Saturday, September 4, 2010

Renewable resources for thought leadership in HR

About 3 years ago, I wrote a post in this blog on “Thought leadership in HR in India” – based on an informal survey that I had conducted at that time. While the post mentioned that there does not seem to be consensus on the names of thought leaders in HR in India, it ended with a rather positive inference (especially for the people who want be thought leaders) that “There are a wide range of definitions of thought leadership. It seems that there is room for many types of 'thought leadership' and for many types of thought leaders in HR! This gives many of us a chance to become some sort of 'thought leaders' (or at least to 'call ourselves thought leaders’!) in some HR related domain, in some industry, at some point in our careers”. That post also raised an important ‘philosophical’ question - “Can leadership (including thought leadership) exist without followers?”

The objective of this post is to outline how my thoughts on some of the aspects covered in the previous post have evolved during the last three years. I hope that my thinking on this topic will continue to evolve (and that I will be writing another post 3 years from now).

At this point, what interests me more is the ‘nature of thought leadership’ in HR as opposed to the names of thought leaders in HR. Obviously, these two are not unrelated. A particular interpretation of the nature of thought leadership in HR will result in a particular list of thought leaders and vice versa.

Let us start by taking a closer look at the ‘philosophical’ question that was mentioned above - “Can leadership (including thought leadership) exist without followers?” This will depend on the definition of leadership. My preference these days is to think about leadership as an emergent phenomenon that takes place in the context of a relationship (or in the context of a set of interactions – face to face and/or virtual – including indirect interactions). Going by this definition, leadership can’t exist without followers*. So the focus of this post is on thought leadership in HR that others (e.g. fellow HR professionals, Business Managers etc.) find useful.

From this perspective, thought leadership in HR has to deal with key challenges and opportunities related to people management. It also has to focus on those aspects where others (potential followers) feel the need for such thought leadership. Hence ‘core’ ‘messy’ areas in HR – where standard/algorithmic solutions are not feasible - are good candidates as domains for thought leadership. Often, this path can lead to the key ‘Paradoxes in HR’ that we have discussed often in this blog (see here, here, here, here and here for some examples).

Attempting ‘thought leadership’ in these areas related to Paradoxes in HR has interesting implications for the nature of thought leadership. As mentioned above, it won’t be feasible to prescribe effective standard/algorithmic solutions (that can apply to a wide range of contexts) in these areas. The kind of thought leadership that is likely to be useful here will be more in terms of providing a new perspective, deepening the richness & understanding of the paradox, providing an experience that provides company (‘provide a feeling of being understood’/ demonstrate compassion) hope and amusement to the people grappling with the paradox etc. It can also be inferred that this kind of thought leadership need not necessarily involve providing any sort of 'answers' - it can exist purely in the form of providing questions - questions that would help others to see the problem/paradox in a new way - which in turn could enhance their understanding and trigger solutions in their mind. Thus, the purpose of thought leadership in these cases will be to trigger solutions in the mind of people dealing with the paradoxes as opposed to prescribing solutions directly. Since these questions are about the essential nature of the issues involved, they might sound like riddles (or even like koans in Zen) that can be solved only by struggling with the same for an extended period of time to reach a level of understanding/awareness where the solution presents itself.

Obviously, this creates difficulties in terms of mass-production and marketing. But there is also an advantage here. The basic paradoxes in HR (and hence the pains/problems created by them) are unlikely to be ‘resolved’ (in terms of having a final and permanent solution). With effective thought and action (possibly aided by thought leadership!) they can be ‘managed’ (if we use the term 'manage' to mean ‘to cope with’) and even celebrated. But these paradoxes/problems/ needs won’t go away. Thus, these are the ‘renewable resources for thought leadership in HR’ – where solutions to problems will create new problems to solve -that will continue to provide opportunities for thought leadership – that will sustain an entire ecosystem of ‘HR Managers, Consultants and Thought Leaders’ - for a long time!**

Now over to you for your comments/thoughts/ideas!

* Note 1: Technically speaking, this does not preclude the possibility of ‘self-leadership’ as ‘interactions with self’ can also be interpreted as interactions. Moreover, the question “Will I follow my own advice if it came from someone else?” can serve as a useful reality check – to guard against some types of ‘delusion’ that can affect some of the thought leaders.

**Note 2: I feel that these paradoxes/problems won’t go away in the foreseeable future as these arise directly from the very nature of people management as it is practiced today. Hence, unless there is a fundamental change in the nature and philosophy of people management, they will continue to exist.