Insights into leadership (May 20, 2005)

Leadership at individual, firm and even country level can be learnt by looking at some key events; I will use the “story metaphor” to drive home my point.

1. One of my students re-told the way Microsoft “caught up” with Internet (and the browser Internet Explorer). It was like a traveler standing in the Indian Railway platform when a train was about to leave. There were announcements that the train was about to leave. There was one passenger who refused to board the train declaring it is NOT for him. The train started, even picked up speed; suddenly the same passenger realized the train will take him to his destination ran all the way and managed to get into the train; interestingly this strange passenger did not stop after entering the train. He ran all the way till he reached the engine. In fact he went up to the engine cabin, kicked off the driver and started driving the train muttering that he can take it to whatever destination he wanted! (the lesson is simple; if you are clear you can take the organization to where you want to!!)

2. Creative is an interesting Singapore-based IT company, that has occupied a leadership position. But when they started in early nineties, Microsoft tried to make a “sound Card” (once in a while Microsoft does enter hardware arena, the latest being xBox video game console). The sound card from Creative Technology (branded as SoundBlaster) was far superior. After a couple of quarters Microsoft withdrew its hardware from the market and started endorsing Creative solution. Here is the classic case of a small company taking headlong with a giant and winning. (If you have a compelling product you will win even against heavy odds)

3. Intel had an unpleasant task of facing the “Pentium Bug”. As it happens to many of us, the initial reaction of Intel was to deny; any number of reporters were told that it is “inconsequential”; but soon it was clear that it was a BUG, thanks to an Internet posting by an Israeli Professor. Then Intel senior management veered around and executed a strategy that involved “recalls” for those who wanted (Unlike Automobiles recalls are difficult for microprocessors as they are made in hundreds of millions); simulated results about all possible damages; frank acceptance of the error (a simple data entry error involving some coefficients to a complex equation used to “speed up” calculation) and blessings through a Harvard Professor in the form of a Case Study (Leaders need to know that once in a while they have to face unpleasant situation; honesty is often the best policy!)

4. There are any number of other stories (Two Microsoft developers writing much of the ODBC specifications and in the process getting a foothold (and later dominance) in the database area where Microsoft was a late entrant; Toshiba remaining singularly focused on Laptops (except for a brief stint in 2002 when they entered Desktop and quickly withdrew); Microsoft taking along any number of printer and software vendors by relieving them of the drudgery of writing individual device drivers for every possible printer and software product (it was sufficient for them to write to Windows) (you can sometimes win by taking a different route and joining ahead of your competitor; laser sharp focus is a must, even if it gets blurred get it back quickly; larger benefits to much larger partners will win you wars)

5. On the applications side the Indian Railway Reservation system and Sudarshan system at Balaji Temple in Tirupati were examples of leadership that saw the tangible benefits to a significant size of the people and using that to face any number of attempts to stall (George Fernandes as Railway Minister or the employees of Balaji temple) (be clear of “your” constituency and have tangible benefits)

6. Some bold decisions at IIIT-B include speed of execution (between June 3, 1999 to Sep 15, 1999 everything was done, get the place ready (Class rooms, Labs, Hostel, Offices, Library, Computing), have faculty, design curriculum, get thousands of students to apply, select them and have them on Board!); betting on Laptops, Wi-Fi; incubate companies; use the power of media (BusinessWeek, Fortune, Stern) and global partnerships (US, Europe, Asia and Africa) (size and age are NOT limitations, lack of imagination is)

(My invited talk to senior management of HP Divisions in India in Bangalore on May 20, 2005)

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