The CEOs dilemma: Legacy or Popularity

The CEOs dilemma: Legacy or Popularity

800 371 Kamal Karanth

The legacy of CEOs is often decided by their ability to be unfazed while making  tough calls and avoid feel-good short-term decisions

Last week has been rife with discussions around the 1975 national emergency. The comparison between Late Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi and the various opinions around their leadership are still doing rounds. World over political leaders and corporate CEOs face this enormous pressure of staying popular and leaving behind a worthy legacy. Think about Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Russi Mody. They are today rather remembered for their strong legacy than their few unpopular acts that may have antagonised people then.

The Dilemma of legacy

The boards want a CEO who drives results. The employees want a leader who offers them freebies, who poses for selfies. The world wants better human beings. In real life, we praise people who can give, who are compassionate and also humble.  When it comes to leaders around us we also want to see articulate, charismatic, connecting personalities. Somehow, all these fluffy things don’t add up when we want to see them all in one leader. Furthermore, in the long run, we will only remember the lasting impact of the CEO than the few people feeling good. It’s no secret that the ultimate impact would be measured in financial results. So what are the characteristics which make the authoritarian leaders successful?

Result Orientation

Our new global CEOs had just taken charge. Her visit to Asia started with a captivating townhall speech to the employees. Later, when I met her one to one she asked me to reverse one of my recent big decisions. It was a key decision and was going to catch the attention of people if I withdrew it. With a gun at my head, I swallowed my pride and aligned to what she asked for. Later, I reached out to my peers in other countries and said: “the devil is here”. They weren’t surprised as by then they already had got affected by her similar centralised decisions.

Over the next 2 years, she took many such decisions which weren’t consensus-driven nor popular with her CXO reportees. First of all, the results started to show. The leaders who couldn’t align either performed or quit. She transformed the results of the region like never before. The board was happy, so were many more front-line employees who had started to earn incentives. Her communication with frontline staff was continuous and inspiring. The only people who loathed her were people who were reporting directly as she was ruthless about execution and results. She wasn’t the kind of CEO who took you to exotic off sites, private dinners or sent personal gifts. In contrast, you couldn’t complain that she wasn’t nice to you when your name was regularly on the performers’ list.


We tend to loathe leaders whom we claim are narcissists. But, strong leaders who need to stand the test of time and take tough calls will have traces of narcissism.  It comes as a package.  Leaders whom you hail as great decision makers are likely to get a few of them wrong. The very narcissist trait avoids these leaders from sulking over their mistakes and move on. Decision making is a key asset of great leaders. If that’s compromised because they want to be popular or want safer bets then their role is considerably weakened. Organisations which have tougher mandates need to consider leaders with traces of narcissism for a quicker turnaround. Yes, it’s a double-edged sword but still better than a leader who needs to babysit on decision making. The board’s ability to have a check and balance on abuse of power is critical when you have autocratic leaders.

The Last Mile connect

One of the key ingredients of success for autocratic leaders is their last mile connectivity. The CEOs ability to have the magic with their customers or connect with front-line employees cannot be ignored. Many of them keep a direct involvement with this crucial interface. Otherwise, they will be trapped by their sycophant loyalists who might not give a real picture on the ground reality. Social media tools and technology have made these connects easier for CEOs to interact with their front line seamlessly. The lifeline for any authoritarian leader is their ability to marshal their frontline employees. The successful ones balance their connect with the front line staff and their customers. Most likely their narcissism is experienced by their immediate reportees with whom they spend considerable time.

So, when they spend with the frontline staff they ensure they are charming and inspiring. That’s where they are smart, they are able to transform their behaviour in the right contexts.

Every organisation who have a turnaround, acquisition-based growth strategy or very ambitious growth plans need autocratic leaders. Autocratic leadership is not always sustainable as it could turn into a dictatorship in the long run.

Having said that when you look at how Mahathir, Lee Kuan Yew transformed countries, Imran Khan created a winning team and what a GE or Apple became you wonder if autocratic leadership is bad at all?

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