The Musk-Alexander syndrome

Leaders like Elon Musk defy the normative leadership framework. They have strong critics, but also build institutions. How do we decode their success?

K Ramkumar

Leaders often seem to be surrounded by a cloak of mystery. It’s hard to get a glimpse of what their eyes see, how their minds work, and where their next steps will fall. 

This quality invariably kicks up debates. People speculate, take sides, pass judgements. In the past few weeks, Elon Musk, the maverick billionaire who runs Tesla and SpaceX, and now, Twitter too, has been a source of debates, speculation and polarisation.

How do we make sense of Musk’s actions, and the world’s reactions? A few weeks ago, K Ramkumar gave us a glimpse into the complex world of leadership (FF Life: Best leadership books). We reached out to him again asking him to shed some light on Elon Musk and other disruptive leaders whose cloaks of mystery are as strong as Musk’s. 

Ramkumar answers in this 10-minute audiogram.

He draws parallels with Alexander, Julius Caesar, Maradona, Napoleon, JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Narendra Modi and Gary Sobers. “They defy the normative leadership framework. Yet, they enjoy immense popularity. There have been bitter and strong critics, but they have been wildly successful for sustained periods of time.” 

Ramkumar says their ambition is considered “oversized and self-centred. Yet, they were able to create institutions which have been valued both in a business sense, political sense and social sense.”

What sets them apart then?

Their risk appetite (which makes them believe ambiguity and the unchartered is filled with opportunities… they are gifted with deep intuition which makes them come to judgment on opportunities which many of us find very difficult to explain using the models we have.).

Their selfishness (their needs come first. They are comfortable that other people’s needs are also met, so long as it furthers their needs).

And the insurance they buy: “Their initial success brings them wealth, power and privilege. That brings enormous access and opens doors.”

When they create immense value by making new rules, the regulators and the governance structure of society gets confused too.

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About the author

K Ramkumar
K Ramkumar

Founder and CEO

Leadership Centre

K. Ramkumar is the founder and CEO of Leadership Centre, an institution dedicated to building world-class thought and practice in the domain of leadership consulting, research and development.

He is a retired executive director of ICICI Bank and retired president of ICICI Foundation. He has completed his Post Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management from Madras School of Social Work in 1984. He joined the Board of Directors with effect from February 1, 2009.

Prior to joining ICICI Bank in 2001, Ramkumar served companies such as Hindustan Aeronautics, Brookebond Lipton India Limited (now Hindustan Unilever Limited) and ICI India Ltd. His work in these companies has mainly been in the areas of Human Resources Management and Manufacturing.

While at ICICI Bank, he was passionately devoted to Leadership Development, Succession Management, building a supply chain for the Bank’s human resources requirements, leveraging technology to innovate, and driving operational excellence for world class service quality.

Institute for Finance, Banking & Insurance and ICICI Manipal Academy for Banking & Insurance were conceived and nurtured by him. The partnership Initiatives with SEBI – National Institute for securities management and with NIIT - the NIIT University, were also nurtured by him. He led the CSR project of ICICI Foundation on skilling youth and promoting livelihood. This is done under the ICICI Academy for Skills, which has 21 centers offering 13 skills to 25,000 youth per year.

He writes extensively on a range of topics on his blog He invites you all to be active contributing members of this blog.

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