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Fluid leadership is in

Leaders in corporate land today face Alice-like scenarios

‘I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, ‘for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’

It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar.

‘Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; ‘but when you have to turn into a chrysalis — you will some day, you know — and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’

‘Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice meets a hookah-smoking caterpillar, who comes across as testy, prying and domineering.

The interaction between the two leaves Alice exasperated; and the readers, a tad wiser, that is, if they read into the text. In all likelihood, Carroll did not intend a leadership lesson. However, there is a takeaway from this chapter — aptly titled “Advice from a Caterpillar” — for any student of leadership. The message is particularly relevant to the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world we live in.

The caterpillar is persistent in his demand that Alice define herself. Alice considers it an existential impossibility. She has assumed many shapes and sizes in a day. The caterpillar seems to subtly point out to her that she is mistaking the changing exterior for the permanent essence.

It seems to be a commentary on corporate leadership as it exists today. Straightforward definitions of leadership are no longer possible. Most leadership styles look jaded; and in many situations, way off-the-mark. Leaders often slip into multiple leadership flannels to get through a day at work.

Let us see how the chapter ends. Alice comes to accept the fact that her exterior will change by the minute, when she acts on the caterpillar’s instructions on how to shed her height and increase it. It is a case of wisdom dawning on her as she begins to see events in their context. Today’s leaders are swamped by a similar uncertainty, and to be effective, they may also have to act on the caterpillar’s wisdom, just as Alice did. Applying this wisdom to corporate leadership in our VUCA word, leadership principles never change, but the leadership functions manifest differently, in keeping with the times.

The enduring core

“There are two dimensions to leadership qualities and competencies. One is the enduring core, which is the everlasting expectations from leaders, and then the other one is the adaptive exterior which contains many filters. As we are living in a VUCA world, more filters have now come into play. There are socio-cultural, business-model, globalisation and governance filters, to name a few.

The role of the leader will look different, depending on which filter you are looking through. To survive in the new business models, leaders have to meet new demands and have a particular mindset. In the new business models, which largely mirror the VUCA world, leaders have to be more connected, more collaborative and even take a fresh view of how they engage with their rivals.

Take the globalisation filter, and leaders have to pay attention to sustainability, environment, trade barriers and so many other issues that have global impact. Beneath this adaptive exterior with all these filters, there is that enduring core with its unchanging demands.

This core shows that in any age, a leader has to be inspirational; lead from the front; align diverse stakeholders; and has to be ethical,” says Ganesh Chella, co-founder and managing director, CFI.

Contextual intelligence

“When the external environment is stable, you could operate with fixed leadership models. In a VUCA world, you don’t have that luxury. Leadership styles have to be used fluidly, because effective leadership is now largely defined by contextual intelligence. It has taken the place of cognitive intelligence, which worked before information explosion. Now, the amount of information a leader may have is accessible to a ten-year-old, thanks to Google. Leadership is now more collaborative than personality-oriented. The directive leadership style, where you set the mission and get people to follow you, is now absurd. Centralised leadership as a model is dead. And, talking about our times, it is not so much about what leadership styles are best suited as about how to use a style in the right context. It is about having one’s leadership antenna up and listening all the time,” says Naresh Purushotham, chief-mentor and co-founder, Crestcom India.

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