Earlier this year, I was on a panel discussing wartime versus peacetime leadership and that got me thinking a lot more about this interesting and yet under-explored leadership style.
At first instance, this topic can evoke images of companies in crisis, conglomerates going under as markets crash and other such disastrous stuff. But as you think more, what skills does wartime demand? It requires preparedness, lean and fit organisations, and strategies to combat external forces. It tests the ability of an organisation to thrive even in adverse macro conditions.
A wartime leader has top priorities locked in, and is able to focus on these elements with razor precision.
Before we compare and contrast various aspects of leadership styles during wartime and peacetime, it is important to acknowledge that leadership per-se is a function of one's ability to bring about transformative outcomes that define the best possible path for an organisation, maximising its potential, no matter what the environmental conditions are. Over the past couple of decades, I have been a witness to the cyclical business trends and strong winds that have buffeted us into two types of situations. One is a hyper growth phase (which some people call peacetime) when our focus is all about expanding to meet the needs of an ever-growing business. The second is stormy weather (let's say wartime), where our survival skills become the basis of decision-making in a highly competitive marketplace.
So are we in peacetime or wartime?
I will start by sharing my personal philosophy in terms of where we are today, or will be in the next few years. This applies irrespective of segment or industry: you are either yourself the disruptor or you are being disrupted. If somebody believes they are neither, they are in for a rude shock!
If you look at the transformations in the IT infrastructure business over the last couple of years, there is a significant amount of change. Whether it is business models, consumption models, engineering models or delivery models, all of them are changing simultaneously. That has been a huge challenge for companies to deal with. This is a disruption that no company can isolate itself from.
It is not the decade of Moore's Law anymore. Things don't change in 18 months; they probably change in 18 days. To me, unless one is in a wartime mode, one cannot hope to survive. The rate of change or innovation is far greater than we have ever seen before. Startups becoming unicorns in a very short time is common enough and they threaten established enterprises that move at a snail's pace.
How are we addressing challenges of disruption?
The biggest challenge for us is being able to identify where we really aspire to reach. The areas that we want to compete in and how we can do our best. So the idea is really having maniacal focus to the extent of being obsessive on one or two things we want to do well.
The ability to focus, obsess and chalk out priorities is vital, and this skill is not one that comes easily. It comes from the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn the battlefield.
Being focused and identifying priorities—and executing to that while we are innovating—that is the principle that we apply. It is absolutely important to me as a global leader in a technology multinational, in terms of being able to understand the overarching focus of the organisation. This enables us to measure our success by the value we are contributing to the global organisation. Our ability to be positive and transform will help us stay ahead of that curve and best the challenge of disruption.
Who is a transformative leader?
Today it is all about transformation, re-engineering the way we look at expenditure and investment, processes, and a culture where efficiency is ingrained and innovation a way of life, and there is clarity in accountability. Leaders seek to improvise based on changing dynamics and question status quo, encourage disruptive innovation. One has to be cognizant of the prospect of inorganic growth, even if you may not need it right now.
If you are a company that is growing in double digits, do you care about anything else? There are tons of inefficiencies in a "peacetime" company that we learn to live with. It is when we start facing some bad weather that we notice the inefficiency in a company. One of the qualities I believe a leader should have in facing those kinds of headwinds is dealing with ambiguity and being able to empower in the right context. The guys on the field have to make their decisions on an instant and be able to take those actions.
Important aspects of wartime leadership
A wartime leader has top priorities locked in, and is able to focus on these elements with razor precision. Just as a chess grandmaster is able to look at the whole board and not only a few moves ahead, so must a wartime leader. The ability to focus, obsess and chalk out priorities is vital, and this skill is not one that comes easily. It comes from the ability of a wartime leader to learn, unlearn and relearn the battlefield. Understanding the landscape and atmosphere in which the battle is fought is crucial. If tough decisions need to be made, the resolve required to do so comes from a place of experience and knowledge. It takes courage to make unpopular and problematic decisions and the wartime leader must know that.
Finally, the best kind of wartime leader knows how to lead. The best commander-in-chief knows how to rally the troops and keep them motivated. Whether it's down in the trenches or in the conference room, creating a bond with the soldiers that keeps them going, is the mark of an accomplished wartime leader.