If you are a foreign worker in India, one of your primary responsibilities is likely leadership development. It could be identifying leaders at the top level who can carry on countrywide operations, or it might be building up team and division level leaders capable of handling issues without much foreign involvement.
Indians are more than willing and able to take on these roles, and more often than not they succeed without any problems. However, it is also very common to see foreigners struggling to identify and develop quality leaders from within their organizations. Two-year assignments for foreigners balloon into four or five years because the ‘leadership pipeline’ seems to produce nothing more than a drip.
If you find yourself struggling with leadership development in India, it might be a case of misplaced cultural assumptions.
What Do You Want From a Leader?
You likely associate the word ‘leader’ with autonomy, independence, responsibility, vision, and accountability. When foreign companies try to develop leaders in India, their primary motivation is to identify accountable people who will take responsibility for the business without too much concern from the home office. They look for people who are self-motivated and willing to take calculated risks.
This kind of leader is very hard to hire in India (because most of them have already started their own ventures), and nearly impossible to ‘develop’.
One of the major reasons for the disconnect is summarized well by Sudhir Kakar in his book, “The Indians”
In India, the opposite of autonomy is seen to be ‘connectedness’, which is highly valued, while in the West, the opposite of autonomy is generally thought as dependence, which has very negative connotations. (43)
In other words, Western companies want their Indian leaders to be autonomous – to be able to lead on their own. To not be autonomous means you are dependent, which we translate as ‘useless’. In India, however, being ‘connected’ is the most important ingredient for success in business.
Parents and Leaders
It might be helpful to go back to the Parent Leadership paradigm. When a Parent Leader thinks about leadership development, he thinks about raising up the next generation of the family. The most important characteristics they are looking for are loyalty and a strong attachment. Competency can be taught, but loyalty cannot. Parent Leaders first focus on teaching values and expect to give guidance along the way.
The most important thing a good Parent Leader does is establish a safe connection that can be accessed at any time. Whenever the developing leader needs wisdom, it readily available. Specific tasks and skills are taught along the way, but not dumped on them all at once.
When the Parent Leader looks at the next generation, they want to offer the best education and experiences possible to create very smart people who can handle challenging situations. But the Parent Leader never looks to sever or devalue the connection.
Think through these questions as you wrestle with developing leaders in India:
If a developing leader repeatedly comes to me for advice, what might be her motivations?
You might quickly assume that someone who is always in your office is ‘dependent’, and therefore useless. However, there are multiple motivations you may not have considered. Maybe she wants to show deference to you. Maybe she wants to get your opinion before making a decision. Maybe she wants to test her own theory against yours before going forward. Maybe she wants to keep you informed of a decision so you don’t get angry if you find out later. Maybe she is trying to establish a stronger connection with you.
Just because someone comes to you often does not mean she is incapable of being a leader.
If a developing leader seems to not want to make a decision, what might be going on in his mind?
The unwillingness to make a decision is a very complex topic. Is he double-checking his own intuition? Does he assume he doesn’t have the full story? Are there ongoing political issues in the office that you are unaware of? Is he seeking your input or your stamp of approval? Is he protecting himself from a bad result in the future?
Address the larger issue that creates a lack of decision-making before you write someone off as incapable of being a leader.
How would this developing leader feel if all of her safety structures were removed?
If you force someone into a responsibility-carrying leadership role and don’t provide any ongoing support, there are two likely situations. One is that the person sees it as a challenge, attacks it, and flourishes. The other is that the person grows bitter, loses respect for your ability to lead, and starts to look for ways to protect what has become ‘his/hers’ from outside involvement. Only someone who already has a sense of loyalty and attachment will take the first course.
In the next article, we will look at some specific strategies you can use to develop leaders in India, but be sure that you have a well-rounded understanding about what kind of leader you are actually looking for.
Image Credit: AKS.995 on Wikimedia