Crumbling leadership: A formidable challenge

Today leaders in Nepal are normally talking about their own agenda and applying certain individual methodology. Some leaders even don’t care why people are not ready to listen

At this time in Nepal of uncertainty, threat and leadership change, people look for a strong leader to guide them through rough water, fear and the potential scarcity of resources. Being perceived as ‘strong’ is critical to emerging as a leader in such situations as well as to keep the leadership role once you have it.

What does it mean, though, to be perceived as ‘strong’? If you ask bosses or employees about strong leadership, they will typically talk at a high level about a leader’s character and competence. Some might even argue that they know a strong leader when they see one, but do political associations have ability to train individuals in Nepal to exhibit the strength people want to see? The field of organisational behaviour has, for decades, conducted research to determine what it means to be viewed as resilient enough to ascend to important leadership roles, particularly in times of uncertainty and change. It is not an exact science, but it does give us some direction with at least a few ways to think about a leader’s strength.

Some of the studies in this area sought to uncover specific traits that might contribute to being perceived as a strong leader. It is important to us that being viewed as physically and emotionally robust contributes to being viewed as strong. Height, extraordinary energy levels, appearing busy and active, and being physically attractive are all important signals of fitness to lead. We see political leaders globally, for example, supplying the media with a steady stream of publicity photos aimed at showcasing these very traits. Also, having a dominant personality is another trait that seems to capture our attention when we are looking for a strong leader. Research on dominance consistently shows that people who take charge influence others, are assertive, and believe they have leadership qualities and are much more likely to be selected for leadership roles. On the margin, it also helps if you can give the impression of strength by having above average decision making abilities and technical competence.

Simultaneously, to maintain the support of followers, leaders need to listen and learn from their followers. The person most likely to be selected as a leader is the one who represents the centre-point of the group, who has a widespread following, and replays back to the group the things they are thinking.   Strong leaders take control of the process of engaging with their followers, ensuring they hear all of the voices rather than just the ones who shout the loudest. Finally, organisational behaviour also suggests that we view individuals as strong when they have clear and consistent values, and the moral courage to stick to those values in the face of challenge. Moral courage is not easy, and followers look to see the potential for moral courage early in leaders.

Today’s leaders need to make more decisions per day with more information than ever before. In Nepal, the leader’s decisions are rarely made with complete information, and the information available almost always leads to at least partially conflicting conclusions. Leadership cannot be taught solely in a classroom and experience is the critical catalyst in turning learning into sound leadership practice. Currently, most leaders in the world have demanding tasks as more of their time is required to manage more complexity across more time zones, while  Nepali leadership is still accumulating in-country issues. The speed of business can certainly provide aspiring leaders with many opportunities to gain wisdom, not all are equipped to truly learn from their experiences. Leaders have to have willingness to speak up which allows to change when they want to change. However, they also need to be very clear on who the audiences are.

Being perceived as a strong leader, ready for opportunity, can be an acquired skill. By cultivating each of the above strategies for strong leadership, Nepali leaders can improve chances of being selected as a leader, and improve the chances of success once they are in the role. Advice comes with a warning; however, each of these strategies can be overplayed and lead people to believe they will become a strong leader. Yes, robust leaders tend to have high energy and are dominant, but people also want their leaders to be resilient, tactful, kind, caring, and tolerant. For example, more dominance is better for getting the role, but once you have the job, successful leaders also need to listen, learn, and adapt to stay ahead and be seen as a problem-solver in these fast-changing and turbulent times of the country. You need to be strong, without being authoritarian. Today leaders in Nepal are normally talking about their own agenda and applying certain individual methodology. Some leaders even don’t care why people are not ready to listen. These leaders normally discover the passion on only one goal/sector. Hence, the challenge is how to synergize the people’s focus.

Now leaders may face the formidable tasks of rebuilding, reuniting, reshaping, and revitalizing. The key strategic question for nation-building can be: What legacy will you leave your nation? What kind of society are you trying to build? What will be different 25 years from now? What do you wish to protect? What are you willing to change? What asset do you have to work with? What makes sense to the community at large?

Shah is a consultant for Infrastructure and Energy Industry (Asia-Pacific)