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Column: Companies look for 'AQ' in leaders

June 22, 2012 11:53 IST
At a leadership training programme in Mumbai, the instructor began the session by playing the song Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off, Start All Over Again.

He, then, asked his audience – rather dramatically – "how many of you have been able to do that lately"?

The 50-odd senior management team of a large company remained silent in response. Most couldn't figure out the relevance of the song, which was composed way back in 1936, in a 2012 session on leadership.

The instructor was mighty pleased probably because surprising "students" is the most saleable weapon in an HR consultant's arsenal, but what he explained made eminent sense.

"All of you," he said, "need to pick yourself up… at a time when the coffee-vending machine in your office is surrounded by people who are speaking in hushed tones about the tsunami of bad news - missed monthly targets, pay freeze and pink slips... in short, when most are looking for a way out of their uncertain future."

The instructor or the company concerned can't be named since everything he said was off the record, but that's not the point.

What is relevant is that the picture he painted is true of a majority of companies that are struggling with a harsh external economic environment for the last couple of years.

"Intelligence quotient or emotional quotient is passé - what companies are looking for in their leaders now is a high adversity quotient (AQ)," the instructor said.

He went on to give the example of eagles. The bird becomes quite old at 40 but lives up to 70 years because of its willingness to go that extra mile to re-engineer itself. At 40, its wings become heavy and its beak bends, making it almost impossible to grab its prey.

Just when death stares it in the face, the eagle knocks its beak against a rock until it plucks it out. After a new beak grows back, the eagle plucks out its talons. And when the talons grow back, it's the turn of the aged feathers.

The entire process takes over five months, following which these birds take their famous flight of rebirth. This happens, the instructor says, because of the high AQ of eagles.

So what exactly is AQ? Paul Stoltz, president and CEO of PEAK Learning, a research and consulting company based in California, coined the term to test an individual's capacity to respond productively in times of stress.

The four lenses Stoltz defines for effective AQ include: Control: the extent to which you are able to influence a situation positively and the extent to which you can control your own response to a situation;  Ownership: the extent to which you take personal responsibility for improving a given situation, regardless of its cause; Reach: how extensively you allow a particular kind of adversity you face to affect other areas of your work and life; and Endurance: your perception of how long an adverse situation will last. Stoltz has developed the Adversity Response Profile to measure these four dimensions of a person's response to difficulty.

Basically, the test evaluates a person's ability to respond to a series of hypothetical questions. Say, you hit every red light on your way to an important appointment. To what extent do you think this will affect your entire day? To what extent do you think you can limit the damage?

Or, you are criticised after completing a big project. To what extent do you think the consequences of this decision will affect all aspects of your life? To what extent do you feel the consequences will be limited so that you can move on?

Stoltz says we are quitters, campers or climbers. Some of us fold the tent at the first sign of adversity and just quit. The most successful among us – climbers – however, never discover anything that stops them.

They keep climbing, battling against the most brutal opposition, until they plant their flag at the top. Others find out where their level of tolerance to normal adversity fluctuates and learn to live within that range.

They are campers. The majority of leaders, Stoltz says, belong to the last category and can re-engineer themselves through proper training.

Nandan Savnal, managing director of PeopleSys Consulting, says most leaders prefer to wait for clarity in difficult times, resulting in a situation of status quo. While this may seem to push away some risks, leaders need to balance it against the downside.

Some downsides of a status quo are tangible, like loss of market share, margins, top line and so on, but there are many intangibles as well - for example, lack of communication from leadership is perceived as leaders being helpless about the situation and not being able to do anything.

Leaders, he says, have to learn to lead in difficult and uncertain times and companies these days are looking for people with a high adversity quotient - people who can chart territories in difficult times. For, employers want people who flourish even in the worst weather.

Shyamal Majumdar
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