Learning from 'new' leaders

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Written by Professor Pierre Casse and Elizabeth Sadova on 1 September 2014 in Features

Pierre Casse and Elizabeth Sadova suggest we need to look to 'new' leaders from the BRIC economies for leadership inspiration

Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive.”  -Friedrich Nietzsche

“Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” - Andy Grove

We are convinced that leaders in the Western world experienced a good deal of complacency at the end of the 20th century. This sense of smug satisfaction led to ineffective behaviours characterised by arrogant attitudes.

The end of the last century was far from pleasant but perhaps it was necessary. As a result, we finally woke up and realised that we had to reflect on the major issues we were facing and assess what went wrong with our success. The experience has forced us to consider what we must do in order to reinvent ourselves. In other words, leaders must now take stock and consider what should be done to re-activate our forward progress and revise our fundamental assumptions and values. One way to approach the situation is to look at the emerging markets, the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, and examine what leaders are doing in these environments. There is much we can learn from them.

When we compare successful leaders from mature markets in the Western world with leaders from the emerging markets we see huge differences in attitudes and behaviours. To begin with, it is very difficult to be hungry when you have plenty of food available on a daily basis. It is almost impossible to innovate if what you do is already working with the precision of a Swiss watch. It is a real challenge to reinvent ourselves when we are fully happy with the way we are.

It is clear that the so-called “emerging leaders” are going beyond what has been invented and practiced in other parts of the world and inventing new ways to lead.

From complacency to learning

“The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing” - Voltaire

“We have learnt something. That always feels at first as if you have lost something” - George Bernard Shaw

It is time for leaders in the West to exercise some humility. By observing what leaders are doing in other parts of the world leaders in First World environments can enhance their ways of leading. But what lessons can these new leaders offer the old masters in leading organisations effectively in today’s climate? According to our own observations, the following could be quite stimulating for many leaders in both public and private sectors:

  • An opportunity to challenge leaders’ traditional assumptions
  • Different ways to look at and practice innovation
  • A new definition of people at work
  • How to endure hardship and turn it into opportunities
  • A sense of corporate responsibility
  • How to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty
  • Play on flexibility and agility.

Let us present some examples of what we can learn from a sample of BRIC countries with emerging economies namely: Brazil, India and Russia.

Learning from Brazilian leaders

“Don’t believe what I say. Believe what I do” - Carlos Ghosn

Looking at the leadership style of Ricardo Semler,1 leader of one of Brazil’s most successful corporations (SEMCO), we can see what the organisation of the future could look like. Semler’s leadership style is to promote what has become known as the ‘Open Organisation’, a radical departure from traditional approaches to organisational leadership.

Here are a few examples of the ‘new’ way to lead and work together:

  • Employees and workers are all associates
  • Financial and operational information is open to everybody
  • Everybody has to re-apply for a job every six months
  • There is no HR department. All managers must take care of the people side of the work organisation
  • Associates are free to set up their own schedule
  • There is no formal organisational chart at SEMCO, no job descriptions and no imposed job titles
  • Associates are invited to set up their own salaries and choose their bonus system.

To learn more about this leadership approach, we recommend the case study SEMCO available from the Business Leadership Review2.

Learning from Indian leaders

“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people” - Mahatma Gandhi

India is the country with the youngest population in the world, meaning that the profile of a corporate leader in India is quite different from what we see in the Western world. Indian leaders are young and highly innovative.

In April 2011, a survey was conducted in India to identify India’s Hottest Young Executives. The survey covered diverse industries including investment banking, financial services and information technology and such companies as Hindustan Unilever, Tata Group and GE.

According to survey results, Tata Communication’s senior vice-president for corporate strategy, Srinivasa Addepalli was identified as one of the world’s 40 young leaders who have the potential to drive the future course of the fast-growing global telecom industry. Addepalli is the only Indian in the list of 40 individuals under the age of 40 years.

Manisha Girotra, CEO and country head, UBS India, a self-confessed deal junkie who admits she is happiest “when winning deals” has been instrumental in establishing UBS’s strong reputation for putting together complex but lucrative cross-border deals. Salil Parekh, a member of Capgemini Group’s Executive Committee, has committed himself to hiking revenues and workforce a staggering 12 times. Ruchir Sharma is head of global emerging markets equity team and portfolio manager at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.  He is so young that he refuses to give his exact age. “The only reason I am in this industry is my passion for markets, especially global ones,” says Sharma.

