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The power of the underdog | Puja Kohli


octaviusSunTzu said: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable;

When using our forces, we must seem inactive;

When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away;

When far away, we must make him believe we are near”

Chapter 1, Laying Plans, The Art of War

Let’s understand what lesson this advice holds for us. History has always shown that the successful are those who, to begin with, are not the likely winners. Sun Tzu believed and emphasised that success depended on deception, and being understated was often the biggest deception – that ultimately worked in their favour.

We consider an example: The 17-year-old Octavius was at Apollonia (in present-day Albania) with his friends Marcus Agrippa and Marcus Salvidienus Rufus in Apollonia in Epirus completing his academic and military studies, when news reached him of (Julius) Caesar’s assassination. At once he returned to Rome, learning on the way that Caesar had adopted him. Though when he arrived in Rome, Octavian found power in the hands of Mark Antony and Aemilius Lepidus, and it was least expected that Octavius would rise to the powerful throne that Julius Caeser once held.

He was of short stature, but was handsome and well proportioned and he possessed that commodity so rare in rulers – grace. But consider the fact that he suffered from bad teeth and was generally of feeble health. His body was covered in spots and he had many birthmarks scattered over his chest and belly.

And yet, being underdog was the very secret weapon that helped him: not only did he gradually ascend to power but he also accomplished great things (expectations of him were low). As the first Roman emperor (though he never claimed the title for himself), Augustus led Rome’s transformation from republic to ‘empire’ during the tumultuous years following the assassination of his great-uncle and adoptive father Julius Caesar. He shrewdly combined military might, institution-building and law making to become Rome’s sole ruler, laying the foundations of the 200-year Pax Romana (Roman Peace) and an empire that lasted, in various forms, for nearly 1,500 years.

Augustus was undoubtedly one of the most talented, energetic and skillful administrators that the world has ever known. The enormously far-reaching work of reorganisation and rehabilitation which he undertook in every branch of his vast empire created a new Roman peace with unprecedented prosperity.

He himself lived in a spacious house, not palace, on the Palatine Hill, evidently avoiding any symbols of monarchy. He clearly avoided any form of worship to his own person. Most of all, Augustus appeared to appreciate that his personal standing and security benefited from governing in the public interest.

Chanakya advises: “If he were to see, ‘By creating confidence by means of peace, I shall ruin the enemies undertakings by the employment of secret remedies…’, he should secure advancement through peace” (7.1.32, Kaultilya’s Arthashastra)

Chanakya also clearly endorses secret remedies i.e. deception in warfare. But as mentioned before, the manner of utilising this wisdom in a positive manner is the deliberate strategy of playing underdog. Just as Octavius unexpectedly became Emperor Augustus, the young Chandragupta, under Chanakya’s tutelage, too ascended the throne of Magadha to establish the mighty Maurya dynasty. No one except Chanakya expected him to lead India.

Consider another instance at a later time, several centuries later. Gopalrao Gaekwad, the second son of Kashirao, was born in Nasik. He was not of the lineage of the ruling dynasty of Baroda. But following the untimely death of Sir Khanderao Gaekwad, the popular ruler of Baroda, and the subsequent exile of younger brother Malharrao (who was a tyrant), Gopalrao rose to the occasion and became the famous Maharaj Sayajirao and the rest is history. The appointment as successor itself was dramatic. Maharani Jamnabai called on the heads of the extended branches of the dynasty to come to Baroda and present themselves and their sons in order to decide upon a successor.

Kashirao walked 600 kms to Baroda with his three sons, Anandrao, Gopalrao and Sampatrao to present themselves to Jamnabai. When each son was asked the reason for presenting themselves at Baroda, the young Gopalrao boldly delared: “I have come here to rule”. On assuming the reins of the state of Gujarat, he immediately initiated reforms such as education of his subjects, uplifting of the downtrodden, and also judicial, agricultural and social reforms such as a ban on child marriage, legislation of divorce, removal of untouchability, spread of education, development of Sanskrit, ideological studies as well as the encouragement of the fine arts.

He also gave economic development a major thrust by establishing the Bank of Baroda, reenergising the textile industry, developing a rail road and lots more. Perhaps his most significant achievement was the patronage of greats like Babasaheb Ambedkar (he sponsored his higher education), Dadabhai Naoroji, Aurobindo Ghosh and Raja Ravi Verma. All of this, when he was not even expected to be ruler.

