One of the best descriptions of transformational leadership has been penned by Prof. Bernard Bass, a renowned exponent of the idea. He says succinctly, "Leaders are truly transformational when they increase awareness of what is right, good, important and beautiful, when they help to elevate followers' needs for achievement and self-actualisation, when they foster in followers high moral maturity, and when they move followers to go beyond their self-interests for the good of their group, organisation or society."
In a similar vein avers Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla, "Transformational leadership to me means leadership in its highest form, such that it transcends the trappings of hierarchies, authority, power, as well as, formal and informal systems of reward and recognition — and in the political sphere, votes."
In the words of our Chairman, "Quintessentially, transformational leadership is about taking people on an all-together different plane. At the same time though, few great leaders follow a path deliberately designed to make them popular. Nor do they promise easy times ahead. On the contrary, they ask for sacrifice, for 'blood, toil, tears and sweat'. Nor do great leaders always score high on charisma, as we normally think of it. And surprisingly, many leaders don't even have a platform that automatically leverages them with the power and the authority. Rather, their influence derives from their idea, their conviction, the example they set, and their extraordinary ability to mobilise people and make things happen.
Transformational leadership: why we need it?
Unfortunately though, as with most things that we value, transformational leadership is in short supply in our country. We need much more of it, in every sphere, be it government, business, education, the law, or even non-profit organisations. Our slow and halting progress seems even more conspicuous when we look at the rapid growth many less-endowed countries have achieved over the past two-three decades. Take a look at just one indicator — the Human Development Index ranks India at 124, out of 173 countries, behind countries such as Gabon, Nicaragua and Mongolia. Given the talent and resources we possess, obviously, things need not be this way.
Considering the gap that we have to bridge, and the extent of our underperformance, I believe that an incremental approach will just not do. Our approach has to be deliberate and urgent. That's true for India, as a country. Either we make the leap, or we risk being marginalised. We cannot wait ten years for things to fall in place. Because planning to cross an abyss in two leaps is a recipe for disaster. Hence, the relevance of transformational leadership in our context.
Rather than talk about transformational leadership in merely abstract terms, I thought I would share with you the examples of two outstanding figures of our times, both of whom, I find fascinating and who strike me as being truly transformational leaders, though in vastly different settings.
Transformational leadership: Lee Kuan Yew
Let me get to the first example, which concerns the governance of a city-state. To me, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore stands out, in many respects, as one of the great transformational leaders of our times. Why? Because, through a three-decade period, he shaped and drove Singapore's development, catapulting the city-state from a Third World backwater, to the front ranks of the First World.
Of course, one could argue that while Singapore was a tiny city-state, the powers that Lee Kuan Yew wielded were large. However, I do believe if you cut through to the core, the issue is more about the quality of imagination, courage, political will, and about exercising power in a benign manner. Let's look at how his leadership was demonstrated.
At the time of its independence, Singapore's prospects for survival looked bleak. It had little land and no natural resources; the neighbouring countries were hostile to the idea of an independent Singapore. The city was heavily dependent on subsidies received from Britain. Poverty and corruption were rampant. There was also the ever-present tinderbox of ethnic strife, given the population mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians. Most observers did not give Singapore much of a chance.
However, history has confounded the sceptics. Between 1959 and 1990, Singapore achieved what is widely regarded as a social and economic miracle, without encountering any major disruption along the way. And, Lee Kuan Yew's extraordinary leadership and statesmanship is acknowledged as the major driver of the city-state's success. Let me talk briefly about four of the many unique aspects of his leadership.
First, in his role as a strategist, he made periodic and sweeping transformations, based on a perceptive reading of impending trends and events. During his tenure, the Singapore government successively pushed through at least four radical directional changes — from labour-intensive import substitution, to labour-intensive, export-oriented manufacturing, to moving the entire economy up the value chain, and lastly, turning the focus sharply to infrastructure, human capital, and high technology. Implemented deftly, this strategy kept Singapore's economy on a relatively even keel. Countries that had more rigid structures and could not adapt as quickly, floundered. What is noteworthy is that, at each stage, the leadership sought the citizens' inputs, thus helping to strengthen the people's sense of identity with the vision set out by the leaders.
