A new lens on leadership

Your leadership calls, and how you interpret opportunities and threats, are influenced by your lenses, which are unique and personal to you


Illustration: iStock
Illustration: iStock

The mighty elephant is hidden inside the wood

The mighty elephant hides the wood

The Creator is hidden inside the expansiveness of the universe

The magic of Creation hides the expansiveness of the universe

— A translation of a verse by Tamil saint Thirumoolar

Each of us perceives the world differently because our brain decodes it differently based on sensory inputs—sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. To make meaning of all this, our brain then overlays emotions on the sensory inputs, followed by another filter—our beliefs. The way we make meaning of the world influences our choices and decisions. It is precisely these perceptual differences that give rise to the many hues of the same thing—our different world views, or the lenses through which we perceive the world.

It is these different lenses that make leaders interpret opportunities and threats so differently. The lens of a leader impacts his perspectives, ambition, risk appetite and orientation to trust. These in turn impact the approach the leader takes with respect to his comprehension and choice of vision or ideology, strategy, innovation, organization culture and decision-making.

Let me illustrate the various ways their lens impacts their decisions.

1. It makes leaders interpret the same context differently and hold it as their personal realities.

To give you an example from the world of politics, see the different approaches of American presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton—and our reactions to each.

Trump, the Republican party nominee, sees a world which is dangerous enough for the US to contemplate building the modern Great Wall and erect an iron curtain that will keep its enemies out (and throw out those already in). He is unable to see this as a wall and a curtain that will also isolate Americans. His idea of America is of a land only for the new “native Americans”, never mind that the US was built by immigrants.

How could Clinton, the Democratic party nominee, be so blind to the “realities” that Trump sees? How could she deny that the US is probably the most hated nation after Rome? Is she naïve not to know that America’s allies want to bite off the hand that feeds them? Is she oblivious to the deep religious and ethnic fault lines across the world and which threaten her homeland? Unlike Trump, she sees hope and opportunity, and not fear and despondency. She accepts that the idea of America as envisioned by its founding fathers—that all men are created equal—is still work in progress. Yet, she wants “togetherness” and an inclusive America for all.

2. It makes leaders believe that opposite ideas will achieve the same objective.

Before Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, during all the 2,500 years of recorded history, no group of people were able to evict a foreign occupier without military engagement. A mere decade after Gandhi, even with Gandhi’s example before them, the African National Congress became disillusioned with about 50 years of other means to overthrow apartheid. Goaded by Nelson Mandela, it chose armed confrontation, until it changed its approach again a decade after.

Communist revolutionary leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro sought to obliterate class inequality by curtailing individual freedom. Others have sought the same outcome through free market, free enterprise and freedom of expression.

Many of us extol the Chinese model of development. Some leaders believe that democracy and freedom can coexist with development. Some believe that if it comes to a trade-off between individual freedom and development, they will elect the former. Still others believe that it is agreeable, though not prudent, to sacrifice individual freedom in favour of economic development.

These themes play out in other institutions too. For example, some business leaders believe that they need to restrain employees—serving and those who have left—from critically reviewing them or their organizations. They see this as bringing disrepute to the institution. The values they espouse are, all secrets should remain within the family and the family honour is paramount. They put loyalty above freedom of expression and transparency.

A variant of this world view is that any criticism of the supremo is anti-institutional. The belief here is that the well-being of an institution is inextricably entwined with that of the leader, no matter how inappropriate his actions. The institution here can be a nation, commercial organization, social organization or a family. How else will we make sense of the R.K. Pachauri saga and the choices made by the wise leaders who governed The Energy and Resources Institute?

3. It makes us justify something in one context and denounce it in another, without any contradictions in our minds.

The founding fathers of the US embedded the idea of equality in their constitution and yet were blind to racial and gender inequality and oppression. Sir Winston Churchill and the so-called free world fought for liberty and freedom in World War II when the forces arraigned on both sides were all imperial powers. Before then their unsaid position was “my freedom and liberty is my right while yours is not. I will cling to my imperial holdings, but have ethical and moral objections when some other nation flexes its imperial muscle and threatens my sovereignty”.

Now let us move to the mundane from the sublime.

In the business context, the leaders’ lens determines the path to market leadership.

For the leadership of one bank, it is balance sheet growth; that of another is prepared to trade-off balance sheet size for profitability. For one packaged consumer goods company, it is product innovation; for another it is cost leadership and pricing power. For one firm the opportunity lies in cross-border business expansion; for another it is maximizing growth in the local market.

Their lens also colours how they view competence. For many leaders, proficiency in English is the indicator. This makes them blind to the fact that in most commercial organizations success at the junior level of leadership is largely driven by problem-solving skills, interpersonal effectiveness and personal drive. None of these have anything to do with proficiency in English. This leads us to exclude a large number of competent people from the consideration set because they are not proficient in English.

