The Indian National Congress party (of which I am an active suspended member, pardon the oxymoron) has recently struggled with a spate of internal departures, if not altogether a serious human relations management crisis.
One of its brightest future stars, Sachin Pilot, is currently contemplating alternative roadmaps for himself as he found himself stymied by his wily senior, Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, who was determined to throttle his political aspirations.
The celebrated Congress ‘High Command’ chose to be stone deaf to what was a snowballing problem for months.
Following the exit of another popular leader in Jyotiraditya Scindia, this was a double whammy for the Congress. This was not a petty local personal feud of warring egos alone, but crucially the failure of political leadership and, more importantly, of its work culture.
There is a famous aphorism about the Congress: “It’s biggest competitor is the Congress itself.” This is playing out to impeccable perfection.
One of my favourite stories on work culture is the one where American President John F Kennedy, when visiting the NASA Space Centre in 1962, spotted a janitor cleaning the floor. He broke away from his standard protocol and walked up to the man with a broom and introduced himself. “I am Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”
“Well, Mr President,” the janitor responded, “ I am helping put a man on the moon.”
The man cleaning the floor and the bathrooms saw himself included in the larger mission of the ambitious NASA expedition. He felt engaged. He felt involved. His mundane monotonous work was being appreciated. People were respecting him, and one of the best ways to do that, is to listen.
The Grand Old Party, once the voice of the Indian masses, has forgotten to listen to its own. It is germane to point out that Gehlot has publicly stated that he did not speak to Pilot for 18 months! It was not just a communication breakdown but a relationship blowout.
The political ramifications are for all to see as the already besieged Congress (it frittered away two large states of Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh to the Bharatiya Janata Party) has exacerbated its existential woes.
While the media focus was understandably on the resort politics being played out in Rajasthan and Haryana, the focus should have been instead on New Delhi. If anybody is responsible for the ineluctable mess that the Congress has created, it is its incompetent authorities at the top.
One of the biggest lessons for the corporate world, particularly in the post-COVID-19 era which will have no end till the vaccine arrives, is the need for emotional intelligence in leaders and their ability to demonstrate authentic concern for their people.
The Congress has surprisingly appeared ignorant of the fundamental principles of managing people: listen to them.
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi hugged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament in what was considered the photo-op of the year. He also frequently talked of the ‘politics of love’, but when a crisis rocked the boat, the leadership did not reach out to the two formidable opponents directly as they should have.
There was no compassionate politics that one preached from public forums. Instead, one appointed emissaries to broker truce.
As I write, the Congress leadership has still not called Gehlot and Pilot for a face-to-face meeting together to troubleshoot. It reveals an extraordinary leadership deficit in a party that constructed modern India and built its enduring edifice.
Whatever be the outcome of the legal quagmire, it is the Congress which stands to lose.
Leadership (whether in politics, private sector, government or NGOs) will never be the same in the post-COVID-19 world. People suffer from high anxiety and hidden stresses caused by the need for physical safety, economic security and psychological stability.
Ultimately, we are all human. Amit Shah, Boris Johnson, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Prince Charles, Amitabh Bachchan, Tom Hanks, Novak Djokovic and several others have contracted the coronavirus infection.
The need to understand the feelings and fears of people will be the key to leadership success. Sitting in ivory towers and issuing diktats is a medieval culture that needs to be dumped.
The Congress for sure will need to make internal democracy integral to its future. It must be institutionalized beyond mere pontifications. It is time to walk the talk.
Both Pilot and Scindia ultimately felt rebuffed because they were ignored. Not listening is akin to being disrespectful.
Even in the corporate world, people do not leave jobs because of the allure of financial gains or personal aggrandisement. They leave because they believe no one cares and their contributions are not valued as they should be.
The Congress party for sure needs to have more people who feel like the NASA janitor did.