MY VIEW | Tightrope Walk

While visionary leaders foresee the future, legendary leaders have the ability to simplify and institutionalize their vision. This is the story of one such iconic corporate leader I had the privilege to work with. During a complex review meeting, he simplified four critical chasms that all organizations must leap across, regardless of their size or industry.

The first of these journeys is from Confusion to Clarity.

Gallup surveys endorse that lack of clarity is one of the primary factors of employee disengagement. We often hear of brands and organizations being confused about their core purpose, vision, strategy and even job roles. This happens primarily because the vision that seems so clear in the minds of strategic leaders (or in some cases, just the CEO) doesn't translate into workable frameworks for the rank and file. Too often, vision and strategic plans are vague catch-all phrases which mean different things to different people. Strategic intent is lost in translation into mindless checklists, because teams that develop strategy rarely bother to explain the 'why' of a plan to the actual executor on the ground. Developing a strategy is exciting and 'sexy'; but translating that into simple non-jargonized steps is a laborious and a frustrating process, thus often ignored.

However, as they say in the army, no matter how brilliant the general's plan may be, it is the havildar who has to execute the last 100 metres. If the havildar doesn't get it, the brilliance of the plan is irrelevant.

The second chasm is from Competence to Capability. While organizations strive to recruit the most competent talent they can afford and attract, they struggle to translate that competence into organisational capability. As many leaders wryly observe, a new hire often gives his most impressive performance during the interview and it's all downhill after that. This is primarily because elaborate recruitment processes often diffuse accountability and ownership. Pressure on recruitment timelines, numerous interview panels (purportedly to get the buy in of as many leaders as possible), psychometric tests and vague strength finder graphs end up recruiting homogenous stereotypical talent. Fire in the belly, ideological and psychological alignment, chemistry, gut-feel, intuition, etc, are surgically removed from the hiring process. But often, these are the very aspects of leadership and decision making needed at strategic levels.

Organizational politics also keeps the potential of teams hamstrung. While politics itself is a benign word, toxic politics erodes positive energy and evicts talented individuals who don't want to participate. Removing this venom from teams is the direct responsibility of the strategic leadership. However many don't, because it is distasteful and confrontational. In some unfortunate cases, insecure leaders actually encourage politics to safeguard themselves and their petty agendas.

The third chasm is from Concern to Confidence. Healthy concern is a good leadership trait. However, leaders must strive to convert that concern into confidence. Confidence about the training imparted to their junior leaders and their resultant capability. Confidence that they have been well 'exercised', battle-inoculated and aligned. That their core values are in place and so is their north star. And if the situation demands, they have the moral courage to deviate from standard operating procedures, within the remit of organizational and professional integrity.

There is an old army story of a general being informed about a platoon-level attack at one of his division's forward locations while at golf. The general didn't even bother looking up from his stroke while acknowledging the news. A rookie lieutenant thought it was unprofessional of the general not to stop playing and rush to the ops room instead. Until he was taught by a senior that if a platoon-level attack is underway, the general must retain composure because he is confident of the ability of leaders in the chain of command to handle the operation. Any perturbation displayed by him could have undermined that chain of command.

The last and perhaps most important chasm to be crossed is from Criticism to Celebration.

Critique is an overused tool in leadership. This has its roots in our education and social system, where the focus is often on what went wrong rather than what went right. Leaders who are able to spot an error within reams of documents or scores of slides are lauded for their eye for detail and incisiveness. Reviews have an air of inquisitions and there is a palpable tension before important ones. However, the leader's role is not fault-finding. That is the job of an auditor.

A leader's primary job is to inspire. She may be a great problem solver, brilliant strategist or a highly competent professional. All that is naught if she cannot inspire and institutionalize that inspiration, because strategy, competence and solutions can be outsourced but inspiring the organisation is the responsibility of its leaders.

These four chasms—Confusion to Clarity; Competence to Capability; Concern to Confidence and Criticism to Celebration—form a structural roadmap for organizational success.

It is the ability to develop and propagate frameworks like these that separates truly visionary leaders from the rest.

Raghu Raman is the former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid