Superstar Leader - Satish Thiagarajan

Satish Thiagarajan And The Rare Art of Superstar Leaders


Superstar leaders are a rare breed. They can lift an entire organization into excellence. 

When I started writing “leader profile” stories, one name kept popping up as someone to be profiled. This leader has many talents – you can make a life-long living by sharing one trait every day. 

So when I wanted to write about “larger than life” leaders, I had the perfect example. Meet Mr.Satish, Superstar leader!

Satish is currently Chief Delivery Officer at TCS Japan. The experiences shared in this post dates back to the time he played Global QA leadership roles in Cognizant and TCS. 

Before we proceed, let us attempt to define “Superstar leadership.” Who is your favorite Superstar? You may answer Rajanikanth, SRK, Tom Cruise, or Julia Robers based on your demography. 

What is common among them? 

They are all larger-than-life personas and are multi-dimensional – not just action stars, for instance. This makes them stand out from the crowd.

Look closer and you’ll find the following emerging out of these two characteristics:

  1. They are “Big.” They Think Big, Talk Big, Do Big.
  2. Superstars use the full range of emotions. 
  3. These leaders can relate with everybody – from kids to seniors – with equal ease.
  4. Superstar leaders pull off seemingly impossible jobs.
  5. They build great teams and emphatically root for the underdog and for what’s right. 

Superstar Leaders exhibit the same characteristics. I suspect they are born with some of these traits. However, there are quite a few which we can learn. So without much ado, let’s tackle the five already!

Superstar Leaders “Think Big, Talk Big, Do Big”

When it comes to leadership, what comes to mind? That guy dressed in a sharp suit, arms crossed, peering “confidently” into the camera, right? Alas, while photo skills have increased, fundamental leadership skills have not. You have leaders who only have “role” power. There are also ultra-conservative thinkers – leaders who don’t want to be wrong. After all, their yearly bonuses depend on this! And there are opportunists – those who will do anything to move ahead on their career ladders. 

Superstar leaders are a different breed. They are comfortable thinking, talking, and doing stuff that people typically consider risky. Satish’s favorite word is “humungous.” Merriam-Webster1 defines the term as “extremely large, huge.” 

And that perhaps is the best definition of his leadership style too. 

Reality Distortion Field

To understand the Think-Talk-Do Big construct, let’s take a look at Steve Job’s Reality Distortion Field, a term inspired by Star Trek.

Hertzfeld, who worked on Steve Job’s team, explains it thus: 

The reality distortion field was a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. 

https://jhargrave.medium.com/how-steve-jobs-created-the-reality-distortion-field-and-you-can-too-4ba87781adba

Walter Isaacson wrote a brilliant paper on “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs” where he mentions an example of this field at work.

When Jobs was designing the iPhone, he decided that he wanted its face to be a tough, scratchproof glass rather than plastic. He met with Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning, who told him that Corning had developed a chemical exchange process in the 1960s that led to what it dubbed “Gorilla glass.” Jobs replied that he wanted a major shipment of Gorilla glass in six months. Weeks said that Corning was not making the glass and didn’t have that capacity. “Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied.

This stunned Weeks, who was unfamiliar with Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but Jobs had repeatedly shown that he didn’t accept that premise. He stared unblinking at Weeks. “Yes, you can do it,” he said. “Get your mind around it. You can do it.” Weeks recalls that he shook his head in astonishment and then called the managers of Corning’s facility in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, which had been making LCD displays, and told them to convert immediately to making Gorilla glass full-time. “We did it in under six months,” he says. “We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we just made it work.” As a result, every piece of glass on an iPhone or an iPad is made in America by Corning.

https://jhargrave.medium.com/how-steve-jobs-created-the-reality-distortion-field-and-you-can-too-4ba87781adba

Think “Humongous”

Satish always has a “humongous” vision and the ability to see it through. I recall a sales pitch to a client where we had all the major competitors participating. We did not have the skills to staff all the client requirements at that point. But that did not stop Satish from outlining a very persuasive, strategic approach to the client board and getting them on our side. The clients fully believed that we would pull everything required to ensure success. And what’s more, Satish ensured that we delivered everything we promised and more. 

This cycle of think big, promise big, deliver big is very motivating for teams. Contribution to a larger purpose inevitably increases their involvement. And that increases the chances of success, making it a virtuous cycle.

Superstar Leaders use the full range of emotions:

Most of us use only 2-3 emotions at work. We are predictable – but – boring! Superstars bring the full spectrum of emotions to bear – compassion, empathy, vulnerability – and even anger. 

 When people walked into Satish’s room, the same circumstance would result in very different reactions based on context. A slacker would receive an earful. Someone who failed but tried hard would earn a pep talk. Satish was also comfortable being vulnerable when required and would brainstorm challenges openly. The range of responses made meeting him exciting – you never knew what to expect! 

Good-natured humor was his trump card. The fun kept the team from taking itself too seriously while delivering great work. 

Humour seems to be the most underrated Superstar skill. Find a high-performing, stable, secure team, and chances are you’ll find a humor-loving leader. But humor is an art. Hurtful, malicious, bro-type humor can make cultures toxic. You need inclusive, tension-relieving fun to build camaraderie. Satish’s brand of contextual humor elevated the workplace into something special. 

Superstar Leaders have the ability to connect with everybody:

Superstars like people. Their ability to relate to everyone makes them universally popular. No one – clients, teams, vendors, analysts, even competitors – is immune to their charm.

