Myrmidons around the CEO

Before you think that Shashi Tharoor has been language-tutoring me, let me explain that a myrmidon is an unquestioning and subservient lackey of a powerful leader. Myrmidons are around everywhere and become the leader’s Achilles heel. Achilles’s body became invulnerable, excluding his foot, and hence the expression, Achilles Heel to signify an inherent weakness.

R. Gopalakrishnan*

Email: rgopal@themindworks.me

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

Shareholders in India cannot expect high levels of candor and outspokenness from directors. It is cultural, not legal.  

Before you think that Shashi Tharoor has been language-tutoring me, let me explain that a myrmidon is an unquestioning and subservient lackey of a powerful leader. Myrmidons are around everywhere and become the leader’s Achilles heel. Achilles’s body became invulnerable, excluding his foot, and hence the expression, Achilles Heel to signify an inherent weakness.

When you think of celebrities–CEO, Minister, Bureaucrat, Actor and Sportsman—you note that they have a swarm of myrmidons around them, a bit like bees on a honeycomb, and provide an irrational boost to a preening leader’s ego. Even a blind person can spot the myrmidons. That is why leaders desperately need anti-myrmidon medication.

In 1991, Unilever launched Persil Power in UK against P&G’s Ariel Ultra, a formidable competitor. Persil Power contained a manganese-based catalyst that helped unleash its bleaching power. Regrettably, wash garments first lost color and then their structural integrity because the formulation was ‘too powerful’. In an unusual move, Chairman Ed Arzt of P&G flew to London to draw attention of Unilever to their inadvertently dangerous formulation. Unilever myrmidons gleefully advised their leaders–ignore P&G, disregard their nervous warning. After four disastrous years, Unilever Chairman Mike Perry magnanimously admitted at an Annual General Meeting that Persil Power was ‘one of the greatest marketing setbacks Unilever had experienced’.

Recall the story of Archbishop St. Thomas of Canterbury (1119-1170). King Henry II appointed him with the expectation that Thomas Becket would be a myrmidon. But Becket chose to place church and conscience above submission to royalty. At the Constitution of Clarendon, Becket declined compliance when officials asked him to agree to the King’s rights or face dire repercussions. When informed about the refusal, the frustrated King despairingly said, ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’ Four zealous knights, who overheard the anguished king, stabbed the archbishop to death in his own cathedral.

In July this year, a nondescript myrmidon complainant approached the Supreme Court with a notice of contempt against Prashant Bhushan, a high profile and pungent legal counsel. The complaint was accompanied by a request to waive the legal requirement of statutory consent of the Attorney General or Solicitor General.  The Supreme Court obliged and proceeded with unusual promptitude. Separately, another myrmidon sought permission from the Solicitor General, and later the Advocate General, to proceed with contempt against actor Swara Bhasker. Mercifully both officers refused.

Before electing a director to a Company’s Board, particularly Independent Directors, their candidature must be assessed for their ‘myrmidon potential’. Directors behave and act in line with their cultural and belief systems. In general, regulators and shareholders in India cannot expect high levels of candor and outspokenness from directors merely by the framing of new laws.

Manu Smriti states very clearly (4.138, verse 4) – ‘Speak the truth in a way that is pleasing to others. Do not speak the truth in a manner that is injurious. Never speak untruth, though it may be expressed pleasantly. This is the eternal path of morality and dharma.” In the Bhagavad Gita (17-15), Lord Krishna advises – ‘Express yourself in words that do not cause distress, and which are truthful, inoffensive and beneficial.’

It is not true that Indians are culturally conditioned to be myrmidons. Rather the stories emphasize the importance of developing that rare skill of disagreeing without becoming disagreeable. During my Jeddah stint, I learnt an Arabic saying, ‘Before you shoot your arrow, dip its point in honey.’ In India, it is futile to ignore the distance that power creates between Directors and a family-business entrepreneur or a super machismo CEO.

What can wise leaders do to rectify this? Recognize that appearance of myrmidons is an inevitable accessory of power, and that myrmidon power is invisible but effective on the wise leader. To minimize its effects, apply anti-Myrmidon cream every day, the ingredients being:

  • Separate the roles of the Chairman and CEO so that discussions can be more open and transparent
  • Board Chairman to nurture and encourage listening by encouraging and fostering alternative views.
  • Ensure gender and professional diversity in skills, talent and knowledge
  • Independent Directors’ role is to play an infinite game rather than a finite one (see my article BS 3rd July)
  • Directors embrace the high ground of strategic thinking across a wide swathe of issues. I will elaborate this in BS next month.

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