Article: Corporate hero worship

Leadership Development

Corporate hero worship

Unquestioning adulation of the CEO can lead to a sycophantic culture, sub-optimal results and a susceptibility to unanticipated shocks. How can it be moderated?
Corporate hero worship

The Shah’s only fault is that he is really too great for his people – his ideas are too great for us.1  
                                                                                                               Asadallah Alam, court minister.

I can see a supercilious smile on the lips of many corporate readers as they think of the pusillanimous prostration implicit in the words of a senior minister of the last Shah of Iran. I hope those grins freeze in embarrassment as the same readers think of the far more flowery compliments they have heard showered on the corporate chieftains they have worked with. In both cases, it’s not the least powerful who kiss the floor (or a few feet higher) the most. It is usually the grandees who have the most to gain (or lose) from laying it on with a trowel (or a toothpick).

Even less deluded monarchs than the Shah have taken such adulation for granted:

Where I have come, great clerks have purposèd
To greet me with premeditated welcomes, 
Where I have seen them shiver and look pale,
Make periods in the midst of sentences,
Throttle their practised accent in their fears,
And in conclusion dumbly have broke off,
Not paying me a welcome. 2

As political agglomerations move in the direction of true democracy, however, they tend to shed the effusiveness with which their leaders are venerated. Most corporates have yet to make this transition.3  Until they do, the pressures to pay obeisance to the Oz wizard are virtually irresistible. There are costs to this adulation and we shall examine these a little more closely, together with how they vary depending upon the precise corporate hero specie responsible for them. 

Types of heroes and the costs of worship

Power Distance is the Siamese twin of hero worship and that is one reason this column should be of particular interest to Indian leaders. Decades ago, Hofstede used Power Distance as the first dimension in comparing national cultures.4  Indian corporates appeared to revel in maximising it. "India has [a] Power Distance … [score] of 77 compared to a world average of 56.5." 5  Naresh Khatri spells out the deleterious consequences of excessive Power Distance: "Employees, in a high power distance context, over time, develop a mindset of unwillingness to participate in decisions… On the whole, organisational communication is quite anemic… A result is that decisions can be arrived at rather quickly... However, because of the lack of input from lower level employees as well as poor communication and information sharing, quality of decisions is poor in [a] high power distance organisation than in a low power distance organisation. Evidence from empirical studies suggests that high power distance organisations tend to be indifferent to unethical behaviour. Top managers have not to justify or defend their decisions to lower level employees or to the larger organisation."6

Jim Collins made the humble Level 5 leader famous and rightly admired.7  He missed an opportunity to describe the fiver’s foil – the Level 501 (cleaner clean – whiter white) leader who believes he is a hundred times better and has ready praise on tap to prove it. Actually, we have Level 501, 502 and 503 leaders, since hero worship manifests itself differently depending on the provenance of the hero. Three types of CEO origin are particularly prone to charismatic delusions.

First and closest to genuinely deserving the hero appellation is the inventor or entrepreneur to whom the business and organisation owe its existence. There’s no gainsaying the progenitive role such a pioneer plays but that does not automatically translate into the skills necessary for leading it to growth, maturity and regeneration. We have earlier compared this to the distinction between the composer and conductor in Western orchestral music. 8 Surely, the reader will insist, the figurative mother of an enterprise will not 'Medeate' her own creation. Not intentionally, no. However, the kindest of mothers have been known to coddle their progeny and keep them at the stage when they seem cutest and most helpless. The greatest innovators the world has seen, such as the ones who conceived Intel, can acquire an allergy to diversify away from their brainchildren to make essential product or business model changes. 9 Founder-heroes with brilliance in one domain also acquire the supreme confidence to pronounce on disciplines as familiar to them as Fama (an asteroid in orbit around the Sun). Awe of the auditor (or taxman) may keep their financial brainwaves under a bushel but HR is not so lucky. Many are the CHROs driven to distraction (till they gain the traction to quit) by the inspired ideas of the intrepid (and irascible) initial innovator. The founder-hero not only clings on to the original innovation well beyond its 'best use by' date but sticks to the CEO’s chair with even greater tenacity. At this stage, not only do age and obsolescence take their toll but successor choices, when they are ultimately made, tend to be clones or non-entities whose failure may be their last service to the founder-hero’s ego. Since internal successors with the greatest potential would have long since lost patience with the founder-hero’s longevity and whims, the organisation (and this column) has no choice, after experiencing chaos with a successor-dummy or two, to turn to an outsider. 