A second unique attribute of Lee Kuan Yew was his aversion to strong ideologies. He consistently discarded theory in favour of what worked. If a policy worked, he would continue with it; if it didn't work he would drop it and try something else. For example, what mattered most to him was not whether Singapore Airlines was nationalised or privatised, but rather, how the airline performed. While his inclination was towards letting free markets operate, he resorted extensively to government intervention if the circumstances called for it.
A third distinguishing feature of Lee Kuan Yew's leadership was his accent on meritocracy in government. His focus on getting the best people was almost absolute. Speaking in Parliament in 1994, he said, "Singapore must get some of its best in each year's crop of graduates into government. When I say best,I don't mean just academic results which indicate only the power of analysis. You've then got to assess him for his sense of reality, his imagination, his quality of leadership, his dynamism. But most of all, his character and his motivation, because the smarter a man is, the more harm he might do to society." Lee Kuan Yew worked hard to drive this thinking into the mindset of every government official and every citizen in Singapore.
The fourth area where his unconventional and practical approach stood out sharply was in policies related to human resources. For instance, he believed that primary and secondary education would, to the extent possible, be universalised.
But not so a university education that would be restricted to a relatively small percentage of the population. Lee Kuan Yew's view was that trying to promote universal access to university education would create too many graduates for the Singapore economy to absorb which was a real concern in the 1960s and 1970s. The flip side was that those who did not get into a university were given excellent access to technical and vocational education, often through programmes organised jointly with foreign governments and multinational companies.
What was the impact his government had?
In his 25 years at the helm, Singapore was transformed from a tiny colonial outpost into a thriving, global economic centre.
Per capita GNP has risen from US$ 920 in 1965 to US$ 23,300 in 2000. The literacy rate has risen from 72 per cent in 1970 to over 92 per cent currently. The number of people living in owner-occupied housing rose from 9 per cent of the population in 1970 to 90 per cent by 1990. Singapore's government and public sector are regarded as one of the most efficient and cleanest in the world. Its infrastructure facilities are world-class. And all these factors combined, contribute to Singapore being ranked amongst the top in the world competitiveness league.
Transformational leadership: the Dalai Lama
Lee Kuan Yew epitomises one genre of transformational leadership. But leadership has many contexts, and comes in many hues. As a second example of transformational leadership, let me talk about a great spiritual leader of our time, the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama is a leader of an altogether different mould. He has no overt base of power; he holds no political position; neither does he command an army; and he has no control over mighty economic resources. Yet, he strikes a powerful chord. In a world driven by material progress, and the incessant thunder of conflict and strife, he offers the message of peace and humanity.
What makes the Dalai Lama so interesting and influential? Why do people around the world care about a simple Buddhist monk who 50 years ago was forced to leave his country, and who for years has headed an unrecognised government-in-exile, a 'virtual' nation of 6 million Tibetans?
I believe it is entirely appropriate to speak of him as a transformational leader. Why? Because, while his basic message is spiritual, his work has ramifications that are entirely down-to-earth. What exactly is the difference he has made, and what are the dimensions of what he has achieved?
The Dalai Lama's efforts have been instrumental in providing a haven and a life of dignity to the thousands who escaped the trauma of communist rule in Tibet. After their flight to India, the refugees have been resettled in various countries, among them, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Switzerland and Canada. It was his personal initiative and moral force that persuaded many countries to open the door to Tibetan refugees. This was no minor accomplishment, at a time when there were powerful pressures from the Chinese government not to accord official status to the Dalai Lama, or recognise the Tibetan people's desire for independence. In fact, for almost a decade, he was persona non grata in the U.S., and was barred from entering the country.
The Dalai Lama has succeeded in establishing a strong Tibetan base in India, and in several other countries. For instance, the Tibetan community in Dharamsala, near Mussourie, where the government-in-exile is based, is a thriving centre of Tibetan culture, and a home away from home. Tibet's unique identity and heritage have been preserved, when they were in danger of being obliterated.
