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The Reflective CEO

Originally published in Businessworld. India's largest-selling business magazine.

Recently, I came across a short piece where a Wharton professor offered an opinion: “Companies need CEOs who are philosophers”. The reason he gave was that it helped the CEO understand what the customers wanted. To me, that sounded like Marketing 101 revisited. That said, the logic might not have made sense but the basic assertion did.

As the man who shapes the strategic planning process, a CEO is key to the future success of the business. Shorn of jargon, underlying any successful strategy formulation exercise are three basic questions:

  • What is the business?

  • What will it be?

  • What should it be?

To formulate an effective strategy, one needs to answer these questions well, especially the last one. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of how things work. And the knowledge of why they work the way they do.

This requires being able to look beyond the surface of everyday organizational, marketplace and competitive existence [See ‘A Satisficing Solution’ - Are You Treating the Cause, or the Symptoms to solve your organization's crises? , Businessworld, Jan 24]. This breadth and depth of understanding can come only from reflection. To rephrase what the Professor said, what companies need to be successful beyond today are Reflective CEOs.

Reflection involves disengaging oneself from the hurly-burly of everyday crises and taking stock of the situation. Some things will have gone right. In the case of these, it requires trying to understand why they did. It is equally important to make sense of the ones that didn’t. There will be many things happening in the marketplace and the organization. Reflection helps the CEO understand the implication and, equally importantly, the relative criticality of each. Doing this exercise regularly is likely to lead to a far better quality of both the execution and direction-setting by him.

You may point out, quite naturally, that a CEO above all is supposed to be a man of action -- a man who gets things done. If he starts reflecting, when will he focus on the execution? And finally, is this just another new fad?!

Not so. As I see it, it has its roots in a 2,500-year-old tradition; that of the soldier-philosopher. A soldier is a doer, by definition. But a soldier who is also a thinker is invariably the most successful one. Thinking-soldiers in the position of a general had a great impact on their time. In the case of a few, they have exerted an influence across ages. Sun Tzu is an excellent example. Miyamoto Musashi (who also wrote The Book of Five Rings, a Japanese classic on strategy) is another. A more recent example is that of Carl Von Clausewitz, whose On War had a deep influence on western strategic thought, and history. Socrates, considered the father of western philosophy, was a soldier before he invented the discipline of Philosophy. So was Rene Descartes (when you think ‘Cartesian’, think of him).

The reason why these men were able to attain that level of understanding was largely due to the insights they developed as soldiers; as doers. What they learned on the battlefield helped them develop a better perspective of the world. Interestingly, none of them theorized for the sake of theorizing, but used their understanding to create ideas (and things) that could be used. And that was possible only because they themselves had done a fair amount of doing; they knew what that involves.

The same holds true for the modern-day warriors in the trenches of the business battlefield. Here too, the truly successful ones invariably are those who not only fight battles successfully, but focus equally on winning the war. Above all, they understand which battle is worth fighting.

Thinking and doing are as important for the CEO as they are for the General. The first is about strategy, the second about execution. Both are two sides of the same coin. If one is about the hardware, the other is about the software. On its own, each has limited utility. But taken together they form a complementary, formidable whole.

Let me share a recent conversation with a leader who has had a long and extremely successful career. For more than three decades, he has remained in the same industry, and that too in one organization. He started at the bottom as a trainee and is at the top today. He mentioned that he was recently approached to take the top-job at another highly regarded firm in a different, unrelated sector. What surprised him was that his lack of experience of that sector was not considered to be a disqualification. When he asked for the reason, the response was a simple: “You understand business”. His ability to get things done was never in doubt, but he possesses something far more important, an ability to reflect. He might not agree with me on this – he being a modest person – but for me, it was a compliment to his unique capacity to think far beyond what his company needs to do to be successful today. About the needs of tomorrow, and the day after. The way it needs to be for an effective leader.

Doing is about action; thinking about reflection. A key issue that comes up is about developing an effective balance between the two. Too much of either can cause problems. If the CEO starts ‘boiling-the-ocean’ thinking, execution suffers. On the other hand, action to the exclusion of reflection often leads to a myopic strategy.

Needless to say, balancing the two calls for a certain degree of objectivity. The pressures on CEOs further exacerbate this tension. In the course of my work as a consultant, I always see one of my key responsibilities as helping the CEO achieve that balance. If he is implementation-oriented, I try and offer a perspective beyond the immediate. On the other hand, if analysis dominates, the focus turns to providing a view linked to immediate concerns. The advantage of being an outsider to the organization is that it helps provide a far more objective perspective.

Executives today are too busy handling the day-to-day crises to afford the luxury of putting their feet up and ‘reflect’. The practice of reflection is not easy and requires a fair amount of effort. But the gains are equally rewarding. In my experience of working with executives and assisting them in strengthening their reflecting abilities, the ones who have persisted in developing the habit of reflection have invariably experienced a dramatic increase in personal effectiveness.

Reflection helps a CEO look beyond what he sees. Beyond today. Reflection also helps him do things better today. Like I said earlier, the successful business warrior uses reflection as a means to know which battle is worth fighting. But most importantly, it helps him understand how the next war will need to be fought; to make sure that too is won.


 Read The Reflective Leader (Part II) - How to become one


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This article was originally published in Businessworld, in Wide Angle, the monthly guest column by Mohit Malik of Anoova Consulting’s Strategy and Leadership Practice.

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This article can also be accessed at the Businessworld website. Businessworld. India's largest-selling business magazine.

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