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Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Narcissistic CEOs Vs Stakeholders: Indian Boards Should Handle It Right

Indian Boards have a lot to pick pace-with, in this regard. And to start asking questions and to being accountable for organisational culture.

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


Surely you would know of, or atleast heard of a corporate leader or manager who is constantly more worried about her/his personal image, but keeps spouting “I am there. Will take care of you. Just give me your 100%.” Or even the familiar tone of “we are brothers. Don’t worry about your career growth or career rewards.”

Almost most of us have someone with similar narcissistic leadership style (“main hoon na”), in our work-network.

And sadly, the disappointments of many who work with such (lone) star-performer-leaders are galore ! What’s generally promised in town-hall meetings or weekly review meetings or the offsite-for-team-bonding are more of an occasion for such leaders to occupy centre-stage and dish out more lectures at their teams. And in the process, glorifying themselves as the messiah that team has got bestowed by the “Great leader” himself. As a smart-Alec would put it, such leaders like the sound of their own voice !


The (lone) star-performer-leaders have strong competence in specific functions. Their ability to bring in performance numbers are undoubtable. These traits probably worked for the industries decades ago, when concept of equality and fairness at work place was not a board-room agenda!

But many of these leaders lack in their ability, in dealing with emotional needs of their teams. They could be wonderful orators and can gather up a crowd of interested teams, but might not observe the nuanced-suffering of a direct report !

They don’t brook ‘interference’ or ‘insubordination’ (as they see it), when the team member is offering a view point that’s ‘different’ from their own ! Generally most of these team members stay put in such an ecosystem, as long as they can tolerate or can move to another platform or to achieve some of their financial objectives (say like ESOP grant-vesting or cashing out).

Theoretically the HR leaders are supposed to play the role of bridging this stark reality with purported grand statements that they have listed in their ‘Values’. In reality, such star leaders hold the “purse & promotion strings”, and consequently HR remains a mute spectator or at times, a shoulder to cry on.

Even the lead investor / promoter / boards at times, turn a blind eye to such toxic leadership style, as the star-performer-leader keeps the business growing and profits piling up. Even some of well respected corporate brands have such folklore stories of various misdemeanours of star-performers and with no visible action from those “respected” companies.

Investors & Boards can do better

Narcissism is a trait that works well for the business models of social-media companies ! Such a behaviour does not augur well for leaders of large teams or companies.

“I, me, myself” style of leadership is accepted by some investors (and consequently the boards they influence), who bet on individual leaders, rather than trusting collective-wisdom and capability of the team / platform.

The destruction of team’s morale and the moral-fabric of the organisation stems from the fact that the investors / boards in such companies have allowed to “take care” of one such individual leader’s greed for more-for-self, than for the team. Many such investors have time and again bet on the so-called “star-leader” to take their investment platform to higher glory. In this endeavour, they don’t bother about complaints about the “star leader”, except for cases which attract media or regulatory glare.

Many of the unlisted company boards with nominees of PE or other large investors are generally more concerned about ensuring compliances to regulations and addressing consumer complaints, if any to the Board. Also many of these board members don’t want to “interfere” in the operations which are regularly reviewed by the PE / key investors, and such boards could end up as respectable cosy clubs.

However, the investors focus on employees welfare is lesser as “their bet” is on the “star leader”. Many of these investors have a short time window of 5-7 years to monetise their investments and don’t have the patience for culture-building.

Their blind trust in the leader makes it worse, as they become party to such toxicity of culture. There are countless examples in Corporate India, where #2 / #3 leaders have quit the organisation and the boards have not bothered to give an audience sought by the outgoing team member, as they didn’t want to “annoy” the star-leader !

Also most of such star-leaders have the utmost charm in dealing with their investors, Boards and the media, while turning their ire in their ‘kingdom’ with their teams.

Everything is personal

Such leaders take any difference of opinion very personally. And hell will break loose, if any of their team members dare to resign. It’s almost akin to sacrilege of highest kind and deserting the mother-ship ! “how can you resign when God has gifted such a leader to mankind and to you !?”

Also when it comes to rewards for performance, many of those lone-leaders negotiate disproportionately higher payouts for themselves, while offering a “wait for some time & you will get more” package for their teams. Any team member who has ‘dared to differ’ with the leader the previous year, will be remembered for ‘special attention’ during the payouts time.

Boards to do more

Boards should be far involved and do better in this area of understanding the leadership-style and in ensuring their (Board’s) visibility to the 2nd tier leadership. After all, as good governance norm, it is an expectation from the Boards to have succession planning to ensure business continuity & viability.

While many investors including PEs look for entrepreneurial leadership, it is important to build platforms with diverse set of talent, instead of betting on a “I, me, myself” type of leader.

Capital is important. More so, is Human Capital.

People matter. As much as profits do.

After all, those high performing “Lone stars” can become loathed ones, in the industry !

And along with it, the reputation of those companies, investors & the Boards !

Indian Boards have a lot to pick pace-with, in this regard. And to start asking questions and to being accountable for organisational culture.

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ceos stakeholders human capital