Because of his efforts, the Tibetan cause — for restoration of their homeland and their freedom — has been gaining acceptance and support the world over. Last year, the U.S. Congress passed the Tibetan Policy Act 2002. This legislation formalises U.S. support for starting a dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama, to progressively restore democracy in Tibet. It also empowers the U.S. to direct multilateral agencies, to provide funding for development projects in Tibet. His personal diplomacy has had an equally impressive impact in Europe. As a result, there is increasing hope that, if there is a political thaw in China, the door could well open for greater autonomy for Tibet, if not for outright independence.
The Dalai Lama's quiet persuasion and reaching out has drawn many to the message of Buddhism. He has contemporised Buddhism and brought it into the mainstream of spiritual thought. From being a staid faith, today, Buddhism is flourishing in America, where there are an estimated 1.5 million followers. There are around 40 Tibet Houses the world over, repositories of Buddhist spirituality, culture and history.
Through five turbulent decades, the Dalai Lama has disseminated the message of peace, non-violence and tolerance. In a world where nations are guided largely by realpolitik, his message reverberates the world over because it offers hope not hopelessness, and is at once, ancient and yet most appropriate for our times.
Lessons of leadership
Lee Kuan Yew and the Dalai Lama: two outstanding examples of transformational leadership — of a vastly different nature and in totally different contexts. Yet, there are common strands that run through both.
I believe that there are seven important leadership lessons we can draw from the examples of these leaders, and others of that stature. Interestingly, for us, the MBA brigade, who often fall prey to the need for intellectual novelty, the lessons are stark in their simplicity.
The first lesson is that transformational leaders are able to set out a bold vision. But that's not enough. They are also able to project their dream and put extraordinary communication skills to use to drive it across to a large number of people. Also, far-reaching as the vision may be, it is usually expressed in a simple and direct manner. When we get to the core, we see something very basic, often strikingly obvious. With hindsight, we might almost wonder how we could have missed it!
A second lesson is that transformational leaders are skilled at marshalling the intellectual and emotional equity of their people. They work hard to gain their trust and commitment because, no matter how appealing the vision, if others don't buy into it, it won't get implemented. And the most potent way to get everyone on the same wavelength is to set an example. A leader has to be true to the beat of his own drum, and there cannot be any inconsistency between word and action.
There is a third lesson — which relates to "individualised consideration". This implies caring for the individual at the highest level, understanding and factoring in his or her unique circumstances, but at the same time, being dispassionate and not letting it cloud one's sense of judgement.
The fourth lesson is the ability to mind the mind. Transformational leaders will not let the storms of the heart cover the sun in the mind. They leave behind the regrets of the past, and will take forward the lessons instead, into the future. They are far from egocentric, quick to recognise that they are wrong and change track accordingly. For them ego, E-G-O connotes edging goodness out.
The fifth lesson is that transformational leaders stoke the spirit of intellectual courage to ferment constructive dissent, which has a huge positive impact on the quality of team building and decision-making. They are quick to recognise good ideas and have the intellectual honesty to give credit where it is due.
The sixth leadership lesson is about the imperative of institutionalisation, in order to ensure continuity without disruption. They focus on building an institution, which is enduring and lasts far beyond the leader and his individual contribution, and continues to thrive and to serve the larger interest of the group.
And finally, the seventh lesson pertains to the leader's willingness to move away from his conventional role and take on an entirely different mantle, maybe even hanging up his boots. Such an act caps true leadership, representing as it does, wisdom and the grace to pass on the baton.
To conclude, I'd say that transformational leaders are few and far between. They emerge from the times and circumstances — and all too often, from the ashes strewn around them. Commanding leadership and easy times rarely go together.
The idea however is to hearken to the message they hold out for us, and distil their leadership wisdom to our contexts."
Dr. Pragnya RamGroup Executive President, Corporate Communications & CSRAditya Birla Management Corporation Private LimitedAditya Birla Centre, 1st Floor, 'C' WingS.K. Ahire Marg, WorliMumbai 400 030.
91-22-6652 5000 /2499 5000
Fax: 91-22-6652 5741/ 42
A US $41 billion corporation, the Aditya Birla Group is in the League of Fortune 500. It is anchored by an extraordinary force of over 120,000 employees, belonging to 42 different nationalities.
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