In 2007, when my team and I were brainstorming at Kashid near Mumbai, we were bold enough to challenge this lens on competence. That is where the now successful ICICI Bank probationary officers programme was born. During the last eight years, ICICI Bank has inducted around 10,000 youth from the interiors of India, who have turned out to be stellar bankers and more importantly, leaders. All that was required was to challenge and grind our lens to see the world of competence differently. What is interesting is that only a year into their training, all these probationary officers became as proficient in English as the best from any convent school.

Similarly, the leadership of many institutions see investment in physical distribution as the most efficient and effective way to expand their reach and improve customer service, while a few see the digital route as the answer. Proponents of the physical channel argue that customer service will be impersonal on the digital channel. Their lens prevents them from seeing the reality that old mothers swear by Skype and Facetime to connect with their children abroad, and find the experience as deeply personal and intimate. More importantly, where it comes to the established banks in the world, this lens has made them sitting ducks to be disrupted by the newer banks, which swear by the digital channel. The leadership of the established banks is failing to see the irrelevance of a physical branch when less than 10% of the total customer base and an almost insignificant percentage of the profitable customers ever visit a branch. Unfortunately, the leaders in these banks are hesitant to correct their myopic lens.

How does all of this connect to leadership? In my book, leadership comes into play only when we are seeking to transform/alter/change a status quo. (This understanding of leadership is shaped by my personal lens and many readers could have other nuanced understanding of leadership.)

Like I said in the beginning, a leader’s lens impacts his perspective, ambition, risk appetite and orientation to trust. These in turn impact his vision and strategy.

Perspective is the heart of leadership and our orientation to trust has a significant impact on perspectives—whether it will be narrow and broad.

A hyper magnified (zoomed in) leadership lens leads us to an inductive thought process and a narrow perspective. We seek more and more sensory inputs (data). We are driven by the need for detailing and concreteness. We seek proof that the decision will work. This in turn influences our risk appetite and decision-making. A hyper magnified lens is shaped by our orientation to trust. This is dictated by our emotions based on our past experience—such as fear of failure, shame arising from getting something wrong or loss arising out of being cheated. We therefore seek proof before we trust. Proof seeking demands more and more verifiable data.

In contrast, a telescopic (zoomed out) leadership lens leads us to a deductive thought process and a broad perspective. This lens frames a wide-angle picture which connects disparate images and information, and tells a story—of the world as we “want” it to be or we “believe” it can be. This lens influences risk appetite and decision-making very differently. A telescopic lens too is shaped by our orientation to trust.

Our beliefs and our emotions impact the way we collect and integrate sensory data. Based on our beliefs and emotional triggers, we give significance to certain data, filter out others, morph a few, choose the classification into which it will be put into and the connections that will be made to present us with a story (meaning and comprehension).

Since we are working with the lens metaphor, we cannot limit our understanding only to the narrow or broad perspectives. This is a function of focus. Emotions and beliefs also colour our world view—the Trump or Clinton world view; the Marx or the McCarthy world view; the Gandhi or the Subhash Chandra Bose world view. What we refer to as orientations, is the function of the emotion and belief that overlays the sensory data. That is why machine processed data will go through plain glass and not a lens. When we classify leaders as left or right, conservative or liberal, inclusive or exclusive, optimistic or pessimistic, radical or conventional, we are talking about the colour of our lenses (and the colour of the leaders’ lenses too).

When we use the term “bias” we actually refer to our lens amplifying or diminishing, colouring or distorting certain sensory data. Bias is actually preference for certain characteristics, choices, outcomes or practices. This can become a leader’s default setting. Gandhi preferred non-violence, while Bose believed that foreign occupation cannot be removed without armed conflict. Leaders who have an orientation for relationship amplify the positives of customer contact in physical channels and find drawbacks with automated channels by amplifying their impersonal nature. So, bias is not only likes and dislikes for people. Leaders’ approach to strategy, culture, innovation and decision-making thus get impacted by the colour of their lenses.

All leadership processes such as vision, choice set of strategies that we arraign, staying inside or stepping out of a paradigm (innovation), and the calls we eventually make are shaped, directed and controlled by our perspectives—narrow or broad, or the colour of the perspectives. Our lens to the world therefore is the key to our leadership fit for a given leadership context.

Without our unique world view, we would all end up making the same choice given a context. The consequence would be that problems and solutions which that one lens cannot comprehend would remain unsolved forever.

If sensory data alone could shape our lenses, we would have been no different from the other animal species. That emotions and beliefs define the nature and character of our lenses is what makes humans special. It is this that allows us to shape the world around us. Is this not the essence of leadership?

K. Ramkumar is the founder and chief executive of Leadership Centre, an institution dedicated to building world-class thought and practice in the domain of leadership consulting, research and development. He is a retired executive director of ICICI Bank and retired president of ICICI Foundation.

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