The unfolding Infosys leadership paradox

We rarely get a live case study to engage with and test a proposition. The unfolding Infosys saga offers us a ready-made case to test my last week’s essay, ‘The leadership paradox’

K Ramkumar

[By Binoyjsdk (Own work) (CC BY 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons]

Note: You can read the ‘The leadership paradox’ here.

NR Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys, has stated with anguish that his motive is not money, position for his children, or power. I am sure in his mind he is convinced about this and hence to him and his supporters this is credible. We have no reason to doubt the absence of the first two motives—money and position for his children. But to a neutral leadership commentator like me, his statement on the third motive—power—requires examination.

Let us use a common understanding of what power is: Influence over other individuals’, institutions’, communities’, nations’ thought, emotions and actions.

Is Murthy seeking to uphold the values, which he calls governance standards, in Infosys? Of course he is and is justified to do so. But is there more to it than what meets even his eye? Let us examine it a bit.

So what are the values that Murthy wants the board of Infosys to uphold?

  • It is frugality over opulence; austerity over profligacy. It is also equity between the CEO’s remuneration and that of others. It is demonstrating egalitarianism through oneness with the junior most employees and not flaunting status symbols.
  • It is about coming clean on doubts over what he believes to be a dubious deal—the Panaya deal. The principle that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion. He is pained that the core value of transparency which he had breathed into Infosys now smells foul. Has the board paid “hush money”? Has the CEO or his cohorts benefited in a questionable deal? Has information been withheld from the board and the shareholders? Is the board a puppet in the hands of a powerful CEO? Then what happens to its independence?

If you peel the onion you will see this is about “whose will prevails”

If you peel the onion you will see this is about “whose will prevails”. This is the classic power play, even though he may be oblivious of it. The issue is not whether Murthy’s concerns are legitimate. The issue is the manner in which he has gone about it. He has upped the ante with the stance that unless you act the way I decree and use the arbitrators I see as fit, you are a values-less person. So the means that Murthy is using is what makes this a raw power play, even though he may be oblivious of it. That is why it is a paradox. We are rarely self-aware when we indulge in power play.

Is he seeking backseat driving with a pliable board and CEO? That will be in the realm of speculation. I guess his values obsession borders on fanaticism. This is blinding him to the questionable means which he is using. When you surround yourself with people who mirror your values and perspectives, you are inside an echo chamber. That does not help in examining alternative constructs. This is called the “Abilene paradox”.

Is killing others wrong? Stupid question! Of course it is. But why then do we hold our soldiers in such high esteem? Because they protect us from our enemies. Then is it possible that our enemies also see us through their values lens as people of questionable values who need to be fought? This then is the paradox. Whose values are legitimate and who sits in judgment on this? Can the accuser of values decadence judge the accused? Moreover, whose values are we to judge and by what benchmark? I prefer a nuanced understanding of values.

In my assessment, Murthy is genuine in his anguish about what he sees as values or governance decadence at Infosys. I also believe that having gotten used to his word being the law for 35 years at Infosys, he feels a sense of powerlessness when the Infosys board shows it has a mind of its own on how it wants to deal with his concerns. He admitted yesterday that his anguish is not that the board did not address his concerns, but it is more about the how and that they did not heed his advice on the composition of the inquiry committee. I am sure that Murthy does not see this as dictating terms to the board. He is peeved at his advice being spurned. How can people I appointed on the board not heed my advice? Do they suspect my intentions? This probably is his anguish.

The idea that values are absolute forces you to use power as the means. It leaves no space for negotiation

Often when we indulge in power play to protect what we see as our legacy (ambition), we legitimise it by using the killer weapon called values. We see political leaders, religious heads and activists do this. We are no exception to this. We think we are actually fighting for upholding the values, we may even be genuine in this pursuit, but we actually seek to unleash our power to stamp our will on others. The idea that values are absolute forces you to use power as the means. It leaves no space for negotiation or face-saving for the other. No trade-off is possible; do it my way or you are values-less.

This is the heady cocktail of the interplay of ambition (personal and institutional), power and values. Hence, as I had written in my last article, it may not be such a values eroding approach to negotiate in a give and take. I guess we like the term give and take better than trade-offs! We love the pure and undiluted approach to values, even when we know that such an idealistic state does not exist. None of us have consistently been idealistic in upholding values. That does not make us values-less or decadent.

Heroes and villains will emerge depending on where you view this from

We will be silly to frame this drama as The Good; The Bad; The Ugly or a Right Vs Wrong plot. This is not an American Wild West flick but a complex Greek tragedy. Heroes and villains will emerge depending on where you view this from.

