Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The year of the last action hero

Why we don't need poster boys and rock stars but quiet performers

Brian Carvalho
Published: Dec 31, 2018 10:44:57 AM IST
Updated: Dec 31, 2018 10:57:18 AM IST

The year of the last action heroIllustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur

"I am not a very big fan of poster boys because I believe that anything that goes up comes down in some form or the other—so, poster boys for a year or two, after which somewhere down the line they begin to lose their charm. So, instead of looking upwards for poster boys, this generation will have to look downwards—to the (even) younger generation—for poster boys and poster girls.”

That was serial entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala in his prelude to a discussion with three teenage innovators at the Forbes India Leadership Awards in October 2018. The man who steered India towards cable TV when in his teens may have been trying to make the point that India needs more first-generation entrepreneurs (along with the next-gen brigade), and that there’s indeed no limit on the lower side. But Screwvala’s polite distaste for poster boys—and poster girls—makes you wonder how much of it was fuelled by the big names that fell from grace both in India and overseas in 2018. There were the abrupt resignations of Martin Sorrell, CEO of the world’s largest advertising agency WPP, and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, followed by three high-profile Indian bankers calling it quits before their terms ran out. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn moved from corner room to the cooler. In between all this, Elon Musk decided his Twitter meltdowns weren’t enough, told the New York Times that he wasn’t on weed in a teary interview, and less than a month later, chose to puff the magic dragon on a live TV show. Without getting into the reasons for these abrupt departures, sackings and breakdowns, suffice it to say that perhaps the only boss who lost his job for sheer lack of performance was Manchester United manager José Mourinho. And we haven’t even run the opener around the Me Too can of worms.

A big lesson in all this is perhaps for the media, which, as Screwvala rightly pointed out, creates the poster boys and girls. Many of the names mentioned in the previous paragraph would have, at some point in time, been present on sundry listings of ‘Best-performing/Most Respected/Admired CEOs’. For good or bad, it’s also the media that swiftly moves in at the slightest evidence of ethical or moral wrongdoing to rip off those posters.

Of course, if all our leaders were moral and ethical, we wouldn’t have had to tear up those posters in the first place. But let’s get real here: At the altar of modern capitalism, maximising returns matters more than meagre morality. CEOs aren’t meant to be a Martin Luther King Jr or a Mother Teresa, and Steve Jobs was as famous for being an incredible jerk as for being an incredible innovator (one bunch of chip-making partners, for instance, were reminded that they were ‘f****ng d***less a****les’ for failing to deliver on time, according to Jobs’ biographer Walter Issacson).

So if we are reconciled to accepting that capitalism and all that comes with it—entrepreneurship, fund-raising and innovation—and morality have as much in common as Mother Teresa and Father Jobs (who denied paternity of his daughter Lisa for a long time), where does it leave us with our poster boys and girls? Screwvala may well have had one of the answers: look downwards to find somebody to look up to; your role models may well be younger than you—yes, 13 and 15 and 18-year-olds. Those were the ages of the three teens Screwvala chatted with at the Forbes India Leadership Awards: Harshwardhansinh Zala, the 15-year-old founder of Aerobotics7 Tech Solutions, who develops drones to detect and detonate landmines; 13-year-old Tilak Mehta, who drives a logistics company Papers N Parcels, and 18-year-old Rifath Shaarook, chief technology officer at Space Kids, who designed the world’s lightest satellite that Nasa promptly launched into space.

So, are these India’s answers to Messrs Jobs, Gates, Brin and Page? Maybe not, but that shouldn’t matter. The problem is that we like our poster boys ONLY when they’re flashy, flamboyant and toking up on primetime. Chances are that if there was a business founder focussed on clean energy and space exploration who was a quiet leader, you’re less likely to have noticed. “Quiet leadership is practical, effective, and sustainable,” wrote Joseph L. Badaracco, a professor of business ethics at the Harvard Business School in a piece titled ‘We don’t need another Hero’. “Quiet leaders prefer to pick their battles and fight them carefully rather than go down in a blaze of glory for a single, dramatic effort.”

The “modesty” and “restraint” Badaracco wrote about may seem like alien concepts in today’s multi-media-consuming world driven by the need for minute-by-minute social gratification. But it’s not as difficult as it seems. Wouldn’t Musk have seemed a better man if he hadn’t used Twitter to call one of the rescuers of the Thai football kids a ‘pedo’?

Inevitably, Musk was fired as Tesla chairman, although his string of misdemeanors makes you wonder how he is still CEO. This brings us to the role of the boards. Hiring ‘rock star’ CEOs—a synonym for poster boys, or flamboyant leaders who employees ostensibly look up to—is arguably easier (and more expensive)—than actually hunting for a (quieter) performer. A cursory glance at the Indian corporate landscape—from Bengaluru’s IT services giants to its Mumbai-headquartered counterpart, an FMCG bellwether in the same city and the discreet head honchos of a handful of Delhi’s profit-spinning Maharatnas—would tell you that the most effective leaders aren’t rock stars or poster boys by any stretch of imagination.

Solving some of the world’s biggest problems, too, may not call for leadership of the rock star kind. Even as you read this, there would be an assortment of unsung heroes attempting to ensure that more people get access to food, clean water, sanitation and primary education. These are the quiet warriors trying to break down barriers to economic and personal freedom of women, or to save our forests and oceans. As Badaracco wrote: “The vast majority of difficult human problems are not solved by the dramatic efforts of people at the top but by the consistent striving of people working far from the limelight.”