Image Credit: Kalki Penn Sirpi by K.Balachandar
This assignment led to many forgotten spaces within me, spaces that were buried under the shaping experiences that have caused me to rediscover, reinvent, reignite and at times even remove; parts of my core thinking, beliefs, values, and priorities to thrive in my world today. A bit of context before I proceed.
I relocated to Canada in my late forties, after a long and unusual journey. I was born in a small coastal town in Kerala and was married by arrangement to a person from a rural community in Tamilnadu when I was still in school. Women in my community were not educated and were expected to look after home and family. As if to break this tradition, I started a small school in my backyard where I taught rural women English to help them learn and grow. This backyard project quickly grew into a school for rural women and men, preparing them for basic work in cities; with over 200 people graduating every year. At once hailed and rebuked as a leader of rural women and a person of ill-repute who could not sit at home, my journey as a learning professional began in an unorthodox way. After fifteen years, I moved out of my village to a city and reinvented my career in the corporate world, relocating to Canada over a decade later. In this blog post, I will be drawing on my past and present experiences while attempting to link them to the readings in Unit-1. I will list what I think the most important attributes of a leader working in digital learning environments are and expand on that attribute from my perspective and discuss what resonated or did not resonate from the readings.
I rate courage as the most important leadership attribute. I grew up admiring women like Jayalalithaa, an actress turned first female chief minister of Tamilnadu and an influential figure in Indian politics, Queen Lakshmi Bai, the queen of Jhansi, and Indira Nooyi who was the CEO of PepsiCo for over twelve years. All of these leaders had one thing in common, the courage to defy the norm. Courage to emerge as leaders in a male-dominated society. They stood tall and were role models for many women like me.
“Perception is how we think about a particular person, situation, event, or anything for that matter based on the stimuli we receive and the feelings and thoughts that we have about that entity. Mind you, the entity in question might or might not be what we perceive them to be and this is where perception management is important as irrespective of reality, we either favorably perceive that entity or we have a negative perception. Therefore, the art and science of perception management is all about how entities create a favorable impression of themselves to their stakeholders be it prospective or existing employees, shareholders, consumers, and society at large” (Juneja, MSG Management Study Guide)
Perception management is important for leaders to become and remain leaders. This could mean creating a favorable personal brand for themselves and the organization they lead. Jayalalithaa had to reinvent her image from that of a movie star to one that helped her party members and the public connect with her. This ability to manage public perception through the creation of a unique personal brand was instrumental in her success as a leader. She will be remembered as ‘Amma’ or ‘mother’ as this image catered to the need of the masses at that time (Kanagalakshmi, 2016). Today, perception management is fundamental for every corporate leader’s success.
As I explored all the prominent leaders who have had an impact on my life, the question that continues to surface is “Are they all that they seem to be? Are they infallible?” Over time, I have realized that leaders are human and like humans, they are not infallible. Also as stated by Kouzes et al.,( 2011) “strategies, tactics, skills, and practices are hollow and fruitless unless the fundamental human aspirations that connect leaders and their constituents are understood and appreciated.” Leaders who understand these human aspirations can leverage their understanding to create and develop their brand, managing the perception of their constituents for mutual benefit.
This attribute emerged strongly in our team discussions and the research by Kouzes et al., 2011. It is here that a leader like Indra Nooyi rises above Jayalalithaa and Indira Gandhi. The first woman of color and immigrant to run a Fortune 50 company, Indra moved beyond perception management into living the values. While Jayalalithaa and Indira Gandhi held on to power till the end often compromising on values, Indra chose to step down after a trailblazing career leaving behind a company well-positioned for success. Reflecting on Indra’s achievements, especially her Performance for Purpose strategy which is an initiative to drive long-term growth while leaving a positive imprint on society and the environment, I find a strong connection to the indigenous leadership attribute of looking at the long term impact of decisions being implemented (Novak, 2018). Her vision and her commitment to implementing it resonated with the honesty she embodied in her leadership. Indra’s credibility as a leader stemmed from her honesty as a person and was reflected in the alignment of her values, vision, and initiatives she implemented.
Every leader I have admired has been competent. This correlates to the research findings from Kouzes et al., 2011. Values without competence and competence without values do not work in my experience. Related to competence, is the attribute of continuous learning. An important quality of a leader is the ability to learn and evolve to stay current, competent, and relevant for the people and organizations they lead.
