Money Matters

Leadership in crisis

By Sirajuddin Aziz
Mon, 02, 24

The characteristics and traits of leadership in times of peace and placidity in the marketplace (you can read that as a country too!) are significantly different from the skills required in leadership during times of crisis,distress, challenge and turmoil.

Leadership in crisis

The characteristics and traits of leadership in times of peace and placidity in the marketplace (you can read that as a country too!) are significantly different from the skills required in leadership during times of crisis,distress, challenge and turmoil.

In between these poles of contradistinction lie several aspects, features and traits, that are common to the basic concept of leadership. The list of characteristics and traits leaders must possess can be very exhaustive; however, to list a few common ones, qualities of leaders must reflect vision, enthusiasm, courage, technical proficiency, steadfastness, determination, ruthless conviction, overpowering humbleness, listening and communication skills etc.

In order to encapsulate all the traits a manager or leader must possess, management scientists have gone on a creative overdrive to hair spilt the concept of leadership; consequently we now have the ‘Servant- Master leader”; “Spiritual Leader”; “Thought Leader“; “Visionary Leader" and to top it all, we also have to contend with the concept of "Authentic Leader". (How can leadership be conceived without authenticity?). In my view, leadership is about possessing all of the qualities that drive positivity to the mind, heart and soul. Bereft of these virtues, there cannot be any such thing as "Leadership".

Crisis and crises are of varying nature, in terms of effect, impact, nature and intensity. The element of crisis needs to be explored and understood. In defining a crisis, a leader is expected to understand the existence of extraordinary situations, the need for extraordinary efforts and the willingness to make extraordinary sacrifices. Crises shouldn’t be discovered in the manner as described by Emerson, "We learn Geology the morning after an earthquake". The emergence of anything that is not expected or anticipated is the beginning of a crisis. Extraordinary results cannot be had without extraordinary efforts. “Great crises produce great men and great deeds of courage”.(J.F.Kennedy).

In history there are multitudes of incidents when various types of characteristics and traits were called upon to deal with the challenges. It is therefore inappropriate to classify a few as the most important ingredients of leadership, the smallest attribute can acquire the greatest need in leadership depending upon the situation. It is more safer to view leadership in the context of the then prevailing situation. No individual, let alone a leader remains unwise, post the event. There are traits that must necessarily be present in a leader who is faced with war or insurrection, failing which the individual will not be able to live up to the demands of the moment. In the corporate world, decisiveness in a challenging market condition is an absolutely needed trait in the CEO. Emotions have to be stepped aside in war. A leadership operating in warlike or war environment has to contend with the destruction that would follow post engagement, on both sides of the warring factions.

Following a destructive war that brings in its wake a massive need for reconstruction, the leadership required is of a different kind. The one who injures can rarely become the healer. The exceptions in history are far and few. Comparing Winston Churchill with Konrad Adenauer, proves the point. One led from the front to cause the enemy’s destruction, and the later healed the wounds of war through economic development. Charles De Gaulle of France is another case in point of transformation from a war leader to a peacetime leader.

A person who grew in a desperate environment; suffered food shortages, experienced the pain, pangs and ravages of war; fuel shortages, who had to, endure the harshness and severity of cold weather, by sleeping in an oversized overcoat, was the future Chancellor of war torn Germany, he was Konrad Adenauer. Having experienced these multitude of misfortunes, any other person in his place would have become a fully loaded warehouse of bitterness, spite and hate, but no, not him; instead he took upon himself to restore the dignity of his nation. “Instead of indulging in self pitying nationalism, he sought for his country a future within a unified Europe" These attributes and actions of Adenauer were later evaluated and epithet ed by Henry Kissinger as the “Strategy of Humility".

In a period of leadership till year 1963, starting from 1945, he worked to heal the wounds of loss of both human capital and its indignity, resulting from World War II; he got the nation to go through a process of “inner purification". Leaders must know when to be stern and unbending; and when to be humble and accommodating, these opposing traits must reside in a leader of substance. He believed in developing the middle class, to ensure that the “Elite capture” of the society is diluted to the extent that no man should become a “ Cult or Demi- god”. This led to a stable growth of the political economy. A lesson for our leadership, if only, they were to be as sincere as Konrad Adenauer.

