Leadership Lessons from The Recent Political Crisis in Tamil Nadu

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Leadership Lessons from Recent Political Crisis in Tamil Nadu by Mukesh Gupta

Looks like the final curtain on the political crisis in Tamil Nadu finally came down, with Palanisamy being sworn-in as the chief minister.

There are two leadership lessons that we can all learn from the way this entire episode unfolded.

Importance of Succession Planning:

This entire incidence only goes to show that there was no clear succession plan in place, if something were to happen to the erstwhile chief minister Jayalalitha. Even if she had someone in mind, she did not make it clear to the candidate or her party cadre, either explicitly or post facto, in her will.

This is one of the most common mistakes that leaders commit. The reasons why they fail to invest enough time and effort in identifying and grooming a successor are:

  1. They assume that they have a lot of time to do this and that there are other priorities that are more urgent than this.
  2. They believe that no one in their current team is capable of being nominated as their successor.

In my opinion, this is probably the most important task that a leader is expected to do – develop more leaders.

What they fail to understand is that, it is in these moments of transition that organisations or teams go through a lot of chaos, uncertainty and ambiguity. These moments always bring to the front a power struggle, which always has a winner and a loser. This power struggle also means most people will end up taking sides and whichever side wins the struggle the team loses as it is extremely difficult to bridge any gaps that this power struggle creates. These scars heal slow. Also, the team that wins the power struggle may or may not be the best to take on the leadership.

This is also the time when the team is at its most vulnerable self. This is the time when competitors can disrupt the team and inflict maximum damage, if they are aware and agile enough to seize the opportunity.

Some ways that leaders can ensure this does not happen are as below:

  1. Develop successors rather than plan successors: Language matters a lot. When you define that the leader needs to develop his potential successor, they can then identify someone with potential. They can identify the gaps and give them projects and tasks that provide the opportunity to learn and grow their skills. This also gives leaders the opportunity to also find out if someone is able to scale up their skill-sets and mindsets to be able to grow into the role. All leaders need to understand that people grow in their roles and are hardly ever ready for a role.
  2. Developing successors as an Imperative: All leaders need to be measured on how many leaders they have developed in their teams who take on more senior positions. Once this is measured and has an impact on their growth and potentially their remuneration, this is taken seriously and progress made.
  3. Keep Things Simple: Anything that gets complex and involves too many people or too many steps starts getting procrastinated. So, instead of going through a complex analysis of all the potential candidates, it is easier to go with the judgement of the leader and identify two to three candidates who need to be tested and groomed for growing within the organisation.

As Stephen Covey stated, this is a Q2 activity, important but not urgent, until it becomes urgent. But by then, it is too late.

If done well, this process can yield not only stability to the team in times of transition but also create an opportunity to continue to produce a cohort of potential leaders.

Challenges with Larger than Life Leaders:

One of the characteristics of the erstwhile Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, was that she was larger than life leader. In most situations, she was above everything else, above her party, above her cause and above everything else.

We also have leaders in businesses who become larger than life. They take on a larger than life persona of themselves. While this serves the business for sometime, these leaders then quickly start believing that they are above the businesses that they are serving and so do their teams.

The moment this sets in, the decline of the business is imminent. This is exactly what happened with Jayalalitha. She became this larger than life leader and now it is increasing more difficult for her successor to step into her shoes. The more difficult it is for him, the more he will strive to achieve that. This is an ever worsening feedback loop which results in the organisation becoming weaker and weaker.

The only way that leaders can avoid this trap is by staying grounded. Some ways to stay grounded for leaders could be:

  1. Meet with their front-line employees on a daily basis. This keeps them closer to the business and at the same time continue to learn.
  2. Identify someone who is their alter-ego. He is tasked with alerting the leader every time he/she starts to think of himself/herself as bigger than the business.
  3. No Extreme perks. The feeling of being larger than life starts to take root when the leader starts getting and even demanding extremely special treatment everywhere they go. If leaders make it clear that they will not tolerate overtly special treatment from their employees, they tend to remain more grounded than otherwise.

Conclusion: 

The question now is how stable will the new cabinet under the leadership of Palanisamy be? My experience says that the power struggle is not over yet and will continue for some more time, leading to much more uncertainty within the government. The losers are the people whom the government is supposed to serve.

Similarly, if leaders don’t develop their successors and stay grounded, the team suffers and eventually the organisation and the customers that it serves suffer. This is never a good thing.

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