Tag: leadership

The Paradox of Superhero Leadership

The Paradox of Superhero Leadership

Disclaimer: I have immense regard for Elon Musk, so much so, I have gifted Ashlee Vance’s book on the Paypal Mafia boss to multiple people. I have even compared him to the fictional Peter Weyland in my discussions with fellow nerds. But this article is not about the trailblazing leader who sows the seeds of interplanetary exploration/colonisation. It is more about the God Complex and a reflection of multiple things that come with it which may or may not be positive. I have written about the superhero style of leadership earlier as well and briefly, touched on it in a previous article, albeit on a much smaller scale.


Off lately, there is a view, it is called the “superhero” theory of leadership. In which, the individual vision, charisma, and brilliance of a CEO “makes or breaks” a company.  This view is absolutely dangerous — not because CEOs don’t matter or that smarts and vision don’t help. It’s dangerous because of what it ignores. Great leadership takes both mundane “management”  skills and highly specialised “Domain-specific”  ones. The most effective leaders have the knowledge and softer aspects that are specific to their company and industry that allow them to not just motivate, but also drive other people in the organization to do what’s necessary to succeed. 

It’s been a hell of a time for the last two or three months, for news reporters, management consultants, professors in Ivy league & Red Bricks and the new age “gurus” and “influencers”. The fiasco with FTX is an unbelievable story of lapse of controls, comparable to Enron, Daewoo and Satyam. Which supposedly is an understatement as per the new executive appointed to steward it through bankruptcy. Elon Musk’s bid to takeover Twitter and the ensuing drama is equally newsworthy, not sure how much popcorn was sold to watch this drama. And finally, the end arrived for the Theranos story, with Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani sentenced to 11 years in prison.   

All of these stories have something in common, they combine a very flashy leadership style with a blatant disregard for actual management practices.

The issues at FTX are too numerous to even list as a bullet point in this article, but the crux of the problem is simple. It is a complete lack of checks and balances. Plain vanilla management or accounting is not something that gets you on the cover of Fortune or The Economist or Economic Times,  but oversight of a company’s activities and checking on finances is the trait of good management and leadership. At FTX, it seems to have been completely ignored. How could the company grow so much in the absence of any basic management systems? The sad part is investors and customers were also fooled by those flamboyant “leadership” (remember Nikola ?)

The trajectory of Musk’s Twitter takeover is even more disturbing. Again, it is a story of a CEO who is proud of his blatant disregard for the basics of management and an almost untainted faith in his “superpowers” and the unchallenged position of his leadership and intellect, also called The God Complex

At the reinvented Twitter under Musk, there seems to be no regard for basic HR practices as well. Musk has massive challenges to rally and retain his employees; even assuming he wants to “rightsize” by encouraging resignations, his eccentrics may have pushed even the folks whom he intended to retain.  

What can we learn from these companies? They are both ongoing, but thus far it seems that these firms have fallen victim to an all too popular belief that “superhero” leadership trumps boring management.

This is wrong, in at least two ways. 

First, there is enough evidence that boring management matters and it is a source of competitive advantage for companies that take it seriously. A 2012 research by HBR has shown that management practices vary quite a lot within industries and around the world — and that companies with good management are significantly more profitable. Secondary research has confirmed that good management improves firms’ performance.  

What is good management? There’s no single, comprehensive answer. But it looks like this in practice, target-setting, rewards, and monitoring. Well-managed companies set reasonable, strategic goals; set their staff up to contribute to them; and measure their progress. 

Call it boring or mundane if you like — it is good business.

A major gap in the superhero theory is that it super simplifies what good leadership is. Consider the current debate over Elon Musk. To his fans, Musk’s success at Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal makes him a great leader. To his critics, the maelstrom at Twitter proves the opposite.

A major gap in the superhero theory is that it super simplifies what good leadership is. Consider the current debate over Elon Musk. To his fans, Musk’s success at Tesla, SpaceX and PayPal makes him a great leader. To his critics, the maelstrom at Twitter proves the opposite. That’s too binary, black or white. The reality is a million shades of Grey in between Black and White! Prior research does show that CEOs do matter to a company’s success, but their contribution is about more than just grand vision and raw intellect. And how much of what depends very much on the organisational backdrop.

