Succession Wars

The Mahabharata is essentially a succession war, even though it was a Monarchy and the father handed over his kingdom to his eldest son basis certain rules, the Kurukshetra war happened because Duryodhana who was not in line to succeed the kingdom of Hastinapur, wanted it and the entire epic revolves around that central issue. The Mahabharata brings out the perils of dynastic succession without meritocracy … Duryodhana did not possess all the qualities that were required in a King and so was wrong in aspiring for that role. The Mahabharata also brings out the perils of role extensions – overstaying in a particular role and becoming a hindrance. Shakuni was Duryodhana’s uncle who should have ideally left for his home after dropping off his sister … he overstayed and messed up Duryodhana’s life.

Actually if we go back into Bhishma’s history, if his father Emperor Shantanu had not overstayed, Bhishma would not have become Bhishma and we would have had Emperor Devavratha instead. Because Emperor Shantanu had not handed over the kingdom to his very able crown prince Devavratha, he fell in love with Satyavati and her father wanted her children to ascend the throne …. if only, Devavratha was already the King, the entire Mahabharata would have been different.

In more recent times, even as I write this blog, the heir-apparent of the CONgress dynasty in India is making a last ditch effort to sound coherent. Again, the CONgress party is clearly a case where dynastic succession bereft of meritocracy has killed the organization !!

The corporate world is the new age kingdom – companies own vast resources and span across countries, employing thousands of people who stay loyal to their paymasters and play different roles in improving the organization. The succession wars happen in these new age kingdoms too ! Whether its an American corporation that tries to find the right CEO or an Indian corporation where the father wants the son to inherit or someone who is closely aligned to the organisation’s values and outlook to succeed. The erstwhile Monarchs would carefully groom their successors and sometimes, like the Mughals, a different successor than the designated one would overthrow the Emperor and seize the Kingdom. The succession planning that large corporations undertake is the same grooming that the Monarchs did and like the Mughal kingdom, hostile takeovers happens in the modern Corporate world too, by individuals and companies all the time.

The succession challenges in Infosys made me write this blog …. its a classic case study where succession planning went completely awry and with Vishal Sikka bowing out and Mr. Nandan Nilekani coming back, its important to see what lessons one can learn. Infact this is the second time they are struggling with succession, and last time, Mr. Narayana Murthy had to come back and manage the transition and this time its Mr. Nandan Nilekani.

All leaders – political, corporate, home, crime syndicate, or monarchs – all leaders, have certain responsibilities with respect to succession. Here is my list and am sure there is tons of research and many other learned men and women whose lists may be longer, but I feel this list pretty much covers the basics.

  1. Tread not Tenure, there is no substitute for meritocracy – Remember the lesson from Mahabharata. Pandava, even though the younger sibling, ascended the throne because Dhritarashtra was blind. Its not to say that physical handicap is a challenge, the blindness is a metaphor for today’s world. Dhritarashtra had to rule a kingdom and the king had to be physically, mentally and morally fit – that was the norm then. In today’s world, the leader has to be mentally and morally fit – a physical disability is no challenge today except health is certainly required at the highest levels. Ensure that promotions within the organization do not happen basis tenure, but basis tread. A meritocratic system of promotions ensures that the most capable leaders bubble up to the top. Also hiring the right people .. look for capability and culture fit, or have a great appraisal system that lets go of those who underperform. Under performers are not incapable people – they are often a bad fit.
  2. Developing “my kinda” successors – One of our friends who is a coach as well, was pitching to an organization to develop the culture of coaching. The HR leader told our friend that the “leaders” in the organization do all the coaching and so we, as external coaches were not needed. Six months later, the same organization went through a succession crisis, although its a much smaller organization than Infosys, because the leaders had coached people to become “like” them …. that’s the biggest trap that the leaders fall into. Fashioning successors after themselves and not letting them be their own person. There are very few leaders who are genuine coaches – a coach helps you to become yourself and realise your potential, not train you to ape them. If your organization has an iconic leader and if that leader’s style is not the coaching style of leadership then HR needs to get some external help to develop successors. A sure sign of a bad leader is when things fall apart as soon as the leader leaves – but in many organisations its celebrated that a “leader” was so good that nothing worked when he/she left…. there in lies the problem. Get rid of such leaders.
  3. Anonymity offers insights – I was thrilled to see the news item a few days back where the governor of Puducherry, Ms.Kiran Bedi went incognito on a scooter to assess the law and order situation in the union territory. Many of the Jataka tales and other stories from history speak of the king going around his kingdom incognito, wearing a disguise to assess the conditions. Many corporate leaders need to adopt this practise to understand whats really happening to their companies. Find ways and people who can be mystery customers and mystery employees to identify potential leaders and also to assess the culture of the organization. How else can you stay in touch with the pulse of the organization? Please meet your employees in all different settings – in the lunch room, in the hallway, in the induction programs… while I am a tiny speck in the leadership universe, I always volunteered to do the induction programs. And in every one of them, I have urged the new employees to speak up and point out whats not working before they became comfortable with the organisation’s culture.
  4. Lack of diversity – When Infosys was founded there weren’t any women involved except the founders’  wives and many of them chose not to take an active role in the organization and thats ok. But over the years not a single woman has made it to the top … I wonder why? I am a huge admirer of Mr. Narayana Murthy, all the founders and Infosys as an organization. When you enter the Infosys campus in Bengaluru, you feel a sense of pride that such a world class campus has been setup by an Indian. So am taking nothing away from their achievements, but questions have to be asked because the founders cannot be around forever and the organization has to survive for a hundred years and more. The lack of diversity could very well be reflecting in a lack of diverse thinking – not every founder is a great “CEO” and an entrepreneurial venture needs a different leader, while a growing organization needs a different leader and an organization in a troubled industry needs a very different leader. The founder has to recognise what he/she can do well and then find those who fit the emerging context to lead after them. Diversity offers more choice and brings different ideas … dynastic rule is shunned because a different gene pool is always stronger and smarter. Its not too late – Mr. Nilekani can find a woman to succeed him. Even the Hindu trinity – Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva have a division of roles based on core competencies. The creator, preserver and destroyer – all three are needed at different times and when they struggle, they go looking for Durga, Lakshmi or Saraswati, diverse powers to handle different situations !!!

Mr. Nandan Nilekani coming back to navigate Infosys through this succession crisis is fine, but he quickly needs to find a diverse set of leaders and choose the best suited from them. Infosys is trying to remain a leader in a very different world than when it was founded and it calls for a very different leader. Will Mr. Nilekani and Mr. Narayana Murthy be able to step outside of themselves and find someone completely different than them to lead Infosys ? Thats the big question. Like many of their admirers, I am hoping that they “found” Infosys again – in a new avatar. That would be something to cheer about.




2 thoughts on “Succession Wars”

  1. Ah so nicely put in… lot of lessons do lie in our history and learning from such mistakes is so meaningful… very well connected with Mahabharata and the new age succession issue, the leader coaching stuff… I loved it 👍


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