Community Sense – The Ground of Leadership


By Dr. Ashutosh P. Bhupatkar

Editor’s Preface

Leaders owe their “leadership” role to their respective constituent communities. That community may comprise the members of an organizational team, the citizens of a local neighbourhood, and indeed any set of people that share a common interest, purpose or practice. Leaders are required to maintain a sharp “sense” and “pulse” of the community. The development of such “community sense” is therefore the sine qua non of leadership. It is developed as the leaders maintain connectedness with their communities through contact, cooperation and conversations. The bedrock of such connectedness is a sense of positivity that comes from faith in the larger process of life and the security of collective response.

The leader connects with the positives of individuals and groups comprising the community and in the process helps lowering of barriers and integration of constituent parts. It is this appreciative outlook that is essential for the leader to develop the ‘community sense’.

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1. Community Sense – An Introduction

One of the great challenges before the top management in any organization is to develop and maintain a sense of realism. Without this sense of realism, it is difficult to judge how far you can go on your own steam. This sense of realism covers in its ambit people, environment and everything that is a living phenomenon. Of course, there are multiple ways of getting close to reality: first hand participation, inspection, briefing by colleagues, reporting both verbal and written, and information from external sources. The leader tries to judge, assess, gauge and feel the way things are moving, people are feeling and winds are blowing. With this sense of realism, he or she can temper strategies and stimulate movements.

Without the sense of realism, his initiatives can misfire or boomerang. In the political arena of elections, the best of leaders suffered from miscalculations, when they lost touch with reality. Indira Gandhi in 1977 and Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2004 are prominent examples. We often talk of the necessity of common sense in Management, perhaps because we are likely to lose sight of it once we take off into the rarified atmosphere of abstractions and analyses. Common sense helps keep our feet on ground. Self-importance that could result from past achievements can stand in the way of this sense of realism. The other obstacle is the sense of insecurity that comes with a heightened power motive. Such leaders are prone to smelling rats everywhere. Their antennae are programmed to pick up threat signals but little else. They insulate themselves in numerous ways and as a result are prone to lose touch with reality. It is therefore necessary to look at this phenomenon from different angles.

It also happens in the corporate world when new projects flounder and new products fail in the market place.

There are any number of stories of new product failures that resulted from overlooking of some basic needs. WebTV by Microsoft, Touch of Yogurt shampoo and Colgate Kitchen Entrees are some examples. These products came into the market after considerable testing and research by very professional people. They certainly did not lack common sense. All of us have our momentary lapses from common sense. We save ourselves from such lapses by forming groups, task forces and teams. So we could assume there were no lapses. Then what happens in such cases? I suggest a different explanation for your consideration..

2. Meaning making as a process

We sometimes get caught up with our ideas and lose sight of how people experience things. All decisions, whether about product or policy, ultimately affect people. People’s responses arise from their expectations and perceptions. These are based on a dynamic cultural reality. The cultural dimension is derived from an understanding of the past, and the dynamism comes from the currents in the present. There is an ongoing community process in any collectivity in which people share their experiences, perceptions, hopes and fears. A community takes shape when people begin to share modes of living, which are made of concrete modalities informed by abstract values and notions. It is not enough to experience life; we need to make sense of it. It is not enough to enjoy a good meal or a good film; we need to talk about it. Giving meaning to and making meaning of experiences is a basic human activity. There is also a need to share meanings with others without which we would not share modes of living.

Though in every organization there is a meaning-making process taking place, all organizations do not necessarily shape into communities. In organizations this community process takes place when people not only exchange notes during breaks, bus journeys and also office hours, but also share norms and values.

People need to make sense of work, authority, challenges, money, rewards and other related stuff. In Mumbai’s business district, you can see people gather into knots at street corners after office hours to ‘transact business’ on their personal agendas. Among other things they are trying to make sense of their situation while connecting with one another in certain acceptable ways. It is through these conversations and connections that the community takes shape. The commentaries – both live and post match – are thus an important part of shaping the sports community. In the society at large, this community process takes place in print media, television serials and other popular art forms, apart from wherever people come together and exchange notes.

This is what may have happened in the years of Emergency in India: 1975-77. Law and order showed improvement with less of crime and riots. Vigorous measures of population control were implemented. But communities experienced precisely this vigour as invasion of privacy and trampling of freedom, when compulsion was exerted on men to undergo vasectomy. The India Shining campaign of the Vajpayee government showcased developments in urban areas, leaving the rural population gaping at the widening gulf between them and their urban brethren. In both cases, the leaders became distanced from large sections of community and paid the price.

3. Dynamics of Cultural Reality

By cultural reality, we mean the currents, crosscurrents and under-currents of shared perceptions in a community. This is what makes for the dynamism of a community. Take for instance, the Kashmiri community. There are separatist movements and there are weak nationalist formations. Their composition and orientation keep changing according to their perception of India and Pakistan and the one that will stand them in good stead. Amidst this continuing uncertainty, the Kashmiri women are beginning to find their voice and are asserting their right to education and work. They are expressing their anger and resentment at being victims of both violence and oppression. It would be hasty to jump to conclusions. But one needs to be sensitive to these subtle shifts.

