadership Awards (FILA) reward leaders who have been able to redefine and/or transform their companies during a crisis, a pandemic.
Certainly, ‘redefining’ and ‘transforming’ leaders can be more effective than those we tend to call ‘strong’ – this is how Archie Brown, author of The myth of the strong leader (2014, Penguin Random House), sees it. Brown’s universe is largely political, but much of what he writes applies to leadership in other areas, from business to sports.
A strong leader, as Brown defines the context, “is generally taken to mean a leader who concentrates a great deal of power in his hands…To place great power in the hands of one person is inappropriate in a democracy, and that would be a government exceptionally dull in which an individual was best qualified… to have the final say on everything”.
Now replace “democracy” with “corporate” and “government” with “board of directors” (which is not unreasonable license to use), and what Brown is essentially saying is that he doesn’t is simply not possible for one individual (the leader) to judge in all areas of business performance.
Brown also points out the limitations of what many see as the Real McCoy: the inspirational or charismatic leader. Yes, they can have their uses, especially in times of crisis, but they are “often dangerous and often overrated”. For every Martin Luther King Jr, there is an Adolf Hitler.
Leadership is also contextual: Leadership styles differ in times of war and peace, and in times of crisis versus calmer times, Brown argues. Perhaps then a once-in-a-century pandemic may also have called for leadership of a different kind from an “all is well” phase.
The most effective and rarest race is that of the transformational type. Such leaders are rare in democracies because such profound systemic change is often gradual, over the span of more than one leader. In companies, however, founders and CEOs are perhaps best placed to make fundamental changes in the early stages of the entity.
Forbes IndiaGirish Mathrubootham’s Entrepreneur of the Year is one such leader who has been instrumental in transforming a little-known young Chennai into the major Nasdaq-listed Silicon Valley software company with which he must be reckoned with on the world stage. The fact that Mathrubootham swears by collective rather than individual leadership is the confidence it has in its top team and employees. As he told Harichandan Arakali, “Believing in employees is the number one thing.”
Forbes India’s coverage testifies that leadership isn’t always about one person at the helm, especially in the world of tech startups. Don’t miss Kathakali Chanda’s profile on audio and portable startup boAt who has blazed a rare path into the new-age business world.
Click here to see Forbes India’s full coverage of the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and economy
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