Lessons from the Past 106: A Parallel or Original?
In corporate management, we often discuss the intricacies of managing our superiors—seeking out mentors and role models to guide us. Especially in the early stages of our careers, there is a powerful temptation to become a mirror image of those we admire. Unconsciously, this can lead to adopting what is known as the principle of parallelism: trying to emulate every aspect of the role model's approach and persona.
If the boss is the one being imitated, it might initially seem flattering to them. A boss might feel a sense of pride seeing their mannerisms, strategies and attitudes reflected in their team. However, over time, this admiration can evolve into mild irritation and, eventually, serious frustration. It can even become a source of amusement for others in the office, leading to a jocular environment where the mimicry is mocked rather than appreciated.
Superiors do not want assistants who merely echo their own skills and strengths. In fact, effective bosses prefer assistants with complementary skills. No one is an expert in everything, particularly in an age where knowledge spans a vast array of fields. Superiors value team members who can supplement their knowledge and bring diverse skills to the table. This is the foundation upon which great teams are built.
An ideal team comprises thinkers, doers and integrators. The thinkers—those who innovate and strategise—will be few. The integrators—those who synthesise and coordinate—will be even fewer. The majority will be doers, those who execute the plans and strategies laid out by the thinkers and integrators. This distribution of roles ensures a balanced approach to various business functions, from field selling (doers) to product planning (thinkers) to comprehensive marketing policy (integrators).
If the boss is an integrator, they do not want a team full of integrators. While having some integrators is essential, they also need thinkers to provide innovative ideas and doers to implement those ideas effectively. Any attempt at parallelism by team members would be counterproductive and potentially disastrous.
When I was a corporate manager, I was not comfortable working with figures. Therefore, I relied heavily on Venkat, one of my colleagues with a Master's in mathematics and statistics. Venkat had a deep passion for and mastery of math. He meticulously analysed sales and profit figures, producing reports that could be easily and quickly interpreted by people like me. In my role, I did not need a qualitatively-oriented marketing assistant; I needed a quantitatively-oriented person. A colleague attempting to adhere to a system of parallelism would not only have been unhelpful but would likely have been a liability.
The concept of avoiding parallelism is vividly illustrated in the political arena, particularly in the history of US presidents and their vice-presidents. Harry Truman served as vice president under Franklin D Roosevelt. These two men could not have been more different. Truman exuded quiet confidence, while Roosevelt was a popular, charismatic figure. Truman lived in Roosevelt's shadow, only coming into his own when Roosevelt passed away and Truman assumed the presidency. It was then that people discovered Truman's balanced mind and determination to get things done.
In more recent times, we had the charismatic and brilliant Bill Clinton partnered with a vice-president, Al Gore—again, two people as different from each other as one could possibly find. This diversity in leadership styles highlights the importance of having complementary skills at the highest levels of government and business alike.
In one of India's largest private sector consumer products companies, Hindustan Lever, each chairman was as different from his predecessor as they could possibly be. The first Indian chairman, Prakash Tandon, was flamboyant, with a distinctive style of speech and carriage that many tried to imitate, often making fools of themselves in the process. He was succeeded by Vasant Rajadhyaksha, a quiet and unassuming leader with completely different mannerisms. He was followed by T Thomas, who was strong, autocratic and seemingly always in a hurry to get things done. Yet, despite these differences, there were always some who attempted parallelism. These individuals, with large egos and small minds, believed that imitation was the highest form of flattery and sought to be flattered. 
However, in such cases, the organisation becomes filled with clones of the chief and, at every power level, the quality of these clones deteriorates. This decline in standards is one of the fastest ways for an organisation to fail. The lesson here is clear: blind imitation leads to stagnation and mediocrity, while diversity in skills and perspectives drives innovation and success.
We all need to choose whether we will be imitators or originals, developing our own style and staying true to ourselves. Authenticity is crucial in building a successful career and fostering a thriving, dynamic organisation. While it is beneficial to learn from others and draw inspiration from their strengths, it is equally important to cultivate our unique abilities and perspectives. By doing so, we not only contribute more effectively to our teams but also pave the way for personal and professional growth.
In conclusion, the principle of parallelism, while tempting, is ultimately detrimental to individuals and organisations. Emulating a role model too closely stifles creativity and hinders the development of a diverse skill set within the team. Instead, we should strive to be original thinkers and doers, complementing our superiors' skills and enhancing the collective strength of our organisations. By valuing and leveraging our unique talents, we can build more resilient, innovative and successful teams.
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India- FIMC. He was a successful corporate executive for 14 years and then pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books, a business columnist and has been visiting professor in Marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia for over 40 years. His latest books are ‘Marketing in a Digital/Data World’ with Brian Almeida and ‘Customer Value Starvation Can Kill’ with Gautam Mahajan. He now spends most of his time on NGO work and is presently Chairman, Consumer Education and Research Society, India)
2 weeks ago
excellent as always... I have seen some underlings even pick up the facial tics of the boss.
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