We think of a leader’s contribution to a company along three dimensions.

Leadership Facets

The superhero narrative simplifies the entire facet of leadership on vertical differentiation, because it’s fun & easy to argue over and write cover stories about.  The other two factors — Horizontal differentiation and Force Multiplier (ability to influence an organization) — are much harder to discuss and not that fun to write about.

But, when an entire generation has grown upon SuperHero movies where it is the Vision, Grit and perseverance of the Hero that saves the day, it is too hard to think in other ways. Even in pop culture, I come from a generation, where the hero gets battered and relies on the collaboration and cooperation of his friends and partners to make it out. Then, there are the “Wise old men” or the occasional woman, who gives some much-needed advice and insights.

How would this three-dimensional assessment differ from the superhero story when it comes to Elon Musk and Twitter? It would complicate the debate that both his fans and his critics seem to be having and instead would go through the three factors mentioned above. Rather than arguing solely about whether Musk is a good CEO in general, we can ask whether he has the skills and experience necessary for running a social media platform — and whether he’ll be able to motivate and manage the team that’s in place.

It’s perfectly reasonable to think, for example, that Musk is an above-average CEO, not particularly well suited to running a social media platform, whose behaviour in the run-up to his Twitter takeover ensured he would not be able to influence the people that he needed to in order to succeed. 

This view of leadership is harder to put on magazine covers, and it is therefore often forgotten. But ignoring the complex relationship between leaders and their organizations is bad for investors, consumers, and ultimately for managers and CEOs, too.


1,  Super Hero Leadership – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/superhero-syndrome-leadership-what-good-thing-luke-lynch/?trk=public_profile_article_view



2, Martyr Syndrome – https://nocturnalknight.co/2022/08/a-tech-lead-writing-code-is-a-disservice-to-the-company/ 


3, FTX fiasco – https://www.forbes.com/sites/amyfeldman/2022/11/22/with-a-new-ceo-an-adult-has-arrived-to-clean-up-the-ftx-mess/ 


4, Theranos Collapse- https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/dec/07/former-theranos-exec-sunny-balwani-prison-sentence 

5, Does Management really work – https://hbr.org/2012/11/does-management-really-work 

6, The effect of Managers in a Firm – https://academic.oup.com/qje/article-abstract/118/4/1169/1925095?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Business Value delivery by Engineering Teams in StartUps – Part 1

Business Value delivery by Engineering Teams in StartUps – Part 1

In this multi-part post, I will try to articulate my view on the importance of business value and its delivery by engineering teams. While most of this is written from the view of a StartUp, some elements of an established organisation are also used.

Part 1: Defining Business Value & Role of Leadership in it.

Business value is a concept that can mean multiple things to multiple people and the tricky part is all of them could potentially be valid. A product manager may value a long list of features that his/her customers have demanded for months. Another Product Manager working with internal teams to improve efficiency (revenue) will value the enhancements the accounting or support team was after. While the support manager may value a more stable product to keep the customers, s/he deals with happy. 

Business value & impacts are a difficult thing to define and deliver, while it is even more difficult to measure.A collaborative effort is required to define and deliver business value, with consideration needed to ensure all voices are heard.

While most of what I will be covering in this article is typically the purview of product management, I have learned that engineering leaders have a critical role to play in this space. (Will write more on that in the next part.)

Engineering leaders bring product development experience and technical expertise to the table to provide a crucial element to the delivery of business value which I will try and explain in this article.

What is Business Value?

I would define “Business value” as any improvements to systems, processes or people that augment the products or the ability to deliver products or services to the customers, thereby increasing the revenue or experience or both. No two companies will have the same definition of business value. Forget two different companies, a company in its 5th year will have a very different perception of value to its first year. This is due to their products and customers being different and requiring different elements to add value. One company may find value in the ability to build out its new product offering quickly. While another may find value in responding to customer support requests in a timely manner. 

