Why leaders have to be followers?

Why leaders have to be followers?

Matt Barney, director, Infosys Leadership Institute, has had the privilege of working closely with the founders of Infosys. Here, he demystifies the concept of leadership through several observations from the Infosys story

I recently read Barbara Kellerman’s book The End of Leadership. Kellerman, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, confidently argues that the balance of power between leaders and followers has shifted – with leaders becoming weaker and followers stronger. Moreover, she believes this observation is applicable to government and business leaders alike. I disagree. I’ll go a step further. Leadership in the corporate world has never been more important and cannot be compared with leadership in governments.

“ Openness is about how you, as a leader, have to be very broad minded and think beyond the classics. Let us look at the early stages of the Infosys journey. At the time, it took tremendous guts to say we’re going to create a highly ethical globally multinational software outsourcing company out of India.  It was at a time when even buying a computer or flying out of the country was a challenge.”

The biggest difference between being a leader of a nation and the leader of a company lies in who your followers are. As a government leader, your team, usually filled with politicians, is not necessarily picked by you and is complex to manage. Your customer (people in your country) set is varied and diverse and one solution certainly doesn’t fit all. On the other hand, corporate leaders get to choose who their employees, investors, customers and stakeholders are, and have to deal with that much less complexity compared to government leaders. It is unfair to compare leaders, whose mandates are completely different.

In this feature, I am going to focus on leadership in the business world, as observed, analysed and articulated by Dr. Matt Barney. Leadership in governments is a topic we’ll discuss another day. In the corporate world, the role of leaders and the concept of leadership need utmost attention now, more than ever. Leadership is probably the single biggest difference between winning and losing in a competitive environment. Infosys needed a N. R. Narayana Murthy to win. Facebook is changing the world thanks to bold decision-making and execution by its 20-something chief executive. Apple certainly needed the genius of Steve Jobs. It is possible to draw ideas on leadership by observing these winners from outside. But to make conclusive statements on what works and what doesn’t, it takes consistent analysis based on hard facts and close proximity to leaders and the decisions they make.

Barney, as the head of Infosys Leadership Institute, has a ringside seat to several decisions made at Infosys. Now, Infosys is no ordinary brand. Its leaders are icons. Murthy, in all probability, is the role model of choice for upcoming first generation entrepreneurs. Nandan Nilekani, another iconic Infosys founder, is now using his skills in a complex government setting. People like S. D. Shibulal and S. Gopalakrishnan (Kris), also founders of Infosys, did tremendously important work from the background before fitting into Murthy’s role. Barney has had the chance to analyse the leadership traits of each of these individuals. I sit down with him to demystify the concept of leadership and extract any lessons that can be learnt from the founders and the senior management team at Infosys.

Who is an effective leader?

We conducted a few studies over the last couple of years and there are two factors that particularly standout in lots of different areas of leadership. These factors are openness to experience and learning goal orientation.

Openness is about how one, as a leader, has to be very broadminded and think beyond the classics. Let us look at the early stages of the Infosys journey. At the time, it took tremendous guts to say we’re going to create a highly ethical globally multinational software outsourcing company out of India. It was at a time when even buying a computer or even flying out of the country was a challenge. Today, Infosys is trying to become a consulting firm. It is trying to become more entrepreneurial than it used to be. These changes are not easy to make. Leaders, who’re making these bold decisions, need to have a personality trait that requires them to be broadminded.

The second observation is that good leaders continue to learn and develop themselves. There are broadly three kinds and Murthy is definitely the best kind. Some business leaders say, “I’ll just learn enough not to be embarrassed”. Others will say, “I need to hit my financial numbers and we’ve achieved our goal”. The third kind will continuously look at where the future is headed and how to adapt accordingly. At a personal level, they will want to learn and develop further. If you visit Murthy’s office, you will know what I am talking about. It is a library and let me tell you, the man never ceases to learn. He is always reading and thinking about how the market is going to change. He’s probably right there amongst the best business leaders in the world, but he still continues to learn.

Leadership during chaos

The lessons from Infosys are around values and identity and a shared leadership-mentor model among all of our founders. The founders decided that they were building a successful, large multinational and that’s it. No matter what comes their way, they’re going to stay true to the kind of company they want to build.

