Vishal Garg and some lame ideas on leadership

Vishal Garg, CEO of a US-based mortgage lender called Better is under attack for sacking as many as 900 employees in a three-minute Zoom call. He has quickly been added to the list of some of the worst CEOs, pictured as a digital-age version of Al Dunlap of the 1990s, a much-disparaged CEO known as ‘Chainsaw’ Al because of the way he fired people, slashed costs and boosted valuations before he went down in ignominy.

Garg faces a mini firestorm on social media, given that the mass sackings came on the eve of the holiday season, after a cash infusion in the company he founded and were followed by remarks attributed to him that the people fired were “stealing” because they were not working their hours. Late weekend reports said he has been asked by the board to go on leave.

The ugly remarks and uncivil method apart, the action in itself is not so unusual or unknown in the American market, which is known more for the employer’s right and freedom to hire and fire than for protections afforded to the workforce.  This then puts the focus on the how he did it rather than what he did, reflected in many comments including one in which he himself acknowledged the blunder, and this one by the industrialist Anand Mahindra: “I’m curious whether you think a CEO can survive after a blunder like this? Is it fair, or not, to allow a second chance…?”

This kind of CEO is not the binder, the synthesiser or the enabler but the ring master who must wield the whip to keep his and other ever-truant players in check. This is not the universal view but it is still a view widespread enough to be bought and imbibed by many of the Garg ilk, causing damage to the business, the way business activity is viewed and widening an already existing trust deficit with society.

That is a good question but the bulk of the attention serves to highlight a symptom and rather than the disease in corporate weltanschauung – the view that wants to see the CEO as a tough warrior guarding a fortress under attack, standing up to enemies looking to steal from the shareholders.  This kind of CEO is not the binder, the synthesiser or the enabler but the ring master who must wield the whip to keep his and other ever-truant players in check. This is not the universal view but it is still a view widespread enough to be bought and imbibed by many of the Garg ilk, causing damage to the business, the way business activity is viewed and widening an already existing trust deficit with society. It robs business of the capacity to contribute to society and limits its greater potential.

The language in use, the metaphors of war or the division of the world into the masculine and strong versus the softie and the weak, shows the poor thinking at work. It surfaces in many ways and multiple stories found particularly among CEOs who are mentally stuck in the leadership models of yesterday even as they seek their fortunes with the technology of tomorrow. Consider how Travis Kalanick as CEO of Uber yelled at one of his Uber drivers who challenged him, and at one point tried to educate him on his business acumen: “I beat them (the competitors) to it”.

The notion of leaders as solo star performers needs to be resisted and the role needs to be de-glamourised

Garg himself uses this weak-strong binary with a twist in the much-discussed Zoom call. He said he “cried” the last time he sacked people and hopes to be “strong” this time – a presentation that seeks to showcase the property of being “tough”, but coming from a human being after all, who will rise above his humaneness as it were to stand up to the world of evil doers. It is a view also encapsulated in a quote by Garg cited in the Forbes magazine of last year: “You need to press your [partner] to the point of breaking, then break them. Break them…Pls share the aggressive ‘I am going to break you’ tactics.”

Business cannot do much good with this worldview.

And yet, Garg in his brashness is only laying bare a view that so many others live by in a world where the language may have changed and taken on a more inclusive tone but the actions are often of the crude command-and-control variety. In many cases, achievement begins and ends even now at the desk of the “heroic” CEO, who can be driven by hubris, drunk on power and sold on stories of self-glorification. This is then offered a further fillip in popular culture and the plethora of uncritical evaluations and laudatory mentions of leadership, an approach that celebrates and cheers the CEO who has delivered whatever is understood as performance, usually in the short term.

Garg in his brashness is only laying bare a view that so many others live by in a world where the language may have changed and taken on a more inclusive tone but the actions are often of the crude command-and-control variety.

The framing is usually devoid of an understanding of the context, is unmindful of the contribution of others and glorifies parts of a more complex story that takes shape in a million decisions, good, bad and ugly, before they add up to the grand total. This messy, complex process of an organisation at work, when reduced to a simplistic, romantic and hierarchical view of how leaders lead and followers meekly follow gives us the disaster we see in the personality of Vishal Garg and so many others.  

Given the anger he has generated with his latest actions, Garg will probably face more scrutiny. There is enough in his past to cause him some serious trouble, with a former partner accusing him of fraud and a host of other allegations and investigations. Already, some resignations have hit the company and the lost goodwill will not be easy to recover. And he will in all likelihood not attract talent given the way he treats his people.

All in all, it won’t be long before the conclusion can be made that his actions were not worth it. The lesson is that the notion of leaders as solo star performers needs to be resisted, the role needs to be de-glamourised and businesses must note that the “great man” theory of leadership is long dead and gone. This must then open the space for understanding leadership as a more distributed phenomenon, residing in people and a culture that knows how to make way for sustainable performance that flows from ideas of support, generosity and service.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)

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