Due to the rapid changes around us, the things that businesses value changes often. Companies often face new challenges that require a quick response.

Be agile, be nimble” is the key phrase.

These challenges can come in the form of new product features released by competitors, or a specific feature request by a key customer, or changes in the market that render the current product/feature obsolete. Business needs or desires, therefore change just as quickly as any of these external changes.

You have probably worked for a company that comes to the engineering team with new requirements, seemingly daily?

It is not because they cannot make up their mind; It is in response to the changing business needs. This changing goalpost is one of the main reasons that Agile development practices have taken precedence from more traditional waterfall methodologies for software development. 

Velocity is everything, a report by McKinsey on how Developer Velocity fuels Business Performance will give more insights on this. A snapshot from the report is below.

Why is business value important? 

Reacting to change and delivering business value with haste is a crucial area of importance for modern businesses. All companies exist for a purpose. The majority of companies exist to return a profit for their owners (individuals or shareholders), while some companies exist to provide a social service. The critical thing to note is that they all exist to fulfil a specific purpose which guides their definition of business value. 

No matter the company large or small, if they stop innovating, and their products or services stop being relevant to society at large and market in particular, that company will whiter and eventually die.

Kodak is a prime example of this occurring in recent history. In today’s world, IT, whether it be hardware or software, is the largest driver of business value. It is therefore critical that the software engineering teams keep delivering the things that the business need to fuel their innovation.

We, as engineers, are not employed to just build that shiney app in the latest technologies, but to deliver our contribution in support of the business purpose (If not drive it!)

The importance of Engineering Leadership in Delivering Business Value

An engineering leader is, of course, a People Leader, and s/he is also responsible for the Execution, both technology and delivery of the engineering team. However there is a third dimension which often goes unrecognised, is that great engineering executives must also be great Business Leaders; they help drive alignment with other leadership/executives and shape the strategy and direction of the business itself.

It is this underutilised/forgotten element which I will try to detail here.

A People Leader & an Execution Champion:

Engineering leadership is often naively thought of as being simply a great Architect or Engineer or a Manager. But most of you already know it’s more than that. Team leadership will involve some combination of team building, culture, leadership development, and performance management.

For detailed coverage on Engineering Leadership – Please checkout my Previous Post

Most of this responsibilities will be bang in the middle of the comfort-zone of a rising Engineering Leader.  But one of the hardest things for most engineering leaders as we scale is, to continue having an accurate forecast of when products and features will be delivered – what the business always asks for.

That is partially because this bleeds into the third, and the least recognised dimension of engineering leadership.

The Missing Sauce: A Business Strategist

Engineering leadership isn’t just about delivering products faster, or making engineers more productive. It’s about guiding the team in the same direction as the business, about continuously improving, and it’s about being the voice of engineering as a part of the decision-making process of the executive team. Of course, these are all dependent on our ability to understand the work our engineering teams are doing and how it aligns to business goals.

The third dimension – Business Alignment – is often overlooked or made difficult by other executives, but is absolutely necessary for the management of a successful engineering org. This is the strategic practice of engineering management, and all operational decisions depend on it. Business alignment means ensuring your organization is focused on the right projects that align with the business’s goals. 

The Product org can detail/design and Engineering org can build as many features as they can agree on, but what/how does it matter, if they do not align with the business objectives or goals? Business alignment involves the right allocation of resources that supports business objectives, and helping to drive those business decisions of which projects are strategically important. (at itilite, this is always the First Principle)

How do we deliver business value?

So how do we actually deliver business value? Business value isn’t created by a soloist delivering a virtuoso performance, but a collaboration of the business, product, engineering and customer success teams working together to realise a shared vision. 

Below are the five ways this can take place; together, these provide a roadmap for delivering business value;

  • Define systems development strategy
  • Help business define requirements 
  • Visualise the work and prioritise
  • Schedule and communicate delivery
  • Deliver value often and get feedback

I will try to articulate through each of these one at a time and dig into a little more detail in Part 2 of this article.