The Hero worship of the HirGu (or Hired Gun brought from outside) reaches a feverish state of competitive frenzy as soon as s/he comes on board.10  The first few weeks of Impression Management can build or bury careers. People who had retired hurt or soiled their copy books with the previous CEO, jump back into the fray and their efforts to admire the attire of the new emperor by contrasting it to the suddenly apparent nakedness of the departed hero would be amusing if they weren’t so pathetic. Of course, all these happen at stratospheric levels for most employees but they are frequently given bit parts in the chorus singing the miracles wrought by the new messiah and the hurricane of hero worship courses through the mid and junior ranks. It is frequently followed by a wave of self-worth-questioning among the rank and file who were loyal to one deity and are now expected to flatten themselves at the feet of another. Some may find the new forms of worship degrading and the organisation stands a chance of losing or disengaging the employees with the highest self-respect, which is frequently a concomitant of competence. Their predicament may be not too different from that faced by the soldiers of Alexander’s army when he expected Persian-style obeisance from them. "The effect on his Macedonian troops… was profound… The Macedonian old-guard barons, in particular, were shocked by their king's visible drift towards oriental despotism."11  Company loyalists are likely to be no less horrified with the change of ritual and the fervour that is expected in the worship.

Undoubtedly the most ersatz of our hero-types are the ones who have not gone through the crucibles of the market or of the organisational winnowing process. Most often these are promoter progeny though, in some cases, expatriate and civil service deputations can also fall into this category.12  Since inheritor-heroes are generally above the fray, there is some check on the highest stake political games which have to stop well short of CEOcide. At the same time, the relative unfamiliarity and untried judgements of inheritor incumbents gives hero worship a higher weightage in career advancement during their reigns. The pan-Indian proclivity for placing genes above all else can bring dynastic 'Shahisevan' (love for the shah) close to deification in such scenarios. When this happens, not only is the best talent lost because it can never hope to occupy the top slot, swathes of self-respecting professionals quit because they are just not up to the dynasty worship game. 

Causes and cures of hero worship

Étienne de La Boétie, author of the 'Discourse on Voluntary Servitude', asked: "Why do the many submit to the tyranny of the few? Why do 'a hundred' or 'a thousand' 'endure the caprice of a single man?'13  De La Boétie offers three answers. The first is the force of custom and habit: enslaved people become 'degraded, submissive, and incapable of any great deed.' The second is 'bread and circuses' plus the gullibility of the subjects: 'Plays, farces, spectacles, gladiators, strange beasts, medals, pictures, and other such opiates, these were for ancient peoples the bait toward slavery, the price of their liberty, the instruments of tyranny.' The third answer is that the tyrants surround themselves with dependents, who in turn have their own dependents. In short, the three answers, in modern parlance, amount to cultural inertia, manufactured consent, and patronage."14  

In the corporate context, it becomes more actionable to segregate the causes into those residing within the CEO, the employees and the organisation’s culture. Such a sequencing follows the speed (if not the ease) with which cures can be effected. All this, of course, assumes a cure is desired, which may not necessarily be the case for the praise-lapping personalities to whom we now turn.