For an entrepreneur, there is another personality trait that becomes crucial in times of chaos. Not everyone is suited to be an entrepreneur. It is tough and risky as hell. You’ve to have a level of stress tolerance, a level of self-confidence to bring the future to the present and create something out of nothing.

In one of my upcoming books, I’ll be talking a little bit about how those who create something from nothing are like oxygen for our species. Murthy did that to a whole industry, to a whole country.

Let me give you an example of decision making in troubled times. In 2009, when the financial crisis was at its peak, we were one of the few software companies in India that maintained our commitment of hiring fresh college graduates to whom we had offered jobs. There were not enough projects and we didn’t need to hire so many people. But we decided we’d honour our commitments to these youngsters simply because that is the kind of company we want to build – a company that maintains all its commitments no matter what comes in the way.

Building your brand as a leader

There is a lot of stuff about authentic leadership and charismatic leadership, both of which are related to personal brand. If you look back to the early days, Nandan or Murthy or any of the other founders didn’t have a brand. They did some insanely great things. Building a brand comes with building reputation.

The point I am going to make here is a very simple one. You have to consistently do what you promise. Kris and Shibulal still fly coach if the rules demand that. You lead by example and focus on value creation, and a brand is built automatically. Media needs great stories, so go out there, do great things and create value. Genuine value creation is what helps you build a brand.

Garnering acceptance as a leader

I have several examples here and each and every one of them comes down to human relationships. Recently, Shibulal was at STRAP, our strategic planning event, and in addition to all the business-related topics that were being discussed, he made it a point to converse at a personal level with all his executives. He believes if we’re going to change Infosys, we need to build deep personal relationships with all our people.

There is one more very interesting story that KV (K.V. Kamath, chairman of Infosys) narrated to me a while ago. KV and Murthy had known each other for a long time, but hadn’t connected in a while. So, when KV visited the Infosys campus to meet with Murthy after a long time, he was blown away by something that happened there. Murthy, while introducing KV to everyone in the room, also introduced him to the person who was responsible for keeping the rooms clean. KV was amazed at the simplicity of a man, who was world famous, but yet kept his feet on the ground and made sure everyone was treated equally.

Bringing about change

Let us take the scenarios at Infosys currently. We have one great software product, Finacle. However, we’d love to have many more products, in addition to our services business units, under our umbrella. We’d love to create more value for our clients through business consulting. We’d love to become more entrepreneurial. First of all, all this is fun stuff to do. Who wouldn’t like to create more value? In the previous phase, it was not only about building a great company; it was about playing a key role in putting India on the map. Now, we’re saying, all these C-level executives around the world have several problems to deal with. Can we do something to help them solve these problems?

When the senior leadership team met at Mysore, Kris said, “Let us challenge each and every fundamental principle of the company.” The key to bring about change is to co-create. If you give your people a chance to co-create and to touch this change, there is less resistance to it.

These kinds of reorientations are constant, and Shibulal and Kris are great at this. When the senior leadership team met at Mysore, Kris said, “Let us challenge each and every fundamental principle of the company.” It takes guts to suggest something like this. As a leadership team, do we completely believe in our business model? Do all our values still make sense? Our risk analysis model might manifest differently, but principally it still works. There were several meetings where all these things we discussed. The key to bring about change is to co-create. If you give your people a chance to co-create and to touch this change, there is less resistance to it.

In a services company like ours, a client is more like a peer. The clients have some expertise, we have some expertise, and how can we work together to create value? This is very different from a way a restaurant owner or a chef at a restaurant needs to treat his customer. There, it is about customer delight. How can we offer the customer something that’ll blow him away? For a company like Infosys, it is all about co-creation while managing change.

Adapting to large shifts in the macro economy

Leaders are always focused on what we call environment scanning. They read your magazine; they attend the World Economic Forum. Leaders need to understand that the world is very complicated and no one person can think and analyse all of this by himself or herself. There needs to be a period where leaders need to quietly think about what is happening around them. It is critical to take into consideration these external factors while analysing your company’s key metrics.

Once every quarter, Shibulal, Kris, Nandita Gurjar (group head of human resources and member, executive council) and I meet to discuss leadership succession. We analyse all the big changes happening around us. Murthy just retired, that is a big change. How do we deal with it? It is never ending. You have bread and butter P&Ls (profit and loss) and you have blue-sky opportunities. That is what Finacle was 20 years ago. Dealing with this complexity and betting on the future is a never-ending task for the leadership team.