So what can we learn from such young Indian leaders? To begin with, they have a strong ability to deal with start-ups, and manage growth effectively in fast-moving environments. Moreover, they have the ability to influence key stakeholders with their burning ambition and passion for excellence. As a former Olympic champion who has his own business in India put it when asked what attracted him to India, “I am biased towards people who have played competitive sport. They are resilient, can work in teams, and accept defeat.”

Learning from Russian leaders

“Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, run raving mad” - Fyodor Dostoevsky

“To say stupid things is fine” - Eugene Kapersky”

Once, we had a conversation with a well-known car designer in Russia, who said we should not be inventing things that people in the other part of the world have already invented, we can buy them. What we should be targeting is something that we will need in 10 to 20 years’ time. Only then will we have a breakthrough. His words have been proved by a number of new businesses which have emerged, with the coming of a new breed of leaders in Russia. Let’s take a look at some examples of what Russian leaders are doing.

Kaspersky Lab, founded by Eugene Kaspersky, is the author of an anti-virus solution which is known all over the world. What helped them to become leaders is the curiosity, new vision and huge energy shared by the whole team that made this engine move so fast. Now they are one of the leaders in anti-virus solutions as well as in the fight against cyber-crime. The atmosphere in the lab is unusual. A lot of young ambitious talents are working together on learning from one another and from their leader. When we discussed what motivates them they said it is the business itself, the challenges they constantly have to deal with as a team, it is the corporate spirit of innovation and huge competition which does not allow them to relax.

Naumen Company, led by Kirill Varlamov, is the leader in the Russian market in providing bespoke software solutions for business processes for both private and public sector organisations. They work in partnership with a lot of IT companies in Russia. If we analyse what made them successful, it is the energy of a leader and his ability to see new opportunities, ability to inspire others with ideas and build networks of supporters.

The youngest leaders in Russian business are in the media and internet-related service sectors. The PR director in the largest media holding in Russia, United Company of Afisha and Rambler, Vladislav Kreinin, is only 24 years old. He was named one of the best for his professional results.

In SKOLKOVO, we have interviewed a number of EMBA students who started new businesses. They helped us understand their mindsets and motivation. Here are some examples of what they had to say:

“I had several business ideas and opportunities to realise them. We do have plenty of possibilities. But the main truth is that if you want to achieve something in your life you should be always a leader, not a follower and clearly understand what you want to spend your life on. Try to find your own idea that will make you happy”.

Irina Linnik, social project “Knopka Zhizni” focused on helping old people

“I think that one of the characteristics of a successful individual is curiosity. I always ask my people to look around for something new and be surprised. It is one of the main values in our company. The most valuable treasure is communication and networking with the people who share my ideas. My motto is: if you are curious, you are just what is needed”.

Denis Ryzhov, Marketing Communication Agency


According to the World Bank, the young are the most valuable assets in emerging economies. The emergence of a new generation has always been interesting and challenging for incumbent leaders in all societies. Not only can young men and women learn from us, but we should also be looking at what we can learn from them, particularly with respect to how they do things, their way of communicating, how they get results, what methods and tools they use. Leaders from First World countries in the West can derive benefit from leaders in emerging markets by learning from their determination to win, what they are prepared to do to be the best and how ready they are to invest time and brain power to overcome new challenges. It is clear that this new generation of leaders coming to the fore in emerging markets is impacting the reinvention of our collective lives in a dramatic way.

The ‘Plug and Play’ world of today is providing young people with opportunities to create a new kind of synergy that will transform the way we invent, produce, sell and distribute goods and services across the global economy.

In this short article, we have merely begun to scratch the surface of trends towards a new approach to leadership which is beginning to emerge, fuelled by developing markets as those in the BRIC countries. Although we have mentioned Brazil, India and Russia as examples, many other countries and regions around the world are no less important in the crafting of the new world economy. We should seriously consider what we can also learn from countries such as:

  • Turkey
  • South Africa
  • China
  • Vietnam

Perhaps our challenge is not only to learn from the new breed of leaders in emerging countries but to create a synergy between leaders in all regions of the world so that we can pool our collective talents to invent the new ways to lead in what some people call a ‘reset environment’.


1 www.youtube.com/user/redesemler

2 Contact Mark Stoddard at the Association of MBAs at m.stoddard@mbaworld.com for a free copy of the case study

About the author

Professor Pierre Casse is professor of leadership and Elizabeth Sadova is the academic director at the Moscow School of Management – Skolkovo. They can be contacted via www.skolkovo.ru



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