The CEO is the focal point of hero worship both by way of the signals of expectation to other employees and the access, approval and advantages accruing to those who acquiesce. Gonçalvesa and Boggio describe the Threatening, Reactionary, Unforgiving, Machiavellian and Partisan (T.R.U.M.P.) mindset possessed by such leaders.15  Interesting as are the neural underpinnings they provide (from the amygdala16 & 17  &  to the dorsal striatum18  to the anterior cingulate cortex19 ), we must abjure such fascinating trails since it is unlikely that we could examine CEO-aspirant brains before they are selected. Nor can we share the authors’ optimism or accept the responsibility for designing strategies that will convert such CEOs into Giving, Affectionate, Nurturing, Decentered, Humanistic and Interpersonal (G.A.N.D.H.I.) individuals. The best we can do while choosing CEOs is to find Big Five correlates of their (pre-deposition) Lear-leanings and be wary of excessive, free-floating EI.20  Any megalomaniacal tendencies that slip through selection will have to be checked by the structures listed in the following section. It is worth reiterating that choosing from a group of internal contenders, who have been under observation for years, makes this elimination process far more robust and reliable. 21

What about the personalities and attitudes of individual employees which incline them to become hero worshippers? I appreciate the minefield of misinterpretation I am entering when I use 'the authoritarian personality’ to describe such fierce fealty but Adorno’s usage, three quarters of a century ago, still resonates.22  The simple inference is that such a bent can be judged and, should there be a genuine desire to reduce the prevalence of shoe-polishing, it can form a factor in all recruitment. Employee selections are less fraught with risk than those for CEOs but there’s a longer lead time before their impact on hero worship becomes obvious in the larger mass.

Perhaps the most time-consuming to change are the hero-worship proclivities embedded in the corporate culture. These take two forms: promoting praise and (more insidiously) disabling dissent. CEOs may stop short of openly conveying Lear’s advice to Cordelia ("Mend your speech a little, Lest you may mar your fortunes.")23  but there are plenty of hangers-on who will ensure the message gets across with high volume and clarity. It is singularly up to the CEO to convey a different expectation. The ease with which dissent can be suppressed, on the other hand, correlates with a variety of cultural predispositions that also lead to organisational Silence (OS) becoming the Operating System. Wolfe Morrison and Milliken suggest that OS will be more common in organisations with: 24

  1. A top management team dominated by individuals with economics or finance backgrounds.
  2.  A longer average tenure of top management team members.
  3. A top management team dominated by individuals from high power distance and collectivistic cultures (recall India’s challenge in this regard).
  4. Many hierarchical levels and a high level of demographic dissimilarity (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, age) between top management and lower-level employees.
  5. A strategic focus on cost control and operating in highly competitive environments.
  6. Businesses in mature and stable industries.
  7. A tendency to hire senior-level managers from the outside, rather than promote from within.
  8. Heavy reliance on contingent workers.
  9. Top management believing that employees are self-interested, management knows best, dissent is undesirable and, therefore, resorting to centralized (non-participatory) decision-making and few formal upward feedback mechanisms.
  10. Managers who reject or react negatively to inputs from subordinates and don’t informally solicit feedback from subordinates.

The cures, where feasible, are self-evident. Culture change, however, requires well planned and sustained effort without any immediate prospect of gain. 25

Memento mori structures

When I sounded out some of my CEO friends about these fixes, Shuck Thombre (not his real name but he is a bit of a doubter) pointed out that they were all too slow. Even the CEO switch would have to wait till the incumbent was put to pasture and depended on a sophisticated selection process. Couldn’t there be some system and structure changes that would demolish hero worship altars immediately?

The quickest hero worship suppressors would be to:

  • Strengthen the organisation’s code of conduct relating to dealing with dissent (see item 7 of the chapter on the Fair organisation Code).26
  • Back the code with an empowered ombudsperson of high calibre and integrity.27 S/he should be able to call upon dedicated HR audit resources to investigate excessive favours for flattery or the killing of "Kent-types… [who] remain true to the purpose of the organisation even at cost to themselves".28
  • Ensure the ombudsperson has direct dealings with the Board which, in turn, has some truly independent directors attuned to people matters. 29  

In the longer term, the most effective extinguisher of excessive hero worship would be a move towards some version of corporate democracy that disturbs the current balance of power between the hero and the herd. This would require "some form of employee validation or approbation of leadership choices even if these are for a limited type (say CXOs) of position and from a limited choice set…" 30

Shuck continued to live up to his name and look doubtful. "It’s all very well for you to want more honest upward communication but I’ll miss the daily ego massage." I asked him to think of it as a preparation for the time he steps down and there’s no more (clarified) butter poured on his altar:

When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependants,
Which laboured after him to the mountain's top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot. 31

Shuck now dislikes Shakespeare.


