Letting go of responsibilities and sharing authority at work are the new tactics of leadership

Leadership is changing. Traditional leadership roles, jobs, skills, ways of doing things and expectations no longer count. Companies are discovering that the command-and-control methods of the last century are extremely inefficient in the fast-changing world. Now, to attract and retain employees, work environment must now focus on inspiring and exploiting their capabilities in a much more open manner, compared to the earlier closed-leadership model centred on the capabilities of a single leader.
The command-and-control style propagated an unempowered environment, positioning the leader above and separate from the work group. The leader was the sole authority for decision making, while the group members followed orders with no specific authority or responsibility. This worked well in a factory kind of environment, where more importance was on control. However, in the new age of technology, this resulted in lack of innovation, creativity and accountability.

Companies slowly started leaning towards leaders who saw themselves more as partners, supporters and facilitators. This helped the group members take decisions along with the top management about how to do their jobs. They also assumed many of the responsibilities formerly held by the leadership. The companies that adopted this open style are performing better than their rivals on employee retention and morale, and other factors like innovation, profitability and market leadership.

Southwest Airlines in the US is an excellent example of open style of leadership. The airline thrives on holistic understanding, building of a shared vision, effective self-management, encouraging interdependence and creativity, questioning assumptions, promoting shared trust and embracing humility from all leadership levels. Management consultants Ann McGee-Cooper and Gary Looper in their book, The Essentials of Servant-Leadership: Principles in Practice, say Southwest encourages its leaders to lift their group members to new levels of possibility to accomplish as a team much more than what one leader might accomplish alone. The company has been highly profitable for several years and was named the 3rd Most Admired Company in America by Fortune in 2006.

How can leaders embrace such an open style of leadership?

Empower to challenge and develop people: Leaders who embrace an open style of leadership cultivate a habit of letting go of responsibilities, which other members can take on. Leaders do this to encourage others to take decisions at work. They involve others in their work and provide a clear understanding of their responsibility, amount of authority, expectations and constraints.

Mentor and coach to ensure success: In an open system, leaders practice techniques for supporting others, such as coaching, reinforcing, preparing for resistance and gaining others’ commitment. They not only coach group members about the tasks to be performed, but also help in discovering their hidden potential. They provide honest, thoughtful feedback and set expectations for meaningful and continuous performance improvement. These leaders also work ahead to ensure that coaching does not stop with initial training, but is institutionalised as a regular part of their jobs.

Encourage risk taking: While promoting an open system, leaders actively seek ideas and suggestions from their group members. They empower people to implement their ideas — especially those that involve some risk. At the same time, they resist temptation to take over the responsibility completely when things are going wrong or not getting immediate expected results. Leaders make sure that they are patient with the empowerment process, such that it allows group members to learn from their mistakes. They also support their people through the rough spots of a new assignment, instead of punishing them for mistakes or taking over.

on Leadership: Sangeeth varghese,The author is a leadership scholar from the LSE and founder of LeadCap. His book, Decide to Lead: Eight Decisions That Can Make You A Leader, will soon be published by Businessworld. He can be contacted at sangeethv@leadcap.org

Make Lakshmi(‘)s Smile

On March 8 this year, one thing is clear: India might be poised but its women are not. A few statistics would suffice to drive home the point. Life expectancy at birth for men and women is almost the same, whereas we all know that women tend to live longer. The sex ratio in India has steadily declined over the 20th century, from 972 females per 1,000 males in 1901 to 933 in 2001.

What’s worse, masculinisation of the sex ratio at birth is no longer restricted to the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, but has spread to the south and west where literacy levels are higher and fertility rates lower.

The 2001 census tells us that while Kerala still leads the way, with a sex ratio of 1,065 women for every 1,000 men, a declining trend is in evidence in some districts and talukas, pointing to the growth of sex selection practices. Why? A relatively new conservatism, spearheaded by the religious and political right, has made matters worse for women.

This force, coinciding with the march of modernity, holds out the biggest threat for all women, irrespective of religion and economic status. As a result, socio-cultural attitudes seem out of sync with a modernising India that compels women to join the workforce and thereby educate and empower themselves. In the name of protecting traditional sensibilities, gender stereotypes continue to dominate school textbooks.

Not surprisingly, so-called educated and economically empowered communities lead the way in sex selection practices. While women in urban India are not as chained to the home and hearth as before, dowry deaths and harassment continue, as does the practice of working women handing over their income to their husbands.

One way to attack this congealed conservatism is to make the girl child an economically attractive option. In Haryana, for example, women can register property at a discount of 2 per cent of regular rates. This has evoked an enthusiastic response. Income tax benefits for women should be raised further. Women should be levied a lower rate of gift tax. While the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan thrust is all very well, making education free for the girl child up to the age of 18 should become an integral component.

India is a country in transition, with women bearing the brunt. A political, cultural and economic assault on their exploitation is the need of the hour. A smiling Lakshmi ought to be the face of modern India.