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Leadership lessons from the 3 Khans of Bollywood

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

Bollywood is not exactly the breeding ground for leaders. There are the many who leave films to become political leaders but the corporate world has yet to see a thespian become a great business leader. However, Bollywood stars of today are business leaders in their own right; some better than others.

Here are some traits they share with business leaders

  1. They manage complex relationships.

  2. They manage P&Ls (their own). Gone are the days when these stars were passive bystanders in the hands of CAs and other managers. Today’s star is a shrewd entrepreneur.

  3. They are brand managers cum brand ambassadors (of their prime brand – their name)

  4. They are equally susceptible to common leadership problems – the key takeaway from this blog…

I try to find lessons wherever I can. I recently learnt something from the 3 Khans. They are not business leaders and you love them or hate them but you surely can’t ignore them.

The Khan to kick it all off

He is the perennial bad boy of Bollywood. He wants to be human but ends up more alien than others. His life has been a roller coaster ride and I don’t need to talk about it here.

He shot into the news making a comment which basically equated physical exhaustion and “exhausted because of being raped”. When put this way, I agree it sounds bloody absurd. I tried to rationalise the thought process behind this comment and to rationalise its existence. When we talk about leaders we first think about credibility. I examined this comment from the point of view of credibility. There are sufficient who regard this Khan as a leader (please don’t ask me “leader of what?”)

I could easily relate to the muscular body and the hard working human being who could experience fatigue and exhaustion. The body is exhausted in two types of work done by this Khan; it gets exhausted in the gym and it gets exhausted on the sets of a movie. No questions asked, this Khan knows what he is talking about when it comes to these types of exhaustion. He is credible.

However, I struggled to find credibility in the second type of “being exhausted”. I am not sure if this Khan has ever been raped, so first hand data is out of the question. Disclaimer: I don’t have evidence to show he has never been raped. I am relying on facts in the public domain to assume that he hasn’t been raped. I am happy to be corrected. On the assumption though that I am correct, first-hand experience of rape is ruled out. It is possible that the experience was gathered from a second hand source. I searched the net and couldn’t find any evidence to demonstrate that this Khan had interacted with rape victims. I couldn’t find any evidence to suggest that he even read about rape victims and how they felt after being raped. There was absolutely nothing that remotely suggested he had done any sort of research to arrive at how a body feels when it is raped. At best he is assuming a body is exhausted or is relying on someone else’s words or research to create his own assumption. And to remind you the assumption is “a body is exhausted after being raped.”

Leadership lessons to learn:

  1. Keep your mouth shut about things you aren’t  sure about.

  2. When giving an analogy, should stick to those that can be conclusively defend. Share an experience, make it personal but ensure it is credible.

  3. A leader remains a leader when his credibility is intact. But if you are in the entertainment business credibility is only as good as your acting!

The second Khan who was asked to comment on the first Khan’s comment

He is the Baadshah of Bollywood. He is the actor that most actors hate because wherever you turn, he is there. This is the Khan who endorsed everything from men’s fairness cream to luxury watches. He has wooed women half his age and even made a parody on himself. He has been accused of being many things. But the one thing he definitely is, is a smart businessman. He is the true tale of rags to riches; of an outsider who made it to the very top. He is suave, he is articulate and all of this with just basic formal education. He is the centerpiece of most award functions and every woman on this planet that I know of or can think of, would love to have him serenade her.

This Khan was asked to comment on the first Khan’s rape analogy. This Khan listened, shrugged his shoulders and in his charming style took the questioner down the garden path. He did everything but comment on the comment. And he did it in style. No, I am not one of his fans and I am not one of his detractors. I am at best, (this) Khan neutral. The response this Khan gave, has got me leaning towards the phrase ‘like him’.

He said (and I am paraphrasing) that he shouldn’t be commenting on a comment that the first Khan made simply because the comment has stirred a controversy. The fact that a comment has stirred a controversy reminded him of the various comments he had made in the past that had had similar reactions. He said that as a person who has made comments that didn’t go down well with the public, he was not qualified to comment on a comment that was equally controversial.

There it was, plain and simple.

He didn’t preach.

He didn’t defend his once cold-war-adversary-turned-friend.

He moved the conversation away from the other individual and turned the focus on himself. He spoke about a subject he was well conversant about, himself. He didn’t come across as a defensive person nor did he come across as Mother Teresa.

Leadership lessons learnt:

  1. Don’t flap your gums unless you really know how far the flapping will take you.

  2. Don’t preach and don’t be judgmental; you cannot be the other person.

  3. It’s safest to comment about yourself and perhaps what you know of first-hand.

  4. Whenever asked to provide feedback of a co-worker maintain your own credibility.

  5. Provide feedback that is constructive.

The third Khan

This one is difficult to understand. He wants to project himself as a perfectionist and some say that he is the ‘perfect actor’. I am all for this tag for his on-screen presence. I wonder if reality blurs for him because as an individual, and as an icon for the star-struck, he is far from perfect.

He is a fellow batchmate from school but we didn’t study in the same classroom. His landmark film was made by another classmate of ours. I have so far seen him at one class reunion although I have seen pictures of another that he has attended. The point is I do have some first-hand knowledge of this Khan.

This Khan was asked the same question that the Baadshah was asked. This Khan responded first with a disclaimer (nice!) – he wasn’t present when the comment was made so he is going by what he has read (he reads too?). He followed it up with the words “insensitive and unfortunate”.

So what was unfortunate?

This is ambiguous. “Unfortunate” that the remark was made or unfortunate that such a remark was made? One can always interpret it as one would like, after all it is the Perfectionist Khan saying the words. The other word is even more ambiguous. “Insensitive” – what is the context of the word here? Is the analogy insensitive since it talks about victims and how they feel? Or is the speaker insensitive about how sensitive people are?

For a moment pause on this Khan’s public persona. He is no doubt a good actor. He acts even in real life. He has time to support a former porn star but no time to even acknowledge that his classmates exist (he is a private person, you see). Somehow we (the public) are more to blame than any star is – we (the public) tend to treat them (movie stars) as super humans. You wouldn’t get a peep out of this Khan even if you tried, but if you happened to be in the same airspace he would treat you like his long lost brother (yup, I have experienced this first hand).

This is also the same Khan whose wife suggested they move to a ‘safer country’ for the sake of their child. He feels secure enough to comment on comments made by others but insecure about living in this country. Well, really!!!

Leadership lessons learnt:

  1. A thought leader needs to be seen as being real. When he is real, his words are deemed to be real.

  2. It’s good to begin with a disclaimer. It’s even better to end one’s ‘speech’ after the first disclaimer.

  3. Manage yourself first before you start managing words or comments of others.

But there is a bigger lesson that I personally learnt from this entire imbroglio. The background to the learning is that the movie around which the original rape comment was made, has grossed INR 3 billion (about US $45 million) and counting. The lesson learnt is – who gives a damn about what anyone says, at the end of it, people will still go watch the movie no matter which Khan is in it!


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