Leadership: Institution building


Leadership: Institution building

NS Rajan

“Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation” observed Benjamin Disraeli. Institutions are understood and ‘identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intentions, and with the making and enforcing of rules governing cooperative human behavior’. What makes an institution endure? What factors govern the prospects of perpetuity? What drives the need to connect and collaborate? These are vital questions to reflect upon to unravel the components of institution building. In the words of Robert Browning, a leader must “recognize that our aspirations are our possibilities.” 

Institution building indeed is nation building. The abiding purpose of any Institution is to unravel remarkable possibilities of contributing through a collective process which is the bedrock of its existence. An institution must endeavour to build the dreams of its collective future on the history of its rich past; a vision to excel, without losing out on that which is essential and definitive. As Shelley wrote in his wonderful poem ‘Adonais’, we perhaps must acknowledge that: “The splendours of the firmament of time May be eclipsed, but are extinguished not Like stars to their appointed height they climb.” The quest of an institution must be to do exceptional things, to realize its vision but even more importantly stay committed to doing ordinary things exceptionally well.

Leadership of an institution is not just a duty, but an obligation. The way forward would be governed by a shared vision, strong focus on execution, measurable outcomes, accountability and transparency – paving the way in creating sustained institution building and enhanced equity of the enterprise. In a highly acclaimed article ‘What Business Can Learn from NonProfits’ in Harvard Business Review of Jul-Aug 89, Peter Drucker observed succinctly that “Non profits need management even more than business does because they lack the discipline of the bottom line.” True indeed ! A strong constitutional framework, a relevant set of bye laws, a well articulated vision document, a transparent value proposition, a robust secretariat to enable efficient execution, and a platform for collaborations and alliances, clear performance measures to achieve the goals are all integral components of what a leader has to institutionalize. 

Institutions must be willing to refresh themselves and welcome change, to endure and retain relevance into the future. “Asking ‘what is right for the enterprise?’ does not guarantee that the right decision will be made. Even the most brilliant executive is human and thus prone to mistakes and prejudices. But failure to ask the question virtually guarantees the wrong decision” reflected Drucker.  In the course of its journey, an opportune time to initiate constitutional reforms and to revisit and renew workflow processes, outcome orientation and the ways of working together are paramount. The formation of Secretariat, in the case of an institution, is one of the most far reaching and strategic decisions a not-for-profit organization takes in the course of its journey. To stay relevant and prepare the institution for the future that beckons is the leader’s role.

In an enlightening research on corporate longevity, titled ‘The Living Company’, Arie De Geus made a startling observation after studying firms across the world. The average life expectancy of a company seems to be just a modest twelve and half years, and even much larger entities manage an average life span of around forty to fifty years. An organization must therefore constantly evolve to sustain itself. It is the role of a leader to enable the collective responsibility and empower the institution to imagine what it would be for the future generations and lead the change that refreshes the institution and uphold its relevance for the decades ahead. Good governance needs to be the central pillar of the vision a leader articulates for the institution, as it serves as the bedrock that instills a high degree of professionalization, fortifies credibility, and helps strengthen the institutionalization process.

The leader of an Institution is the trustee, for the current and future generations. The quest of the leader could encompass the need to enable a virtuous circle, of strategy to execution, where one good thing leads to another. Make institution building and strengthening process a present-continuous state. “A pearl is an oyster’s biography,” observed Federico Fellini. This is true perhaps even for leaders of corporate enterprises, of for-profit organizations, and the commitment to function as a trustee with openness and transparency while driving desired outcomes, to grow and consolidate, will enable the enterprise to be an institution that endures beyond one’s own tenure. A beginning is to start with a response to Peter Drucker’s seminal query: ‘What is right for the enterprise?’ 


( This article was featured in ET on 26th June 2012 titled ‘Institution-building is nation-building)


( A Resolution_Abraham Lincoln: I recall taking this picture at the Lincoln monument at Washington DC of a remarkable leader who has faced tremendous adversity and successfully overcome it, a man who demolished age old abhorrent practices. This specific picture I clicked was consciously taken from a different angle.  I was attempting to focus on the clenched left fist which I saw as a symbolic gesture of resolute will and determination to build an institution that would last beyond his life time.)


Comments RSS
  1. Matt Barney

    Dear Rajan,

    Your broad points are well taken, and I would encourage you to investigate beyond Lincoln’s popular myth. . .


  2. Sarah Mathews Chacko

    Rajan, I wrote a simple poem inspired by the comment of this Statue of President Lincoln. I will publish my first book of poetry in the second half of this year. I started writing on our Company’s social media site a year back. I have probably penned over 400 poems.My muse is a colleague/poet from another location who I know only through our collaborative platform.


    Lincoln in Washington
    Sits upon his throne
    He as President
    Had freedom enthroned

    His left fist
    Is clenched
    Resolute and firm
    Knowing that he would oneness confirm

    He did not let go
    Of his dream to grow
    Love in the world
    That he did know

    – Sarah Mathews Chacko

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