Let’s move to a business context now. In August 2013, Steve Ballmer announced his decision to step down as second CEO of Microsoft. When the Chairman of Microsoft, John Thompson began the search for the new CEO, following were the front runners: Stephen Elop, CEO of Nokia, when it was acquired by Microsoft; Alan Mullaly, CEO of Ford Motor Company and turnaround specialist; Tony Bates, EVP of Business Development, Strategy and Evangelism at Microsoft; Kevin Turner, COO of Microsoft and Steve Mollenkopf, COO of Qualcomm. Who finally became the successor to Steve Ballmer? Everyone knows its Satya Nadella now but when the search was launched, Satya was clearly not a contender.

And that is precisely what helped him emerge as the best choice – a leader of people, who could straddle a gamut of technologies and businesses too, but unassuming and understated. And the same trait will likely help Nadella to take Microsoft to a new pinnacle of success, at a time when PCs and Windows, the stronghold of Microsoft, are already under threat.

Let’s consider some counter intuitive realities.

CEOs can begin their careers in the mailroom.

Someone rightly said “Leadership is fascinating because it’s rooted in mystery”. How does one achieve greatness?

If there was a formula for leadership, how do you resolve the fact that so many mailroom workers rise to become CEOs. A study revealed 450 results during an online search for mailroom CEOs. An excellent example is the Late Mr. Talwar, a past Chairman and MD of Bank of Baroda who started his career as a bank’s godown supervisor.

At most corporations, the mailroom is the bottom rung. The duties are simple transactions: you read and sort letters, photocopy, roam the building delivering the mail and fetch coffee. To become a CEO, these people have to out-compete professionals across departments who were more qualified, better-resourced and more highly regarded, and yet despite those immense odds, these underdogs pulled it off. How?

We usually think of leadership as being an innate talent, stemming from such intangibles as “charisma, “vision” and “character.” But the success of these underdogs from the mailroom flips this idea on its head.

Leaders have introverted personalities.

The majority of leaders (96%) are extroverts and, according to a Harvard Business School survey, an overwhelming majority of CEOs believe this behavioural trait is necessary to achieve success as a leader. Is this true?

A lot of people wrongly assume that extroverts make the best leaders. So are introvert leaders underdogs? One need only consider the countless examples of outstanding introverted leaders to confirm this; Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and Andrea Jung (Avon CEO) are just a few examples of introverts who have steered their companies toward success.

“I think there are non-obvious ways to lead. Leadership does not need to be a dramatic, fist in the air and trumpets blaring, activity” ~Scott Berkun.

Brands can have The Underdog Edge

Dame Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop) once famously said: ‘You’ve got to be hungry for ideas, to make things happen and see your vison made into reality. She was inspired by natural beauty products and, true to her beliefs, The Body Shop only used natural ingredients in its products and did not test on animals despite fierce competition. The social awareness resonated with its customers and the business grew rapidly at 50% annually.

Two friends paid $5 for a correspondence course in ice cream making and with their own small capital and borrowed money, Ben and Jerry opened their very first ice cream shop at a gas station in Burlington, Vermont. Once the duo started selling their ice cream in local restaurants and supermarkets, their competition, Haagen-Dazs (the Pillsbury Company), took notice. Haagen-Dazs attempted to hinder Ben and Jerry’s business. But who can deny homemade ice cream? The rest as they say is history. In less than ten years, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream made $32 million in sales and $326 million by 1999. From a $5 course in ice cream making, a beloved, everlasting ice cream brand was born.

What lessons can we learn from the numerous illustrations above, which both Chanakya and SunTzu try to teach us:
  • The perception that you are underdog is itself a deception – let it stay. You take nothing and no one for granted and yet are tireless in effort. Remember the rise of Octavius to Augustus?
  • Underdogs are hungry for accomplishment of goals (as nothing comes easy) and seem to be less risk averse. A need of the VUCA world? Chandragupt was relentless in the pursuit of his cause
  • In underdogs, self belief and humility take the place of over confidence. The story of Maharaj Sayajirao Gaekwad
  • Underdogs take it to the people and work hard to build relationships. This seems to have been the game changer in the case of choice of Satya Nadella – his team skills
  • The final and most vital lesson is about converting your ‘weakness (not merely being a favourite)’ to your advantage and perhaps even converting the opponent’s strength to a vulnerability

Underdogs are, and always will be, relatable. Life is full of ups and downs, and people are continuously finding new obstacles in their way – underdogs are always a beacon of hope, a reminder that sometimes you can beat the odds.

This article has been jointly written by Rajesh Kamath, Founder, Chanakya Consulting Insights and Puja Kohli, People and Change Catalyst, Unfold Consulting and WeAreTheCity Bangalore Lead.


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