One wintry morning, I came down a little early to breakfast. We were in Canada, and I was hoping to catch a moment with a few young team members. We had won a large contract, and many of the team were traveling for the first time abroad. With the executive focus on the deal, the team was eager but a little scared. I wanted to spend some time setting them at ease.

On reaching the buffet, I was surprised to see Satish breakfasting with the young folks. They were all laughing and having a wonderful time. When I talked to the team later, they told me it was one of the best conversations they had ever had. He had put them at ease by sharing some of his funny stories while abroad. They felt listened to and encouraged. They were unanimous in stating they were comfortable reaching out to him in the future. These youngsters had worked “formally” with leaders who seemed distant. To see an executive leader in this “instant connect” mode made their day.

Superstar Leaders pull off seemingly impossible jobs

A client leader and her CIO were visiting us. The client was worried about the progress of a critical program. She had requested a senior delegate meeting to thrash this out, and everyone had assembled with somber faces. Satish called me aside and asked me if I could resurrect the situation. With the Reality Distortion Field at work, I answered yes. Together we hashed out a “back of the napkin” plan over the next 15 minutes. 

Satish then walked into the room, told the client that we would bring the program on track irrespective of where the problems originated, and asked me to outline our plan. We spent the next half-hour focusing on the next steps, and the tension in the room began to ease. He coaxed the client to share their more significant problems (beyond IT), and they started opening up. An hour into the meeting, there was an air of synergy. The client and her CIO walked up to Satish and thanked him. Our executives were thrilled – the Superstar had saved the day yet again. Over the next few months, we helped the client with all their pain points. The clients no longer saw us vendors or even consultants. They saw us as partners and friends who would go the extra mile for them.

And these “impossible jobs” extended across domains. I have seen him promise and deliver exceptional analyst ratings, create world-class labs in record time, and even pull back “lost” deals. 

Superstar Leaders build super-teams!

Last but not least, Superstars create a profusion of talent. They draw talent from everywhere – client organizations, competition, other groups. They are also masters of the word of mouth and referral networks. True viral networking happens here. 

Satish has the remarkable ability to connect with each person on their strengths. He was also around for his team when needed. He had an intuitive feel for the level of hand-holding and independence each of his leaders required.

The power of self organising groups

Given his popularity and focus on getting the right people into the team, we saw a diverse set of people joining. We had homegrown leaders, leaders from the market, former clients all as part of the team. His preferred way of getting the team to collaborate was to encourage informal self-organization. People reached out to each other when they needed help. The weekly lunch outings were full of laughter and camaraderie. As I type this post, I look at the colleagues’ list during my first stint with him about two decades back. Most are still in touch. He helped build environments of friendships and bonhomie.

The example you set as a leader will lead to the culture your team will embody. Satish rooted for the underdog as well as those he felt were in the right. This absolute backing from their leader allowed people to take healthy risks and see them through. And these innovative pushes from across the board created a massive cascading effect; the whole team bounded forward without being pushed down by dogma.

This is a very endearing trait of a superstar leader – the self-organizing peer networks that grow under their leadership and support everyone. Take a super leader, and you’ll find that their teams stay connected years after the leader has moved on. It’s the best lag indicator to identify extraordinary leaders. 

And there we have it, five characteristics of a star leader. Many thanks, Satish, for inspiring this post and all the learnings. 

P.S: If you liked this post, check out the other posts here, especially the leader stories.

Footnotes

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/humongous

2 Cover picture from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPbveHQAkR8

7 thoughts on “Satish Thiagarajan And The Rare Art of Superstar Leaders

  1. Having had the honor and privilege of working with Satish and you, in the same era, reading this article took me back to those times. In fact, I had known Satish a few years ago in Minneapolis. He has the rare magnetism of a ‘Superstar’. I have learned a lot from the both of you and thoroughly enjoyed both the privilege of working with both of you and your fantastically written article. Thank you for sharing Subra.

  2. Well said, am really happy to say that I too got a chance to work (in fact working) with such a wonderful leader !!! -Srikanth Srigiri

  3. Very nicely articulated, Satish is a perfect example of resonance leader, he brings in lot of energy and positive vibes. He has a sound voice and an art of convincing people. He sets up a very healthy working environment. Its really wonderful working under his leadership.

  4. Nicely written Subra. Leadership can’t be monotonous and Satish’s style was a classical example. If I were to compare, it was more like the Texas weather – If you don’t like it, “hang in there for a few hours and its bound to change”. You would have a rough discussion/ constructive argument with him and you will be like “I don’t want to ever see you again” and within 2 hours, his hand will be on your shoulder and you are both laughing your way to glory through an epitome of his humor.

    What I really liked in his leadership style was that
    – You don’t have to treat him as a boss
    – You don’t have to be scared to have a vicious argument to do what is best for the team and the company
    – You don’t have to worry about not being empowered
    – You don’t have to be worried about making a decision knowing that he will fully back you
    – If he is wrong (which he was many a times 😉 ) – he will come and say that he screwed up and what could we do to fix it.
    – If you are wrong, you will hear a momentary blast but also the assurance that everybody makes mistakes and what could we do together to bounce back?
    – Whether its good or bad – you hear it black and white from him. No productivity loss in second guessing what he is thinking..

    This is what brought the best out of everyone in the team – We could be ourselves and yet learn from the maestro!!

    I am thankful that our paths crossed!! You da best Satish – We hate you and yet love you to death!!

  5. Subra- I was one of the young team member, part of conversation with Satish during breakfast in Canada. I could still remember those wonderful days. Really it’s my first on-site, without leadership guidance like you people we wouldn’t have performed better. Thank you and Satish.

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