Leading to Survive and/or Thrive?

Garry and Tony started their journey together as top executives in a leading organisation. Both consistently overachieved their financial targets for the first two years. However, by the third year, unlike Garry, Tony not only surpassed his unit’s targets, but also created new industry benchmarks for others to follow. Though both were well-regarded top-notch executives—passionate about their work, what set Tony apart?

A deep dive into the working of both the executives revealed that one got into religiously sustaining the past business performance, whereas the other focused on expanding the business in a new area, without losing sight of sustaining the past performance. In other words, for Garry, his default preference was to consider targets that were key to success, and certainly attainable if stretched enough, based on earlier benchmarks. However, for Tony, possibilities of doing different things in the future dominated the thinking and action than just achieving the set targets. Clearly, one was focusing on survival whereas the other one was eying on thriving and not just survival.

Does this story of Garry and Tony ring the bell deep within you? Though each style involves its own set of choices and therefore different results, it is important to inquire about the underlying mindsets that lead someone to act like Garry or Tony. In other words, what drives a leader to survive and/or thrive in an organisational setting?

In-depth research, reflections and discussions with several leaders helped identify six dichotomies that differentiate leaders on their urge to either survive and/or thrive. Each dichotomy recognises two alternate psychological dispositions and most leaders show a natural inclination towards one of them. Let’s call them “Surviving – Thriving Dichotomies”. Trust the explanation given below will help leaders reflect on where they stand today, as well as give them an opportunity to ponder upon what will help them shine in their organisational context.

The Surviving–Thriving Dichotomies

The majority of us encounter six ‘Surviving–Thriving Dichotomies’ regularly in an organisational setting, and the way one manages them may shape the destiny of the organisation, as well as the reputation of the leader. Let’s deliberate on these dichotomies one by one:

Perfection vs. Divine Discontentment

When leaders are more inclined towards perfection, they take extensive care to minimize objections and criticism from others towards their ideas. They spend more energy to minimize chances of failure(s), and focus on doing things right to ensure that committed targets are achieved without any hiccups. Consequently, most of the time, excess attention is paid to activities that are related to protecting one’s territory than adding value, and proactively managing change that may disrupt the future. Thus, it pushes a leader to get into survival mode.

On the other hand, when leaders are positively restless and hungry to do something different and new, beyond just putting effort to sustain the past performance, they are willing to accept that their plans may have unintended consequences. Hence, remain open to dealing with course corrections without being afraid of criticism. Moreover, bias towards experimenting with unexplored ideas naturally paves the way for leaders to pay attention to robust scenario planning and better preparedness for a brighter, smarter and future-ready organisation.

Certainty vs. Possibility

Many of the leaders want to be certain when taking or accepting targets. The self–worth theory in psychology shares an explanation. It posits that every human being has an innate need to be seen as capable and competent in performing tasks. This inherent need drives several of us to perform in a way that is consistent with our perceived abilities than untapped potential one may have. Due to this, several of us procrastinate to take action until every detail is in place, and shares assurance of success. Once again, this kind of thinking potentially may come in the way of exploring unknown territories leading to playing safe.

On the contrary, the leaders who focus on other possibilities, instead of just being certain, tend to be more proactive and risk-taking. At times, they might appear as abstract thinkers, but they are quick in painting a future that is not yet experienced by many others, because they intuitively visualize opportunities instead of what is not possible; they are normally seen as leaders who can thrive even under turbulent conditions. They also seem to be more prepared to take setbacks in stride, and hence more resilient to take on the challenges of the future to strive for progress that is different from the past.

Playing within boundaries vs. redefining boundaries

When leaders are anchored to play within the boundaries of the industry they belong to, they tend to pay more attention only to signals that emanate from that Industry. In a highly volatile but interconnected business world, sticking to and listening to signals such as technological advancements; changing consumer buying patterns and preferences; changes in business models; tolerance for failure etc., originating only from one’s specific industry may limit lateral thinking. This consequently may come in the way of experimentation, organisation growth as well as unleashing the hidden potential. It culminates in discouraging one to venture into an unknown zone.