We all believe that trust is the currency for values alignment. However, trust is the casualty when power play is in full flow. Power play becomes inevitable when we assert that these are the only means to the only end we seek. When we are in the middle of it, we fail to recognise our dogmatic stance. We legitimise it as the heroic stand we are making for upholding values! The question again is, whose values? Please do not take me back to the assertion that values are absolute and are black or white! Then it is time to read the Mahabharata again.

The most difficult ambition to let go is the deep craving for legacy. Let us humanise this drama. Murthy’s deep love for Infosys—the child he gave birth to and the worthy adult he wills it to be—and his unconscious desire for it to be preserved true to his vision, is blinding him to his own means. Sadly, as possessive parents do, he is refusing to give release to his own child.

His advisors are letting him down by being in awe of him, their mentor. We all are in awe of our iconic mentors. Often the power distance we build between us and our mentors makes it difficult for us to speak the truth to them. This is not conscious intimidation by our mentors. It is the same intimidation I felt with my father as a child. But my father let me grow and let me challenge him when I became an adult. He too struggled with the fear that I will go astray during my dalliance with student unions. The echo chamber was broken at my home when my mother intervened and convinced him to let me find my values equilibrium. They both trusted their son. Unfortunately, many of us do not give this release to our colleagues. We expect them to be beholden to us out of gratitude.

This is why I find arguments like preserving core values or that we should embark on change by taking everyone with us, especially the elders, as very pedantic. The mindless evangelistic speak!

We like to put all these into neat separate compartments and also believe them to operate so. In reality human ambition, power and values are in a melting pot, each reacting with the other at high temperature, when we exercise leadership. So, it is better not to take sides or be judgmental as far as possible. It is prudent to accept that leadership is paradoxical and hence complex to decode. Much worse, it is overwhelming when I have to exercise leadership. That is why so few step forward to exercise leadership.

I believe that any well-meaning person may, when blinded by the ambition to preserve his legacy and when consumed by his values fanaticism, use power. He forgets the power of trust and relationship.

Nations, institutions, communities and individuals make this mistake. A few knowingly and many unwittingly. Pause and ask, how is this any different to what is happening between India and China? Not all boundary disputes are really about money or territory or position. They are about where do you draw the line of influence—power; to establish “whose will prevails”.

Is not the call to protect samaj (society) or mazhab (religion) from degenerating the classic rallying call from all leaders who have sought to wield power? This call is an unexceptionable call and they know it is sure to rally the faithful. How can you ignore and stay passive if the call is to protect the faith, our way, our culture and our values? It is silly to grudge this approach. However, this becomes a problem when the leader becomes fanatical and does not give himself or others the space to manoeuvre. Then it is “my way or the holy war”! Make no mistake, this is nothing but pure power play.

Is this not the plot that has powered a million stories?  The Game of Thrones! Why be self-righteous when we review others? This then is how we all are and will be. This is the nature and character of the leadership quest.

PS: So, do I believe that the Infosys board is above board? Not at all. The more you show nervousness to put out information, the more you appear to be covering up something, irrespective of your justifications. The least they could have done was to put out the report, whether there is a precedent to it or not. There is always a first time. So, obviously, by refusing to do so they are also making a power statement. Even though they do not see it as a battle, they have drawn the battle lines. It is a battle royal now. More unbridled power play and in the process, either party is destined to transgress the values they dearly want to uphold. Paradoxical!

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About the author

K Ramkumar
K Ramkumar

Founder and CEO

Leadership Centre

K. Ramkumar is the founder and CEO of Leadership Centre, an institution dedicated to building world-class thought and practice in the domain of leadership consulting, research and development.

He is a retired executive director of ICICI Bank and retired president of ICICI Foundation. He has completed his Post Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management from Madras School of Social Work in 1984. He joined the Board of Directors with effect from February 1, 2009.

Prior to joining ICICI Bank in 2001, Ramkumar served companies such as Hindustan Aeronautics, Brookebond Lipton India Limited (now Hindustan Unilever Limited) and ICI India Ltd. His work in these companies has mainly been in the areas of Human Resources Management and Manufacturing.

While at ICICI Bank, he was passionately devoted to Leadership Development, Succession Management, building a supply chain for the Bank’s human resources requirements, leveraging technology to innovate, and driving operational excellence for world class service quality.

Institute for Finance, Banking & Insurance and ICICI Manipal Academy for Banking & Insurance were conceived and nurtured by him. The partnership Initiatives with SEBI – National Institute for securities management and with NIIT - the NIIT University, were also nurtured by him. He led the CSR project of ICICI Foundation on skilling youth and promoting livelihood. This is done under the ICICI Academy for Skills, which has 21 centers offering 13 skills to 25,000 youth per year.

He writes extensively on a range of topics on his blog www.theotherview.in. He invites you all to be active contributing members of this blog.

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