One of Indra Nooyi’s leadership mantras was “Think Global Act Local”. This combined with the “Unity in Diversity” or oneness strategy stated in the Bhagavad Gita, is critical for me (Sathish et al., 2019). These concepts do align with the western concepts of diversity and inclusion that focus on specific aspects such as race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation/gender identity. This attribute was missing in the research by Kouzes et al., 2011. The question on my mind when I noticed the miss was, ‘Can I trust a leader who is not inclusive? Can a leader be forward-thinking, fair-minded, or inspiring without being inclusive?’ I think not.
So how do all these attributes translate into leadership qualities for leaders in digital or hybrid workplaces? As Sheninger, (2020) states “Leadership is no different today than it was years ago. The only difference is that style and focus need to change with the times…” All these qualities are still relevant and their need is enhanced. Social media has provided additional tools to create and communicate positive brand perceptions, while also increasing information flow and competition. Inclusion is no longer an option with the changes in a post-pandemic workplace and in Canada where we are defined by multiculturalism. Leaders need the courage to pivot quickly, reinvent themselves continuously and navigate change as part of daily life.
As I write this post, I am also reminded of childhood lessons on the qualities of great leaders, Indian mythology, and what I have learned through my journey. Indian knowledge sources convey deep lessons through stories and mythology often through scriptures. Indian knowledge sources classify behaviors and attributes into three Gunas -Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. As highlighted by Sathish et al.,( 2019) Indian knowledge systems emphasize that all three Gunas are important for all, but need to exist in a natural balance. When in a state of natural balance, Sattva gives the desire to know, capacity to create, think and imagine. Rajas generate action, initiative, and motivation, and expresses itself in the ability to organize and implement. Tamas supplies the ability to bring, to completion whatever was created through Sattva and produced through Rajas. In considering leadership, Indian scriptures discuss Daiva leadership or leadership that belongs to the Deva or a person who excels from having a high level of Sattva, a moderate level of Rajas, and a low level of Tamas. Daiva leadership styles are described as having heightened knowledge, accepting of more responsibilities, being of exemplary character, having the desire and passion to set and achieve a vision while also having creativity and sustainability as core competencies. These leaders provide the platform to their followers to grow as successors with a view on sustainability. As an Indian by birth, I see these qualities in leaders like Indra Nooyi and view these qualities as timeless.
Reflecting on my journey, while I do not qualify as a leader in the conventional sense of the word, my journey has been riddled with challenges, decisions that meant defying the norm and marching forward with four daughters with conviction and courage, focused on raising courageous and competent women who will give back to society, without having to fight outdated societal norms. This has meant constantly shaping myself, chiseling away the demons that were holding me back. These demons included fear, feelings of isolation in a new country, low self-confidence that comes from being a diminishing voice, and confusion that comes from prior conditioning being felled by new experiences. The visual of a person sculpting themself to emerge as their best version and face the world, resonated with me as a representation of my journey. The quality that helped me reshape and reinvent myself is self-awareness, and my life has led me to believe this is the glue that holds all other leadership attributes together.
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Juneja, P. (n.d.). MSG Management Study Guide. What is Perception Management and why it is Important for Organizational Success. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.managementstudyguide.com/perception-management-and-why-it-is-important-for-organizational-success.htm
Kanagalakshmi, R. (2016, December 6). Jayalalithaa’s political acumen and striking leadership qualities. TechStory. Retrieved February 2, 2022, from https://techstory.in/jayalalithaa-leadership-qualities/
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2011). Chapter One: Leadership Is a Relationship. In “Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it, 2nd edition”. essay.
Novak, D. (2018, September 12). Follow Indra Nooyi’s example: Become a leader people are excited to follow. CNBC. Retrieved February 1, 2022, from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/12/pepsico-indra-nooyi-be-a-leader-people-want-to-follow.html
Sathish, M., Bhat, V. R., M, S. V., & Balasudarsun, N. L. (2019, September). (PDF) leadership lessons from Indian Knowledge System. Retrieved February 5, 2022, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343282342_Leadership_Lessons_from_Indian_Knowledge_System
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