On the other hand, those who dare to redefine the boundaries beyond their own organization and industry, predictably show innate curiosity and proactiveness in recognising the signals that may revolutionize the business environment. They are quick in drawing parallels and act swiftly to have the first mover’s advantage. They want to be remembered as shapers of the organization and industry. These leaders keenly observe the megatrends, anticipate the changes and do not shy away from redefining their own business models to manage transitions smoothly.

Delighting vs. redefining the needs of the customers

Most of the business leaders today put in tremendous effort in delighting the customers by solving their problems. They tend to listen to the customers’ issues carefully, work on the feedback meticulously and orient themselves to collaborate with clients by going the extra mile. Many times, such leaders do not mind sharing the organisation’s resources and time to solve customer problems even if it does not translate into any benefit. Sometimes, leaders even show willingness to compromise on short-term returns. If we analyse carefully, we perform these activities to please or delight the customer/s so that they stick with us as they have an option to go with other vendors.

What if the leaders and people working closely with the customers focus on redefining their needs and habits while identifying and solving their pain points? A deeper analysis will show that if Google, WhatsApp and Apples of the world have captured the imagination of billions of customers across the globe, they have done it systematically by redefining their needs and habits. They have smartly and continuously created new needs for us that we all feel good about. And, probably that’s one of the most important differentiators between them and their competition.

Basking on the laurels of the success vs. building on success

While success is important, equally important is to handle that success. Many times, success may lead to an inflated ego and consequently complacency—I am the best; I have done this in the past and hence can do it in future; let me not deviate from the well-tested formula of past success; no one else can do it better than me etc. And, many of us fall victim to this thinking. Have you ever fallen victim to your own success? We don’t realise at the heat of the moment, but the fact of life is that this kind of thinking comes in the way of growth, and more importantly, experimentation. When we start thinking about how to protect the success without paying attention to immense opportunities available outside, change agility gets adversely impacted. And, unconsciously survival rather than thrival instinct starts dominating our way of doing things.

On the other hand, if we look at success as a foundation stone and challenge ourselves to do better than in the past, we start scanning the environment proactively to spot the opportunities better. Moreover, we are willing to experiment with new ideas, collaborate with others humbly, want to do different things and hence not get shackled by the glory of the past success. Here, continuous learning and creating something new and different becomes a way of life leading to a growth mindset. The motto becomes ‘shape the future than getting shaped by it’.

Reassurance vs. bounded optimism

Often leaders exercise reassurance when team members go through sufferings, failures and hardships. It is particularly prominent during crises when leaders try to spread hope and positivity to minimize the worries and concerns of their members through pep talks and stories without really empathizing with the situation people are going through. Though it helps leaders as well as the followers in some situations, often it undermines the present challenges without addressing the root cause of the problem(s), eventually distorting the planning process that prepares the members to face the crises boldly in future if any. Though done with good intentions, leaders’ behaviours unconsciously encourage the members to focus on surviving than thriving techniques.

On the contrary, the second category of leaders practice bounded optimism. It means that they build confidence in teams, while simultaneously acknowledging current realities and their concerns. Leaders here also show concern towards the wellbeing of both self and others while confronting the difficult truths as it is. This preference towards bounded optimism gives leaders an edge in detecting early threats, and preparing risk mitigation plans, thus, helping the team thrive in case of any unanticipated eventualities.

In a dynamically changing business environment, consciously balancing the six ‘Surviving –Thriving Dichotomies’—with a bias towards creating a new future, come strongly as need of the hour. For sure, this will require tremendous effort from the leaders to think, reflect and at times go contrary to their natural preference. What’s your preference? Do you have the courage to choose new and uncomfortable options even if it is diametrically opposite to your natural orientation, while protecting the reputation of your past glory? Have faith in your abilities and dare to dream to build a tomorrow that is way better than yesterday.

Views expressed are personal. Mrityunjay Kumar Srivastava has most recently worked for Wipro Limited as vice president, L&D, HR.

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