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A New Type of Leader is Emerging in Silicon Valley

Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address of the Google I/O conference, Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Mountain View, Calif.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address of the Google I/O conference, Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Mountain View, Calif. // Eric Risberg/AP

Not long ago, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella would have been a standout among tech leaders for his strong belief in empathy and non-combative communication.

His predecessor, Steve Ballmer, had a “big, brash and bullish”personality that more closely fit the stereotypical CEO profile. Over at Apple, the late Steve Jobs’ famous impulsiveness and autocratic style gave him a mystique that some admired, but often left his own employees terrified. Then came another type of Silicon Valley leader, bringing with them the toxic bro culture personified by Uber founderTravis Kalanick.

These days, however, Nadella’s gentle, compassion-first ethos is not extraordinarily radical. To different degrees, it’s mirrored in Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Uber’s new chief, Dara Khosrowshahi. From press accounts, all of these CEOs are listeners first, and are reported to be team players.

Cook’s management style, for instance, is often described as steady and measured, but effective. It’s been said that he has made Apple a nicer place to work, and that he prefers to learn from mistakes rather than rage about them.

A recent Los Angeles Time story characterized Khosrowshahi as “a very calm person,” almost impossible to anger. At Expedia, the online travel booking company where he was CEO until joining Uber, he wasn’t above wearing a mustard bottle as a Halloween costume around the office (even allowing his CFO to star as ketchup). But he’s also not too shy to openly and directly criticize US president Donald Trump.

These days he’s struggling to win a battle between old and new power at Uber, as Quartz reports, but he’s doing so with temper in check. When he learned recently that Kalanick, without consulting anyone, had appointed two members to Uber’s board (when Kalanick still had outsized voting rights), he called the move “disappointing.”

Pichai, known for his remarkable rise from a modest middle-class life in India, is routinely characterized as “quiet” and “shy” or humble. Recently he was interviewed by The Guardian, which described his voice as “a soft harmony of Indian and American accents.” The Vergehas said of him: “There’s not much difference between an enthusiastic Sundar Pichai and a quiet, thoughtful Sundar Pichai.”

Say what you may about Google’s intrusiveness and global reach; Pichai won hearts in February by writing back to a seven-year-old girl who sent him a letter about her dreams of working in tech.

Pichai probably wouldn’t see his management style—a belief in “the ability to transcend the work and work well with others,” per the Guardian interview—or that of Nadella’s as a departure, however. He told the news outlet that he didn’t feel that any one domineering or compassionate CEO is representative of Silicon Valley, and that he’s “not a fan of one story that tries to be archetypal.” He explained:

“I do think the Valley has good examples of leaders. Hewlett and Packard, who founded the Valley, built a company with a very strong set of values and were remarkably good to their people and partners. I never felt these things were at odds with each other. For the scale of Google, it is even more important to work well with others.”

Pichai offers some important insight here. Indeed, there have always been examples in the tech sector of no-nonsense leaders who work with humility. Anne Mulcahy pulled off a stunning turnaround for Xerox in the early 2000s and kept her characteristic self-effacing grace intact, notes Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, professor of leadership practice at the Yale School of Management. There’s also the late Lewis Platt, former CEO of HP and, Sonnenfeld says, “a true humble giant.”

However, tech has been very much defined by the dominant personalities—the ones who have regularly landed on magazine covers and seen their achievements documented by a fawning public—and that has been necessary, Sonnenfeld says, to make tech accessible.

People like Andy Grove, founder of Intel, were brilliant, he says, and “if you were to forget that for a minute, they would remind you.”

“Bill Gates knew how to create a big splash and fill in the blanks later,” he says of Microsoft’s co-founder. Even Thomas Edison was a tireless self-promoter, he adds.

But this personification of technology served a purpose in that it “helped give people faith in something they didn’t understand or trust,” says Sonnenfeld.

What we’re seeing now appears to be an actual shift in style and direction. We’re looking for people who “are not placing themselves in center of universe,” Sonnenfeld says, who are detail-oriented but know how to delegate, and can work without cajoling or threatening others.

The shift is arguably a necessary one, across sectors, now that our expectations of leaders and of their treatment of people in the workplace are clearly evolving. And the timing makes sense for the tech industry specifically, because technology itself is no longer quite so confusing or frightening for people. “Those frontiers have become everyday life, so we now can look differently,” says Sonnenfeld. “We don’t need reassurance. We need people to get us from here to there.”

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