  1.  Ervand Abrahamian, A History of Modern Iran, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2018.
  2. William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Arden Shakespeare, Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1979.
  3. Visty Banaji, Off With His Head, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 468-475, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  4. Geert Hofstede, Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and organisations Across Nations, SAGE Publications Inc; 2nd edition, 2003.
  5. Juhász István, The Workforce in Indian organisations. An Analysis Based Upon the Dimensions of Hofstede's Model, Economics Questions, Issues and Problems, January 2014.
  6. Naresh Khatri, Klaus Templer and Pawan Budhwar, Consequences of power distance orientation in organisations, VISION—The Journal of Business Perspective, Vol 13, No 1, January-March 2009.
  7. Jim Collins, Good To Great, Random House Business Books; 2010.
  8.  Visty Banaji, Music and Management, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 441-450, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  9. Michael S Malone, The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World's Most Important Company, Harper Business, 2014.
  10. Visty Banaji, Guns for (Corporate) Hire, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 19-25, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  11. Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 BC – A Historical Biography, University of California Press, 2013.
  12. Visty Banaji, Why Great Business Leaders Are Rare, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 425-432, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  13.  Étienne de La Boétie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Free Life, 1975.
  14.  Steven Lukes, In Defense of "False Consciousness", University of Chicago Legal Forum: Article 3, 2011. 
  15. Óscar F Gonçalvesa and Paulo S Boggio, Is there a T.R.U.M.P. brain? Implications for mental health and world peace, Porto Biomedical Journal, 2(6), 247–249, 2017.
  16. Ryota Kanai, Tom Feilden, Colin Firth and Geraint Rees, Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults, Current Biology, 21:677–80, 2011.
  17. Hannah Nam, John Jost, Lisa Kaggen, Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn and Jay J. Van Bavel, Amygdala structure and the tendency to regard the social system as legitimate and desirable, Nature Human Behaviour, 2(2):133-8, February 2018. 
  18. Dominique J-F de Quervain, Urs Fischbacher, Valerie Treyer, Melanie Schellhammer, Ulrich Schnyder, Alfred Buck and Ernst Fehr, The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment, Science, Vol 305, August 2004.
  19. Xiaojing Xu, Xiangyu Zuo, Xiaoying Wang and Shihui Han, Do You Feel My Pain? Racial Group Membership Modulates Empathic Neural Responses, The Journal of Neuroscience, 29(26):8525– 8529, July 2009.
  20. Visty Banaji, Old MacHR has a farm(ula), E-I - E-I - O!, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 207-214, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  21. Visty Banaji, Why Great Business Leaders Are Rare, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 425-432, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  22. Martin Roiser and Willig Carla, The strange death of the authoritarian personality: 50 years of psychological and political debate, History of the Human Sciences, 15.4, 71-96, 2002.
  23. William Shakespeare, King Lear, The Arden Shakespeare, ‎ Bloomsbury India, 2013.
  24. Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison and Frances J Milliken, organisational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World, The Academy of Management Review, Vol 25, No 4, October 2000.
  25. Visty Banaji, Culture Change is Not a Screw-on Job, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 3-10, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  26. Visty Banaji, Fairness is Fundamental, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 479-487, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  27. Visty Banaji, A Company is Known by the Way it Punishes, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 87-94, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  28. Visty Banaji, The Fortunes of Family Firms, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 185-191, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  29. Visty Banaji, Is your Board Bored by HR, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 338-343, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  30. Visty Banaji, A Company of People, By people and For People, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 534-541, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  31.  William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, The Arden Shakespeare, 2008.
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Topics: Leadership Development, Leadership Assessments, Leadership Solutions, #Work Culture

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