Pandemic tests organisational leadership (Column: Spy’s Eye)


The global health crisis created by Covid-19 has predictably put in focus the role of political rulers of nations across the world but in an all-permeating manner it has also tested leadership in different spheres — businesses, organisations and institutions in terms of setting apart the brilliant from the ordinary. A true leader not only faces a crisis competently but ‘rides the challenge’ to take the organisation forward through the difficulty and put it on the path of progress. The first requirement of this role is for the leader to have the combination of ‘insight’ and ‘vision’ in order to see the roots of the crisis and determine how to reset the goal through necessary course corrections. The leader has to be comprehensively well-informed about the various facets of the problem and their impact on the business at hand and be in possession of ‘business intelligence’ about demand, logistics of supply and delivery as well as the new technology that might have become available at that moment.

The pandemic did not represent a challenge of ‘competition’ that was the feature of normal times and instead came as a big ‘equaliser’ in as much as it caused the ultimate organisational ‘disruption’ for all entities and set off a new quest for technological solutions. In a competitive world of globalised norms, the successful leader would retain the organisational loyalty of the best of his or her human assets, study the rivals and keep track of the external environ affecting business. In the beginning of the Nineties, Delta in the US overtook the PanAm as the world’s largest airline primarily because, it is said, six of the latter’s top leaders parted company with their CEO to join the new rival. In the context of the pandemic the crisis enveloped individuals and organisations across the board and the threat of competition gave way to the challenge of restoration, innovative management and adoption of new technology for enhancing the ‘outreach’. In the period of recovery, quality of product and service will become doubly important because the customer wading through the crisis would become far more sensitive to ‘reliability’ of what was being offered. Failure in this regard will make the customer permanently hostile to the business concerned.

An intelligent leader would realise that the pandemic had produced three distinct consequences. First, it had ‘flattened’ the organisations by making excessive vertical hierarchy redundant, legitimised the concept of working from home and altered the methodology of internal communication. Secondly, it had revolutionised the human resource development by recognising the fact that the individual was at the centre of all productivity, that teamwork had emerged as the prime instrument for recovery replacing the top-down directives and that the crisis demanded a new sense of camaraderie overcoming physical distances. And finally, the new management framework enjoined upon the leadership to revisit the earlier norms of performance evaluation, take to practices that encouraged members down below to develop a sense of ‘ownership’ towards the organisation and make the pay packet look like a compensation for work done for a ’cause’.

A learning forced by the pandemic is that organisations must be able to work with fewer hands horizontally spread out without compromising on productivity or quality of output — this is different from trying to be cost effective by laying off people. Heavy vertical hierarchy has to give way to multiple leaders working with compact teams, some of whose members would be operating out of home. Home as the new workplace is going to become part of the new normal in the post-Covid times as the corporate head office will not be a crowded place anymore and a certain proportion of employees will not be required to report there everyday. In this scenario, a leader would have to learn to decentralise decision-making. Reluctance of a leader to delegate authority often arises from the fear that this will add to the accountability of the former — a leader must know the people working for him or her well enough and have a grid of confidence with them. This is a sign of success even in the normal times. In the new normal, the leader will have to be far more communicative and be available for any guidance urgently required, even from a distance. A blend of centralised working with decentralisation of operational decisions is needed for the future.

For this to happen, the leader will be required to know the members of the organisation a lot more closely than was the case before. Covid has stressed every one’s life and made it vital for the leader to have a developed Emotional Quotient — this means a capacity to understand that the responses of a person are shaped also by his or her emotional state of mind. The leader must have a pretty good idea of the life of the employee outside of the workplace, including any major problem at home, since an entirely impersonal relationship limits the willingness of the person to work for the ‘boss’. In fact, the boss-subordinate relationship will change in favour of the Indian concept of management that prescribed a ‘paternal nurtural’ leadership. In the post-Covid world the modern leadership will have to become ‘nurtural’, the paternal component would not be mandatory.

In the backdrop of several alterations in the management practices becoming the order of the day for the future, the system of performance evaluation would also have to be reformed. This is the call of leadership. Assessment of an individual in the rushed corporate life has mostly been a ‘third party’ affair with the senior acting on behalf of the organisation and at the back of the employee being reported on. Working during Covid from home, everyone — left to one’s own devices — would become aware of the ‘self’ and cognisant of his or her contribution to the organisation in realistic terms. This makes it possible for the employee to improve the output and warrants introduction of ‘self-assessment’ as a uniform practice in performance evaluation. Moreover, in the new environ the organisation will benefit from the internal ‘feedback’ that was more or less neglected so far. ‘Nobody knows everything but everybody knows something’ — it will be good for the organisation to remember this for its own betterment. A better planning for re-skilling and upskilling is going to become essential and an improved performance evaluation system will help in that plan.

On the whole, the expected changes in the old practices of running businesses, institutions and organisations can be described as an evolution of management marking an advance over the past. Some of this will rub on the governance too — bureaucracy would become more adept in micromanagement and the government machinery will be drawn closer to the people which is a gain for democracy. Prime Minister Modi had set an example in focusing on a pro-people agenda and guiding its comprehensive execution, ranging from vaccine policy to the direct transfer of money to the poor and the weak during the crisis. Personal integrity of rulers is tested in times of a crisis like pandemic which allowed power to be used for one’s own benefit — many lesser ‘leaders’ did get exposed. Fraudulent vaccination programmes, black marketing of essential equipment and downright cheating of innocent citizens in distress did occur but only on a limited scale because the strong Modi government at the Centre acted as a deterrent. Prime Minister Modi has personally monitored the pace of economic revival ‘from below’ that is suited to Indian conditions. His visibility in this crisis has given confidence to the people and made him a leader who would ‘ride the challenge’ of pandemic and take the nation through it successfully towards a new path of progress.

(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau)


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