Ashutosh P Bhupatkar

Ashutosh P Bhupatkar (Ph D) is an Independent Consultant.

Tall Leaders – Part III

Ashutosh P Bhupatkar
How democratic are the tall leaders? Or to put it the other way, is it necessary to be autocratic in order to rise in leadership?
Tall Leaders

Steve Jobs

 People have always talked about Steve Jobs’ arrogance, dictatorial ways and nastiness. Some even doubt if he was a leader at all. He was abusive, intolerant and turned a blind eye to the unfair labour practices in the China based factories which turned out Apple products. It is reported that 14 workers committed suicide in 2010 on account of widespread worker abuse and illegal overtime (Williams, 2012). That he was a visionary and turned Apple around with stupendous success is undeniable. That perhaps makes him a hero! But leadership is another thing altogether.

Some academicians have tried to explain his behavior as suited to the particular situation Apple was in, when he returned to take over the reins in 1997. The situation was full of uncertainty and anxiety about Apple’s future on account of several of its new products bombing in the market. Apple had tried to play the game by the rules which the market leaders had set, and lost. It needed a leader to take a firm stand and lead from the front, not from the strategy room. Jobs had that vision and he didn’t want to lose time explaining it to others. He could take the challenge head on only with like-minded people.

How come people worked with a tyrant like Steve Jobs? They had seen him perform, believed in his vision and trusted his zeal to be inspired not by his ego but by a larger purpose. This is the explanation given by some others (Henson, 2011).

Still, a few would point out that visionaries are made of a different mettle from ordinary mortals. Work organisations attract people who are primarily driven by personal needs and very few transcend the narrow conception of the self. When economic uncertainties occupy the mental horizon of even the highest paid executives, they tend to seek security in monetary terms. On the contrary, visionaries are driven by a desire to create a world stemming from their vision. They rise above their ego by identifying with the vision of a larger and better world.

When the visionaries work with the commoners, a fascinating interplay emerges. Commoners are accommodated in terms of their personal needs on the conditionality of their complete surrender to the visionary’s interpretation of the reality. Commoners subscribe to the vision only till its realisation serves their personal interests. America based employees of Apple understood Jobs’ vision and worked for it as their personal interests coincided with the successful introduction of his new products.

 That unfortunately did not happen in China, and the Chinese workers in Apple factories expressed their unrest in various ways, including the tragic suicides.

Heroism is not the same thing as leadership. Exceptional qualities, when practiced, turn individual and collective efforts into heroic acts. When we refer to heroes, we have in mind their own contribution. When we speak of leaders we think of how they influenced a mass of people to achieve difficult goals. Though Jobs’ leadership qualities are being debated, his turnaround of Apple has been nothing short of heroic.

Dr Homi Bhabha

 Dr Bhabha was also an autocratic leader who knew what was needed to generate atomic power in India, and to make India an atomic power. That was in the 1950s when very few in India understood nuclear physics.

Dr Bhabha enjoyed ministerial privileges like unrestricted passage on roads, as well as to the office of the Prime Minister of India. These were not trappings of power, but necessary facilities to perform his duties as the Chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. He did not suffer fools gladly, since he worked at a furious pace, brushing aside futile arguments and questions.

Understandably, there was a wide gulf between Dr Bhabha’s vision and expertise, and that of others like bureaucrats and politicians. There was little possibility of their questioning Dr Bhabha’s decisions. He was paternalistic with his colleagues in the Atomic Energy establishment, and both nurtured and controlled them.

JRD Tata

 Though JRD’s word was law in the Tata group, there is nothing to suggest that his ways were autocratic. If you look at the hotel AC repair incident narrated in the second part, it shows JRD in the colours of a nurturing parent.

JRD’s vision connected directly and simply with the lives of people he worked with. Collective progress was inseparable from individual progress. That integration of the collective and individual was the key factor in securing not only cooperation, but also people’s love toward JRD Tata. He simply had no need to coerce people to walk on the path of the vision he held out for the Tata group, and India as a whole.

Perhaps the vision was so broad that it had no need for precise milestones and consequently, for monitoring speed of movement.

In the case of Jobs and Bhabha, there was a strong time dimension to everything they did. That kind of urgency in the situation calls for a different kind of response and influences the leadership style.

The Leader’s Call

 Beyond this, I have a hypothesis that there are limits to participation in the leader’s decision making process. The limits have to do with nature of responsibility in concrete conditions. I call it the preserve of the Leader’s Call. These are things which only the leader has to decide and it does not matter if he has heard everyone (concerned) out or not.

We have to accept that our understanding is partial and cannot be all encompassing. We have a stand point that gives us perspective. Change the standpoint and the view will change. With the location comes our responsibility to stakeholders, the world and to ourselves. How one understands this responsibility, its dimensions and internal contradictions, is an entirely individual interpretation. The viewpoint is naturally an amalgam of situational perception and this complex sense of responsibility. Perhaps this is where the faculty of intuition resides: the sense of a separate self is dissolved into a cosmic unity, which has a different quality of being.

Questions such as, what prompted Jobs to think of the new i-products, or what made Bhabha speak of the atomic energy project with Nehru, or JRD to agree to chair and lead Air India do not have straight answers. But one thing is common: they took the responsibility which none could share fully.

In matters that bring the leader’s ultimate responsibility on the block, it is their understanding and intuition which have to play the ultimate role. That is what I call the preserve of the Leader’s call.

Jobs took it upon himself to turn Apple around. He didn’t just want Apple to stand out, but wanted to negate the whole era which brought out products to negate individuality. So, every product of Apple had to recover the lost individuality of the product and the user. This was the basis of Jobs’ vision for Apple. Jobs had every reason to dictate it to the organisation because he had taken the ultimate responsibility. Does it make him autocratic? It looks like that, but isn’t so, if you look closely.

Similarly, Bhabha took it upon himself to create the whole atomic energy infrastructure in India. It was an impossible dream for the world, except for two individuals – Bhabha and Nehru. Bhabha knew what it meant: to stretch every grey cell in the fertile brains of Indian scientists and engineers. We had nothing else by way of resources. Nothing else mattered and nothing could come in the way. It was his role to make sure everything went towards realising that dream. Was it his way all the way? Yes, but it led to something far beyond his personal success. Therefore, everything that touches the core of the leader’s responsibility is the preserve of the Leader’s Call.

 Summing up Tallness

 To understand tall leaders is to understand their vision and the method of its actualisation. It appears to me that their vision is broad and devoid of egocentricity. It defines the kind of world one passionately wants to see. Its essence is a qualitative leap toward progress. It is not important whether followers understand the specific dimensions of progress, but it is crucial that they trust the leader’s acumen.

The methods used by tall leaders to actualise their visions almost always rely on strong bonding with a band of close associates. There is almost a parental quality of nurturing that we see in all tall leaders when it comes to working with the band. At the same time, there is a connectedness with the rest, which brings the vision into the realm of possibility.

Finally, the leaders gain their stature when they are able to realise their dream vision. It is the recognition by the world that, but for these leaders, the vision would have remained just a pipe dream and the world would not have seen that qualitative leap of progress.


– Williams, Ray (2012): Why Steve Jobs was not a leader, Psychology Today, on

 – Henson, Ramon (2011): The Leadership of Steve Jobs, Faculty Insight, Rutgers Business School, on


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