Leading a business successfully in all the multiple dimensions it entails has hardly ever been an easy task. In the age of increased financial complexity and consumerism, it only got tougher. Add to that a global economy crippled by—and recovering from—a financial crisis, intensified competition and fewer jobs. Being a business leader today is a bigger challenge than ever.

Stand apart: The key is to identify those with uncommon approaches.

Challenging context

At a most basic level—irrespective of the economic context—leadership training is about enabling employees to make the transition to the next level, and facilitating the process of learning that a new role entails, says Prof. Deepak Chandran, deputy dean at the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad. For instance, a young engineering graduate who gets promoted to a managerial role has to unlearn some of the aspects of his individualistic role as he steps into the role of line manager. “Once you are managing people, the natural tendency, especially for a good performer, would be to jump in and do the job himself. What you really need to do, as a manager, is teach people working under you to perform the way you did," he says.

The challenges facing business leadership have become “ever more complex and intertwined", say Srikant Datar and David Gavin, professors at Harvard Business School (HBS), who have written about the need to evolve business education in their book Rethinking the MBA (Harvard Business Press, 2010). “They range from creating growth and long-term value, to balancing the demands of stakeholders with often divergent interests and needs, such as shareholders, customers, and employees; to social responsibility, sustainability and the environment while still maintaining profitability and competitive advantage," they said in an email interview.

A world recovering from severe financial crisis creates an added layer of difficulty: “where job creation still lags, where competition will intensify and change will be rapid, and where the demand for innovation will increase. The answers to these questions will require vision, wisdom, and judgement—key elements of business leadership," say professors Datar and Gavin. With the new economic order, and in the aftermath of the financial downturn, “there is great need for responsible, ethical, value-based, inclusive and sustainability in leadership," adds Prof. Chandran.

In India, given that a majority of the workforce belongs to the “Gen Y or millennial category", leadership training naturally assumes greater significance, says Dilip Kumar Srivastava, corporate vice-president and global HR head, HCL Technologies. “Competent employees need to be provided with as many opportunities—both at work and outside of work—to develop their leadership abilities and lead," he says.

The key, as Srivastava adds, lies in identifying them. “We aim at identifying those who have uncommon approaches to common situations; individuals who are able to think out-of-the-box in normal, ordinary circumstances are the disrupters and blue ocean thinkers. We have different levels of developmental agenda for employees and we follow a segmented approach to nurture and bring out leadership traits in employees. Hence, we create different offerings for leaders at different segments that meet these objectives. At HCL, it is a long and strongly held belief that you cannot ask a fish to fly."

Spotting potential

Organizations and educational institutes both work—sometimes in tandem—in grooming leaders. Comparing leadership to tennis, Michael Brimm, emeritus professor of organization and management at Insead, Fontainebleu, France, says in a phone interview that it is a “combination of skill and art". “As a top tennis player you need great skills; but the really great ones transform it into an art form. And to develop someone into a great tennis player, you don’t do it by putting them into a classroom, it’s by taking them to a tennis court, and coaching them. That’s how it goes with leadership," says Prof. Brimm, who consults with a variety of governmental and business organizations (such as General Electric), as organizations often seek consultants to train executives.

Another shift in a decade of globalization is increased competition, adds Prof. Brimm. “I used to believe that everyone can be a leader, but in the last decade, because of increased competition and the multiple financial crises the world has seen, there is less time for leaders to develop and respond to training. Everyone can develop into a successful tennis player, but you could do it faster if you were more talented," he says.

Organizations start spotting potential leaders perhaps not as early as the trainee level, but within a couple of years of having them in the organization. “Once they’ve been around for a few years in an organization, you start seeing some principal qualities, their conduct, integrity, ethics, how much initiative they’re willing to take," says Mrityunjay Kapoor, country managing director, Protiviti Consulting.

At HCL, for instance, there are two types of initiatives taken to build leaders, both premised on the principle of “inverted leadership". The first is Excelerator Talent Academy, an “in-house university" that runs three- to five- month courses in technical, soft skills training and on-the-job mentorship. There are also Employee First Councils, which are platforms for young employees to find areas of interest and take on activities where they can demonstrate their leadership abilities," says Srivastava.

The B-school way

The leadership development efforts at many business schools range from developing knowledge to fostering skills and increasing students’ understanding of their own values, roles and professional responsibilities. At ISB, Hyderabad, there are two types of programmes: calendar programmes and custom-designed programmes. In both, however, the fundamental idea is the same—of trying to give as much cross-functional exposure to the candidate. “If the candidate is from finance, we take him to supply chain, strategy, accounting, marketing. Once he’s exposed to all, he’s given a real-life scenario and placed in a role where he has to play integrator," says Prof. Chandran.

At Insead they attempt to “combine classroom experience with active performance in organization". At HBS, Massachusetts, US, programmes such as LEAD and Leadership and Corporate Accountability combine the “knowing component" and the “doing component" with the “being component". The “knowing" component exposes students to alternative theories of leadership, the decisions leaders face, and the ethical challenges that leaders must resolve; the “doing component" exposes students to learning teams, the case method of instruction, and project work focused on practical skills. They help students to practise working effectively in a team, framing and articulating a point of view, and giving and receiving difficult feedback. Still other courses, such as Authentic Leadership Development, emphasize the “being component". They help students understand their own deeply rooted values and attitudes, personal strengths and weaknesses, and the impact of their actions and behaviours on others. For the most part, the proposed changes in the HBS curriculum and those under consideration at other schools seek to strengthen the “doing" and “being" parts of the programme.

“Leadership isn’t valued in every organization," says Prof. Brimm. “But organizations that value leadership are the ones that value people," he says.