Lingering fallouts of acrimonious leadership disputes

15th January 2020 I had written an article on Ahankar-Mukt Leadership (BS, 6th Dec 2019). Even in successful companies, visible and acrimonious leadership disputes linger—like in L’Oréal, Viacom, Raymond, Infosys, Tata, Indigo and recently Murugappa.

15th January 2020 

R. Gopalakrishnan*

(*The writer is an author and corporate advisor. He is Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. During his career, he was a Director of Tata Sons and a Vice Chairman of Hindustan Unilever.)

Email: rgopal@themindworks.

I had written an article on Ahankar-Mukt Leadership (BS, 6th Dec 2019). Even in successful companies, visible and acrimonious leadership disputes linger—like in L’Oréal, Viacom, Raymond, Infosys, Tata, Indigo and recently Murugappa. This article is not about who is right in a leaders’ dispute. It merely emphasizes the obvious: that bad and lasting consequences linger when a disgruntlement lands in the courts rather than get negotiated, away from public gaze. Dust is kicked up by both parties, each of whom feels that he or she has contributed to the company; there is usually an asymmetry in the respective perceptions of contributions. Busy lawyers argue in the courts about clauses in agreements or the articles of association. 

Commercial disputes, usually about money, are inevitable, but leadership disputes, usually about ego and asmita, are not inevitable. A story from John Bunyan’s eponymous book, Pilgrim’s Progress, is relevant to recall.  An interpreter leads pilgrim Christian into a parlor, full of dust. The interpreter requests the parlor attendant to sweep the parlor. There is such a dense dust that Christian can barely breathe. Next a woman sprinkles water on the dust and sweeps the room clean. The interpreter accompanying Christian explains his perspective, “The dust represents the sin of a person. The attendant, who raked up the dust, is the law. Law does not cleanse the sin, rather it arouses it without the power to subdue it. The woman who sprinkles water and sweeps the parlor clean is the gospel.”

Leadership disputes tend to be about rights and legacy, with dollops of ego. No doubt these disputes are quite different from say, couple disputes. However, there is some similarity insofar as the disputants have been close, know a lot of internal secrets, and are required to be sensitive to multiple stakeholders, beyond the couple or the company.  When a couple decides to separate in acrimony, friends, extended family and children are involved. Psychological studies suggest that messy divorces adversely affect the parent-child relationship, the child experiences a loss of home support, and the ability of the child to trust the parents gets impaired. 

The Family Law Company, Exeter, summarized lessons from four well-known films dealing with divorce. In Parent Trap, each parent tries to do what he or she considers to be the best for the children. Their actions end up separating the siblings. The parents fail to see the situation from the children’s perspective. In their innocent world, children prefer to see a win-win outcome, in which their parents talk and be civil to each other. In Kramer vs Kramer, the son is heartrendingly torn between dad and mum. The film makes the point that it is wrong for either parent to assume that ‘what I want’ equates to ‘what the child wants.’ If each parent seeks a win-lose outcome, then for sure, the child has a dilemma of lose-lose. The sense of loss is huge for the child. Mrs Doubtfire combines humor with deep messaging that the scars for the child can be long-lasting, and parents should find a mutually acceptable solution for themselves while avoiding harm to the child without public mud-slinging. In The Squid and the Whale, a successful novelist and his wife agree to separate, but there are two sons involved. As the divorce gets messier, the two sons take opposite sides of the arguments.  This turns out to be devastating for the sons. 

In a company leadership dispute, vital stakeholders—minority shareholders, business partners and employees, all watch aghast as private matters are washed in public through court proceedings. The disputants should empathize with the firm’s highly engaged employees, many of whom would have served the firm for long, and very likely, love the firm. Such employees feel distracted by the public reports and feel alienated from the leaders, whose leadership they might have experienced at work. The disputants should think of the damage to long-standing relations that have been built up by employees, vendors, customers and distributors. 

Warring leaders play a win-lose game. Other stakeholders see the situation to have lose-lose outcome.  The lesson is self-evident. Disputants should consciously shed their ego. By seriously considering the damage to corporate reputation, built over a long time by their predecessors, the disputants should find a way, directly or through well-wishers, to arrive at a negotiated compromise.