Leading by ‘No’: an IIM Prof. extolls the virtue of disagreeing


Ethics are timeless. Codes of conduct that were invoked during the Enron and Worldcom episodes in USA and the Satyam saga in India are equally relevant today. Hardly a day goes by without some company facing allegations of tax evasion or using child labor etc. With this in mind, we share an article by Professor Dr. Kamal K. Jain, Faculty in the Area of OB & HR at IIM Indore. The article was originally published in 2009 when the Satyam scandal broke and talks of the power of a ‘no’.


By Dr. Kamal K. Jain, Faculty of OB & HR

Indian Institute of Management, Indore, India

One often hears great negotiators talking about ‘getting past no’ or ‘getting to yes’. Those who are good at this are considered successful leaders. However, the Satyam saga has opened up a new dimension in Leadership that demands that leaders have the guts to say no.

What we see in case of Satyam is that the internal auditors did not say no, external auditors (PwC) did not say no, the Chief Financial Officer did not say no, independent directors did not say no, other watchdog agencies did not say no, agencies giving an international prize for corporate governance did not say no. As a result of this a nation famous internationally for its spirituality came face to face with conduct that was anything but.

Recall the character Raju of the famous award winning movie Jis Desh Me Ganga Behti Hai (1960). Recall how a simple, good-hearted tramp prevails despite the odds. Recall the message he leaves behind – the road to redemption is often more difficult to take than the road to perdition. Recall this modern version of Raju and you will be ‘happy’ to see the way we have grown.

[pullquote]…it is time we acknowledge the courage to ‘say no’ as an essential virtue of leadership. These two words enable a leader to say no to unearned position and power, to keep greed at bay and to prevent a leader from getting lured into corruption and ultimately falling into disgrace[/pullquote]It is time for us to include the courage to say no as one of the essential virtue of leadership. Merely two alphabets, but what can be a more opportune time to insist on the power of these two alphabets and the word no. This is the most powerful tool in the armory of a leader. With this tool, a leader is able to say no to unearned position and power. With this tool, a leader keeps his greed at bay. This is the tool that prevents a leader getting lured into corruption and ultimately into disgrace.

Ordinary people can say no in many ordinary situations. Leaders say no on occasions when this happens to be most difficult and really important. They are able to do so because they have a positive self-image and they look for positive outcomes. They express their views irrespective of whether the other person likes it or not. However, they take care of their words and the tone because they respect the other person also.

[pullquote]Ordinary people can say no in many ordinary situations. Leaders say no in difficult situations. They can do so because they have a positive self-image and they look for positive outcomes. They express their views irrespective of whether the other person likes it or not[/pullquote]They don’t behave like a famous mathematician who, after his death, was asked by the God if there was any problem of mathematics that he could not solve in his life time. The mathematician handed over a complex problem that he could not solve. The God looked at it carefully, did some calculation and handed over the solution to the mathematician. Looking at the solution, the mathematician shouted, “You idiot, your answer is wrong.” The God responded, “I appreciate you for the courage that you had to say even to God that He was wrong and I wish to place you in heaven for this. But these words – you idiot- were they really necessary? I wish to put you in hell for this.”

Leaders should do things differently. Fine. But can we have leaders who are indifferent? Does it mean doing accounting the way it was done by Raju? Is that the interpretation of the vision and mission statement of Satyam that reads, “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” It is here that we need virtuous leaders telling these flawed leaders that they can not hold the people, the corporate and the country to ransom.

The guiding principle of leadership was given by legendary Kabir Das who said, “Nindak Niyare Rakhiye (keep critics close to you). If you don’t, you are likely to have the fate like that of Raju. It is rightly said ‘pity the leaders surrounded by uncritical lovers and unloving critics.’

Over a teaching career spanning 35 years, Dr. Kamal K. Jain has taught courses such as Organizational Policy and Strategy, Human Resource Management, Leadership & Negotiation and published more than 60 research papers in national and international journals. He has been included in Reference Asia – Asia’s Who is Who of Men and Women of Achievement and was awarded President’s Special Mention award in 2006 by the President of University Tun Abdul Razak (UNITAR) for his all-round meritorious contribution to the university. In 2011, World Education Congress, Asia conferred on Dr.Jain the Best Professor in Human Resource Management award.

First published in CPJ Global Journal, July 2009

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