The world of today is marked by multilateralism in most spheres of life. There are multiple interfaces and hence immense possibilities. There is the energy of the youth riding on their aspirations and there is a redefined activism of the senior generation. In between the middle-aged are finding that old models of stability and maturation need not stifle ambition in their forties and fifties. In a composite and layered society like ours, there are many exciting possibilities and challenges facing different sections. All these forces are at work in shaping and changing perceptions of people in communities. As they continue to make sense of the developments, through community processes, they are also bringing dynamism in the cultural reality.

There are business organizations, like the Tata group, which have strong cultural foundations, which guide work at individual, company and group level in certain well-understood and well-accepted ways. Even then one cannot assume that the Tata culture is static. Within the overall framework, two important developments took place that showed the dynamism of the cultural reality. The old guard yielded place to the new generation in the nineties, after Ratan Tata took over the reins.

There was a fair degree of resistance by the old guard, which showed that they were out of step with the new reality. Secondly, the Tatas had to move in to reduce the ‘headcount’ in their manufacturing units in the face of global competition. Yet they managed both the processes in keeping with their cultural pillars, thus ensuring there was minimal friction in the process. Both these

developments also signaled that loyalty needed to be accompanied by performance, if it were to sustain continuity.

4. Community Sense

Some leaders (and managers) have an astute sense of this community process that is taking place all around us. They can sense the sharp edges, turns and twists in the minds of people. I call this as the “Community Sense”. It helps us gauge the possible responses to a new idea, policy or product from a group of people. It also activates us to move decisively into an unfamiliar situation. Community sense is not the property of only managers. Filmmakers, politicians and some religious gurus do possess it in good measure.

TV and Internet, Shampoo and Yogurt, and Toothpaste and food do not necessarily go together. You might say these things should have been obvious, especially when organizations like Microsoft and Colgate were involved. But it wasn’t so. In contrast, there are several cases where marketers went against current wisdom of market research and introduced products that went on to become case studies. Hotshot cameras, FedEx courier service, the calmanac, Kal Nirnaya and iPad are some examples. The decisions rested on community sense. Each of the pioneers had developed insights from personal experience and keen observation of the communities.

There is no formula for cultivating this community sense. Yet, the two conditions that must be met at the least count are conversations and connectedness.

Conversations are a form of communication marked by mutuality, free flow and divergence. Both the speaker and the listener in a conversation are engaged in talking and listening. There is no strict time limit or fixed agenda. Topics appear, fade and reappear in a conversation. Divergence allows you to move from one topic to another. That’s when ideas float in, thoughts strike you from nowhere, and projects take off. MF Hussain, the great artist, told me once that he got all his ideas from friends whom he met in his favourite cafes all over the country. The second condition is connectedness. Common factors like places, habits, people, pets and books can become the connectors. At the level of human experience, it is very easy to connect to another human being, provided you accept others without judgment or evaluation. It calls for deep respect for everyone’s humanness.

It seems that people who have it are rooted in the community of their interest, have their eyes and ears focused on the unfolding dynamics of the community process and participate fully into it as frequently as they can. They also know very well that moods change, values evolve and norms are not static. Most of the times, the shifts are subtle. So they need to be in touch with both the surface and the core of the community. Also, you need multiple sources and multiple interfaces with your community. John Kotter, the author of the celebrated article, ‘What do effective general managers do’, talks of the two processes in which the effective general

managers engage constantly: agenda setting and network building. Both are instrumental in giving the feel and flavour of the community processes to the managers. Rupert Murdoch drove his car in the streets of London in order to connect with his readers’ and viewers’ world. There is a physical contact and there is also an intimate connectedness with the community. This is followed by an astute reading of the currents and cross currents in the minds of community members.

5. Business – the Indigenous way

Indigenous business leaders the world over also seem to possess the community sense, perhaps owing to their preference for delving into personal experiences. By Indigenous Business, we mean business that grows as an integral part of the promoter’s personal experience in a community.          Such promoters like to be a part of the socio-cultural milieu of their stakeholders, be it customers or employees.

The owners of one of the biggest newspaper groups in India make it a point to attend wedding functions in the families of their employees. Dhirubhai Ambani had a heightened awareness of the investors’ aspirations, born out of his identification with the community. He was the first one to recognize and reward the role of investors as stakeholders in a business organization. He had the same rapport with his team of key managers. Michael Dell built his direct marketing business model on the strength of his own experience as a schoolboy delivering newspapers and as a college student selling assembled computers. It was the same for Anita Roddick, the founder of Bodyshop, whose concerns for the community and the environment went back to her mother’s frugal ways and recycling habits during the War years. She famously pioneered the Community Trade with African communities, which supplied natural ingredients for the cosmetics.

As a result of the high community sense, many of the Indigenous business leaders have a built a relationship with their customers that transcends the purely commercial dimension. Their contacts embrace other dimensions as well. One of the beedi manufacturers in Rajasthan took it upon himself to organize cattle camps for the farmers during a drought period. He did it out of his bonds with the community and not out of an imported notion of corporate social responsibility.

