Jumping off the ship: Dysfunctional Leadership
This article is another one in my series of articles on dysfunctional leadership. Two unrelated recent developments in two contemporary Indian Organizations caught my attention as they were unfolding around the same time; one of them being the newly constituted Niti Aayog (replacing the erstwhile Planning Commission of India), and the other being the IT behemoth Infosys. While both the organizations share nothing in common (Infosys is a corporate and Niti Aayog is a Govt. of India undertaking), but they were indeed placed in an interesting phase of their respective life cycles. While the Niti Aayog was set up exactly two years ago, Infosys was set up for version 2.0 exactly three years ago.
For the purpose of convenience, both organizations were getting started in their respective organizational life cycles; Infosys was expected to have a rebirth of sorts and Niti Aayog was a completely revamped Planning Commission. As always, two leaders Arvind Panagariya and Vishal Sikka were in charge of nurturing Niti Aayog and Infosys respectively. What assumes significance is that both these gentlemen were airdropped into these systems as external change agents. Both Niti Aayog and Infosys carried extensive change mandates, precisely because of the huge legacy they carried from their previous avatars. Thus, the stage was set for a massive organization-wide leader driven top-down transformational change.
Dealing with one organization at a time, let us begin with Infosys first. Vishal Sikka was the first non-founder and non-promoter CEO that Infosys ever had; he was truly an outsider by all sense. On Infosys’ part, it is truly a very complex organization, spreading across many business, competencies and geographies. So to be able to turnaround an IT behemoth was always a herculean task. Vishal Sikka with his experience of managing other large complex organizational systems was the right person for the job. The only part of the mandate which was available and understood in the public discourse changed. Given the stature of Vishal Sikka, the how and the what of the change was rather not significant at that point in time. This is a typical organizational change scenario wherein the captain is the man-in-charge of the ship and has exclusive responsibilities for deciding the course and steering the ship in the desired direction.
Eventually, three years down the line, what played out was an anti-climax of sorts; Vishal Sikka, could not carry everyone along, especially people who mattered, and the ship was terribly off the course when he de-boarded it. But what caught my attention was the fact that Vishal Sikka volunteered for getting off the ship, especially at a time when the ocean was rough. The official reason cited by Vishal was that there was excessive negative criticism which hampered his overall motivation to carry on. Now, show me a change initiative of this magnitude which is not accompanied by negative criticism. This is the very nature of planned change, that it is accompanied by varying degree of resistance, to begin with. And it expected of a leader driving the change to be able to take the resistance or negative criticism in his stride. But in the case of Infosys, the leader became the first casualty of such resistance, somewhat like a captain abandoning the ship.
The case of Niti Aayog also leaves us with a similar feeling. Arvind Panagariya became the frst ever Vice Chairman of the newly founded institution, charged with the extensive responsibility of giving shape to the organization. Given the nature of the organization, contrary to the Infosys (even bigger legacy), this was a horizon further away in distance and needed the leader to have an even greater vision of change. Some of the major economic policy decisions need a minimum of five years to produce impact at the ground level. Building blocks have to be put in place keeping two to three decades in consideration. Arvind Panagariya, just like Vishal Sikka, had all the attributes that made him the right person for the job. Given Arvind Panagariya’s credibility as an economist, this could have earmarked the beginning of an era in Indian economy. But surprisingly, he did also abandon the ship when the tides started getting rough.
The Indian economy has been going through a tough period of slowing growth rates and needed structural reforms of various kinds; the Niti Aayog was to pioneer these reforms. The official reason cited by Arvind Panagariya was that he was not getting an extension of his sabbatical from his University. This to me seems to be a lame excuse in light of the massive change mandate given to him by the Government of India and the possibilities of what he could have achieved as the first Vice Chairman of Niti Aayog. It is in the very nature of leadership to inspire in the face of an adversity, and to not to be able to do that is a clear indicator of dysfunctional leadership.
Both in the case of Infosys and Niti Aayog, the leaders deserted the organizations at very crucial stages, somewhat like a captain abandoning the ship at the earliest sign of sinking. In both the cases, while the leaders were competent enough for the respective jobs, they failed to inspire when the going got tough. The dysfunctional leadership will in all probability reset these organizations back in their lifecycles to start the change processes all over again under a new leader.