John Chambers and the American Way

Although the session was titled ‘India and the future of innovation’, there was very little on this subject by John Chambers other than to reiterate his belief that India would be one of the centres of innovation in future. Instead, it was a meticulous presentation on how Cisco had weathered the previous Tech melt down, emerging stronger, with a higher market share and valuation than of its competitors.

No doubt there was great value in this, with key pointers as to the measures to take to ensure continuing value creation in the company during tough times. One of the main takeaways from Chamber’s presentation was that the down turn should be treated as an opportunity to build efficiency, collaboration across the organization and market share. He brought this alive with examples from Cisco.

All this is well and good, but not the topic he had been assigned. But this is the American Way, where a CEO will sell his company and its achievements no matter what the subject he has been assigned, or what the platform! There would have been so much more value if he had focused on ‘India and the future of innovation’, with perhaps people in the audience being inspired to turn this into reality. But that was not to be.

Another very striking thing about Chamber’s delivery was that he was so very canned and robotic. Sure he did walk up and down the stage, off the stage, the length and breadth of the area in front of the stage and down the aisles into the audience. But one could see that he was delivering the speech like a programmed robot, especially when he walked up close. Even if you made eye contact there was no connection, just flat, unseeing eyes, while his mind accessed the message from the brain.

No warmth, no genuine connect, no spontaneity…just a practiced delivery like he was following cues that were to be followed, no matter what. Even his movements, posture and how he comported himself, while seated, while walking around or when making the speech were all calculated to make an impression on the audience or for the cameras. You just had to point the camera at him and he would come up obligingly and hold a pose for you before turning away!

Was there a lesson in this? Most certainly. Do not do this if you want to be a true leader. Be genuine, warm and yourself and people will connect with you. I did not hear a single person say that they were inspired by Chambers, or that they related with him. Everyone agreed he talked sense, but that was it. On the other hand, one can experience, say a Narayanamurthy, Ramadorai, Vineet Nayar or Nandan Nilekani, and come away having been touched by them as persons. Warm, feeling, genuine persons, each with his own personality and identity.

John Chambers, on the other hand, was an efficient talking head for Cisco- robotic, cold and very thorough. Not my idea of an inspiring leader!


  1. Avinash
  2. Sudha Kumar Sudha Kumar
  3. Mark Hillary Mark Kobayashi-Hillary

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