Why Business and Political Leaders Must be Institution Builders to Ensure Longevity

What Differentiates Truly Great Leaders from Run of the Mill Leaders?

There are leaders who run organizations and nations to secure their position and to make the most of the opportunity to lead them. Also, there are leaders who are visionary but yet lack the capacity or the needed mission capabilities to focus on organizational and national longevity.

However, there are those leaders who can be considered truly great who are not only visionary and mission enabled but also focus on institution building so that their legacy outlives them and the institutions they helped build last longer and the nations and organizations they run are sustainable over the longer term.

Thus, what differentiates the run of the mill leaders from the truly great leaders is that the latter focus on building and sustaining institutions that can ensure that the entities they run stand on their feet and hit the ground running even after they are long gone.

The Invention of India: The Example of Nehru

In this context, a few of the truly great leaders of nations who have invested in institutions and ensured that such nations remember them for eternity can be named here. For instance, the first Prime Minister of Independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was one such institution builder who directed the resources of the state to be invested in building institutes of excellence such as the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and the NITs or the National Institutes of Technology in addition to investing in dams and heavy industries.

While his socialist approach to economic matters is now being contested and a contentious debate on his legacy is taking place at the moment, what cannot be denied is that his legacy has served India well in terms of creating a class of specialist technocrats and professionals who form the backbone of industry and medicine as well as governmental departments.

Indeed, Nehru’s focus on institution building ensured that the judiciary, the civil services, and the Armed Forces could sustain themselves even after his demise.

From Third World to the First: the Example of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew

Apart from Nehru, another Asian Leader, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore was an institution builder who ensured that Singapore transformed itself from a sleepy backwater and a dissipated port city to a vibrant and thriving modern center of regional trading and port hub.

Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew can be credited for single-handedly transforming Singapore into what it is now wherein even nearly a decade after his death, the City State continues to sustain itself despite being a cultural and ethnic melting pot where the possibility of racial strife is very high.

Moreover, he also ensured that the Judiciary and the Civil Services in Singapore continue to be highly professional and modern and its technocratic elite the envy of other nations across the region.

The Indian Corporate World: The Example of Infosys and NRN

In the corporate world, the Icon of the Indian IT (Information Technology) Industry and the Legendary Co-Founder of Infosys, NR Narayana Murthy, can be considered as an institutional leader who by leading by example ensured that Infosys invested in its people and its infrastructure and followed high standards of corporate governance and excellence.

No wonder that working in Infosys remains the dream of many aspiring and working professionals. Having said that, it is also the case that in recent years, Infosys, and its brand of corporate governance has come under threat which prompted NRN to take up cudgels on behalf of the firm though he retired from the Board long ago.

There is a lesson in this and that despite the best intentions and hard work of truly great leaders, sometimes the institutions they build wither away and atrophy which means that have to also nurture and encourage the younger generation to carry on their legacy and leave behind a lasting impact on the firms and institutions they helped build.

Institution Builders Focus on Capacity and Capability Building

Thus, as can be seen from the examples so far, what differentiates truly great leaders, whether they run nations or businesses is that they invest in capacity and capability building and at the same time ensure that they nurture and encourage institution building by focusing on longer-term sustainability of the entities they run.

Institution building as we have discussed until now refers to investment in physical and human resources assets apart from nurturing standards of governance and excellence that ensure the longevity of the entities, whether they are nations or organizations.

Indeed, once the institutional excellence is ingrained in the people and the entities, it usually lasts for a generation or two before they began to decay and atrophy wherein the process of rejuvenation and reinvention has to happen again for such entities to regain their Mojo.

There is a lesson for all aspiring professionals and that is that if you really want to make a difference to the places where you work or hope to work, it is better to focus on longevity and longer-term sustainability of such entities.

Concluding Thoughts

In times when institutions such as the Media, the Judiciary, and the Civil Services are under threat world over, more than ever, it is important for future leaders to focus on institution building and rejuvenating and reinventing the organizations and the entities they run instead of just going through the motions.

Lastly, the fact that it is in the interests of future generations to inhabit a world that is sustainable means that leaders who become truly great must first focus on making such institutions run sustainably with a view to leaving a legacy of excellence.

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