The title of a recent New York Times article on Sundar Pichai, Google’s “affable, low-key” chief executive, was “Can a nice guy be an effective leader?” Well, the article answered the question. The answer was yes. No one was taking issue with Pichai’s splendid success as Google’s helmsman. The company had been regularly reaching new highs in both revenue and profits. Its parent company, Alphabet, was worth $1.6 trillion. And Google was inserting itself ever more deeply into the lives of ordinary Americans including, I might add, me!
What then was the problem? Why was there even a question that Google was fortunate to have at the top not only a splendid performer but a good guy to boot?
The answer has nothing to do with the leader. It has everything to do with his followers. We live in an age when enough is never enough. More specifically, we live in an age when followers are restive even when they have nothing much to be restive about. Subordinates bitching and moaning about their superiors has become part of the culture. It’s why leading in liberal democracies has become so damn difficult.
This is not to insist that Pichai has been pitch perfect. Rather it is to point out that despite his stellar performance Google executives have taken to publicly complaining about his shortcomings. What might these be? Pichai is too risk averse. Pichai is too conventional and incremental. Pichai is too ruminative and reflective. Pichai is too sluggish and slow, too even tempered and too tolerant – including of Google occasionally outspoken workforce.
No leader walks on water. But given Pichai’s track record, even if the bitchers and moaners have something legitimate to complain about, they might consider doing so in private. Better they should work with Pichai behind the scenes, to modify his failings, than out loud scold a man who has done far more good than harm for everyone in Google’s employ – not to speak of anyone who owns even a single share of Alphabet stock!