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The Osmosis of Leadership (by Pepper de Callier)

For many years I have been interested in, and fascinated by, the subtle, almost unconscious, effect a leader can have on an entire organization.  The impact of a leader’s style seeps deeply into an enterprise affecting people and decisions the leader will never know about, at least not individually, but collectively it is a far different and powerful story—one that is played out daily all over the world in businesses and governments. Two examples of this that come quickly to mind come from the United States and from the Czech Republic by way of India.

In his recent article in Newsweek International titled “Trouble From The Top Down”Jonathan Alter describes and analyzes a process he calls bureaucratic osmosis in which, “…the character and temperament of the man in the Oval Office [courses] through thousands of smaller decisions, often thousands of miles away.”  Alter continues, “If the president is supple and open-minded, those decisions made many layers below him are more likely to be agile and empirical.  If he’s stubborn and too sure that he has all the answers, the modeling of his behavior is likely to result in decisions you would ground your teenager for.”  One must assume that Alter is describing his view of the current governmental administration (GWB) in Washington, D.C. and osmosis at its worst.

The wisdom of Alter’s message is not just in its content.  Any serious student of leadership knows that his assertion is true.  It’s the clear, common-sense way in which he delivers that message that causes one to shake one’s head in agreement.  As I was shaking my head in agreement, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the parallels to this concept in the world of business and specifically some people I had recently met in Prague.  After nearly four decades in business I have had the pleasant, and sometimes not so pleasant, experience of meeting many business leaders from a number of different cultures.  Our discussions invariably involved my asking them to tell me about their business.  Most of the responses to my question had the distinct feel of “sound bites” from a media commercial or memorized passages from an annual report versus personal statements of ethics or values.  Comments like “best in class, market leader, innovator, customer awareness, maximizing return to our investors,” etc., are common. 

Recently, my wife and I were among many people invited to a reception at the residence of the Indian Ambassador to the Czech Republic, His Excellency P.S. Raghavan, where something quite unexpected and refreshing occurred.  The purpose of the reception was to announce and celebrate a major investment of India-based Hinduja Group and one of its member companies, Ashok Leyland, in the Czech Republic.  Ambassador Raghavan also introduced some of the senior management of Hinduja Group and Ashok Leyland. 

What really got my attention was how the Chairman of Hinduja, Srichand P. Hinduja, and Anders Spåre, the CEO of  LRLIH Ltd., an affiliate company of Hinduja Group,  described the Hinduja Group.  I had met Mr. Spåre a few days earlier and in our conversation I asked him to tell me about the company.  After a brief explanation of the history of the Hinduja family, he said quite directly and with some pride, “We are a values-driven organization.”  I asked him what that meant exactly.  He told me that the credo of the group’s founder, Shri Parmanand Hinduja, was, “My duty is to work so that I can give.”  “That,” Spåre said, “is at our core.  Each year a portion of our profit goes to hospitals, clinics, and various charities.  We believe this to be our social responsibility.”  In addition, Mr. Spåre went on to explain that Hinduja was a “mistake-tolerant” workplace in which its employees were supported in learning from their mistakes which creates an environment of trust and long-term partnership.  This was the way in which he chose to describe his company—a far cry from what I had been used to hearing in response to my question. 

Later, at the reception in his public address, Mr. Hinduja echoed that message adding that, “…the decision to invest in the Czech Republic was tantamount to making a decision to marry—it’s a very long-term commitment in our view and one we take very seriously.” 

Experiencing the palpable sincerity and common-sense of these two executives and the others in their party with whom I had talked, I couldn’t help but shake my head in agreement—osmosis at its best.

All of which begs the question: As a leader, what osmotic effect are you having on your organization

Good luck on your way up!

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at