Another Leader, from South East Asia, who showed in his actions, little humility, when it related to his country, but who otherwise was a humble servant leader, is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. He ruled with an Iron fist (it was required) from 1965 (the year of Singapore’s independence) to 1990. (25 straight years). In this period he laid down by personal practice laws of good governance. "Exception" was a word expunged from the implementation of policies. Lee, like Konrad, concentrated on developing the economy of the country, which both achieved with resounding success. A positive attitude with conviction of a better future must be the trade in stock of a leader.

For growth and development the entity or the country’s stability of environment is a must. China, following its independence in 1949, firstly sought to bring in stabilisation of both political conditions and economic development. This was achieved by the duo of Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai, the former was the visionary and the latter a loyal, and perfect executioner. China has gone through a paradigm shift, the embracing of one country, two systems, and the political philosophy of Deng Xiao Ping has taken deep roots. Mao-Chou leadership made for a formidable pair, the visionary diktats were transformed into workable policies, pragmatic and real, that Chou implemented resolutely. From Deng to Xi Jin Ping, the current President, the economic system has moved from strong elements of socialism to a combination of capitalism and state control of business and economy. Both of them were intolerant to dissent: Mao more than Chou. This was necessary to bring order out of chaos. Leaders must know where and for how long they must deal with situations with clenched teeth and powerful fists. Political dissent cannot perpetually be incarcerated. Freedom must be given, is a recognition that enlightened leadership knows.

Deng Xiao Ping reversed several aspects that were an impairment to fundamental human rights. He recognised the need to develop an economic policy that encapsulated the best ideals and virtues of Socialism and Capitalism. He changed China, to what it is today. President Xi Jin Ping continues with the same strategy. Leadership must remain aware of the need to approach challenges with pragmatism. There is no room for leadership to be either obstinate or obdurate.

Corporate and business institutions require the presence of both skills… a CEO cannot afford to be just a “situational leader”nor an “authentic leader”; he/she must combine in their persona all the qualities of heart and mind. The ability to steer the vessel of the enterprise in choppy waters of changing dynamics of the market is an ability that cannot be relegated to the backyard of the traits required.

A run on any financial institution based upon rumours is the worst nightmare of a banker, and possibly the most grievous thing to happen. This scribe went through it. Because it was based upon rumour and was unfounded, it met its own death. But between its birth and death, it took its toll upon me and my entire team. We demonstrated strong nerves of steel with an attitude of calmness. A team that brims with confidence based upon fundamentals of truth, trust, reality and accuracy of information, is always a formidable bulwark to face onslaughts of the marketplace.

In times of crisis and challenges, both in the political arena, as well as, business, leadership must make ego subservient to what is best for the country or the entity. (A letter to a multilateral financial institution to impose conditions upon the hapless nation is an extremely poor judgment call … even if it was written and not sent. IK possibly did mean what has been attributed to him). Henry Kissinger had written these lines, “Leaders think and act at the intersection of two axes; the first, between the past and the present; the second between abiding values and aspirations of those they lead”.

All leaders, in any segment of life must know what leadership position demands, and to use the words of the Pastor John C Maxwell, know first, and recognise, “Perks and Privileges" of leadership, and then strike a fine balance between the two. The presence of crises requires the leader to take tough decisions, that largely are in the realms of not being popular. Leaders have to be courageous. The element of courageousness is not limited to the battlefield, (it is also in relation to politics and markets), essentially it is about the ability to subdue and submerge fear… fear of failure or even fear of criticism. For courage to appear as a prominent trait, the battle has to begin with the leader’s own mind set. Sheldon Kopp, the psychotherapist says with conviction, “All the significant battles are waged within self”.

Leaders are called upon by events to be decisive in a flash. The need to arrive at a decision by consensus or consultation has to be set aside. The demand for action can be immediate. It is supported by history that Churchill thought of himself as a leader, who possessed an amazing style of leadership, where the dominant factor was "inclusive", which in reality was mostly autocratic. He was a wartime situational leader, who lived up to the occasion. His impatience for action earned him the nickname of being "pigheaded". Churchill won for Britain, World War II, but by the end of it, “the nation wanted a fresh start that did not include him”. Laurels earned must be retained with graceful exit. (NS must read history with a magnifying glass).

The best test of leadership is not in a pacific state but when it is challenged while being in the eye of the storm.

The writer is a senior banker and a freelance columnist