In the world of managers, one comes across successful managers who do not possess very high qualifications. In a manufacturing company, an experienced person who had done his Masters from one of the IIT’s was appointed as the General Manager. He could not handle the challenge of working with an old set up with old machines and experienced workers and staff. He kept asking for modernization. Finally an old hand, who had started as a draughtsman, could tackle the situation well and was then appointed the Manufacturing Manager.

This person knew all the machines, all the jobs and the entire workforce well. He used to move around whenever he apprehended some disturbance. He could achieve a turn-around.

Such managers succeed by doing things that get implemented smoothly by the people around them. They seem to know the capabilities and aspirations of the people and also the limits of both. They may or may not be able to put it in words. But it seems to work. Experience is a necessary ingredient of community sense, but it is not sufficient. One can interpret the experience as an insider or as an outsider or as both. Astute managers, leaders and artistes look at the experience both as insider and outsider. Being insiders helps them gauge the intensity of feelings. And as outsiders, they can see the patterns and the possibilities.

In the world of politicians, there are the grass-root level leaders and there are urbane ideologues and spokesmen. The grass-root level leaders can sense the pain points of the people, their aspirations and their patience. They need to respond to these expectations and perceptions positively in order to sustain acceptance as leaders by their constituencies.

6. Caveat

Community Sense is necessary but not sufficient to steer one through tough times. It needs to be supplemented by a sense of realism about the world at large. You may call this a broadened world-view. Today communities are not insulated but are open to global influences. Events in one country can trigger movements in other countries. Therefore one needs to be alert to developments on the world stage. Secondly there can be impairment to the community sense. One can become complacent and self-important in the wake of great success. Reliance on fewer sources that habitually bring glad tidings can make one oblivious to the unceasing dynamics within the community. A wise leader makes way for another when he finds it difficult to keep in step with the dynamics of the community.

Thus you find that it is this community sense that acts as the canvas on which leaders translate their ideas into works of art. They can see the impressions created by their strokes, the fusion of ideas and reality, the overall effect of their themes and the broad appeal it holds for their constituents. Without the canvas, they would be blowing pipe dreams and building castles in the air. Community sense is cultivated through conversations and connectedness. Techniques are of limited use here. What is important is to touch the human chords at the deeper levels by respecting and celebrating the humanness within each one of us, accepting diversity and divergence and keeping one’s curiosity alive. Therein resides the secret of success of indigenous leaders all over the world.

Notes:

  1. For new product failures, see http://www.dailyfinance.com/photos/top-25-biggest-product- flops-of-all-time/
  • John Kotter (1982), “What Effective General Managers really do”, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec
  • This is what The Guardian of UK had to say on the 2004 defeat of Vajpayee-led NDA (Friday 14 May 2004):

Under the slogan “India shining”, the BJP had hoped that a bountiful monsoon, rising growth rates and a nascent peace process with Pakistan, would have persuaded voters to give Mr.

Vajpayee another five years in office. However, Mrs. Gandhi, who has grown into the role of political campaigner, tapped into concerns of the rural poor – at least 300 million people – who believed they were being left behind as the country’s cities marched ahead.

A former editor of the Times of India, Inder Malhotra, said: “The India shining campaign boomeranged completely for the BJP. It showed a careless disregard for the vast areas of darkness where the majority of Indian people live. Both Congress and the leftist parties pointed this out and reaped the benefits.”

  • Emma Tarlo (2003), “Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi”, University of California Press, has this to say (p 222):

…what this vote signified was not so much the development of a new political consciousness as a desire to put a stop to sterilization and demolition – the two features of the Emergency regime which were plaguing people’s lives.

  • Dhirubhai Ambani (1932-2002): This is what his close confidante of many years, AG Krishnamurthy had to say about him:

When things went wrong, he was the first person to sense that the circumstances would have been beyond his team’s control, rather than it being a slip on their part, as he trusted their capabilities implicitly. His first instinct was always to join his men in putting out the fire and not crucifying them for it. Sounds too good a boss to be true, doesn’t he? But then, that was Dhirubhai.

From: Dhirubhai gave management a new ‘ism’, Feb3, 2006, Business Standard

  • Michael Dell (b.1965) says in his official blog, Direct2Dell, about his notion of technology: The Dell Workstation 400, as we called it in 1997, was a huge success. In very little time, we went from zero to nearly 50 percent share and led the industry as the No. 1 workstation provider for 10 consecutive years.

It was a homerun for Dell but, even more important, it underscored this notion that the real purpose and benefit of technology is to solve problems and enable our customers to achieve their goals. That’s what our solutions strategy is all about, and it’s the right one—for Dell and for our customers. (Italics added)

Source: http://en.community.dell.com/dellblogs/direct2dell/b/direct2dell/archive/2012/07/24/our-story- tracing-dell-s-solutions-heritage-with-precision.aspx

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  • Hallowell, E.M. (2003) Connectedness, in Finding the Heart of the Child: Essays on Children, Families, and Schools by Edward M. Hallowell and Michael G. Thompson. Braintree, MA: Association of Independent Schools in New England

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