The art of decision-making and personal development

I think there is a sweet spot between being able to make the tough decisions and being arrogant. The latter can be disastrous for a leader. The former is crucial.

In 2009, when Kris decided to keep his commitment to the new college graduates, it did cost us a fair amount of money. But it was a tough call he made. Now, Shibulal is making some very tough calls as well. We’re becoming more entrepreneurial; for the first time in the history of the company, we’ve four P&Ls now. There is more decentralised decision making that is happening. We’re de-risking and getting prepared for managing the company when Kris and Shibulal retire.

As a coach to several leaders here at Infosys, one of my roles is to develop senior decision-makers. One senior person at the company was great in terms of metrics. His clients and direct reports loved him. He was meeting his financial goals but for some reason he wasn’t feeling good about himself. My role is to work with him to help him get rid of his worries and help him build his own identity to better match reality. We can coach leaders to develop and evolve in various areas.


It is good to think of leadership as a process rather than as a position. It is mostly both but in entrepreneurial ventures, the process becomes more crucial. While we recruit new board members, there is one aspect we measure very carefully. It is followership – the ability of the person to follow another person as the situation demands. Even KV has to be a follower when other board members have unique, relevant expertise to a decision.

During the IPO days, Murthy could have cringed at Pai (Mohandas Pai, former member of the Board) for being a heckler and asking tough questions. Instead, Murthy being a self-confident and ingenious leader said, “This guy is asking brilliant questions. Let us invite him to join the company.” Over the next few years, Murthy followed Pai as the situation demanded and Pai followed Murthy as appropriate.

Overall, knowing when to lead and when to follow is crucial. It is what makes a good leader.


Dr. Matt Barney

Currently: Vice President and Director of the Infosys Leadership Institute;
Responsible for identification, development, research and succession of senior and high-potential leaders

Past Roles: Has held similar leadership training roles at Intel, AT&T, Lucent Technologies and Motorola

Award: Was named ‘Future Leader’ by the Human Capital Magazine in 2007

Education: Master’s and Doctorate in Industrial Organisational Psychology from the University of Tulsa, U.S.

At a Glance

Infosys Leadership Institute

Infosys Leadership Institute is focused on getting the next set of leaders ready to take the Infosys story forward. The research-driven organisation, headed by Barney, is one of a kind group in the world where science meets practice. Over the years, the organisation has trained several managers, business unit heads and senior management staff at Infosys on various areas of leadership including

  • Strategic leadership
  • Change/Adversity management
  • Operational aspects
  • Talent management
  • Relationship/Networking
  • Content / creation of knowledge models
  • Entrepreneurial leadership

Going forward, Barney and Infosys Leadership Institute plan to

Work closely with clients to position Infosys as a leadership company and possibly help open doors with various organisations world over.

After the early success of the book, Leadership@Infosys, Barney plans to publish a few more books on various leadership and related topics. One upcoming book looks at the concept of value creation with a fresh pair of eyes.

Possibly develop a flight simulator equivalent to train leaders by putting them through various scenarios and training them to react in such situations.

Infosys IT Industry Leadership

Prem Sivakumaran is co-founder & CEO of Growth Mechanics, a leadership and entrepreneurship-focused business content company in India. Growth Mechanics publishes The Smart CEO, a publication focused on enabling peer-to-peer knowledge exchange among C-level executives and board members. The platform reaches over 1.2 lakh CXOs across its website, app, print publication & CEO Round Tables, and has featured on the cover India’s leading business leaders/founders from Infosys, Mindtree, Tata Sons, ICICI Bank, Biocon, Yes Bank and several others. In addition of Smart CEO, Growth Mechanics also organises the Startup50 Conference & Awards, an annual event to recognize India’s top 50 startups every year. Startup50 Alumni include Freshdesk, Oyo Rooms, Urban Ladder, Capital Float, Paperboat Beverages, among others. Growth Mechanics’ primary business model revolves around linking CXOs and Brands around engaging content and has worked with India’s leading companies including Mahindra Group, Godrej & Boyce, BASF, Airtel, Tata Docomo, Fiat, IDA Ireland, Yes Bank, Prestige Estates, Frederique Constant, Indian Terrain

Leave a Reply

Related Posts