On April 16, CK Prahalad, professor and renowned management guru, died after a sudden illness. The world lost one of its great thinkers and teachers, and an extraordinary Multiplier. For me, I’ve lost an important mentor – one who not only shaped me professionally, but who played a vital role in the creation of the book Multipliers. As I reflect on this loss, I’m reminded of what I gained.
CK Prahalad: The Genius and the Genius Maker. There are great thinkers and there are great teachers, and they are different. Great thinkers are smart. Great teachers make others smart. The genius of CK Prahalad was that he was both.
CK was the kind of teacher who didn’t do all the thinking for you. He made you think. His infectious curiosity made you want to know more, to question, and to find out why. He never made empty claims. He gave you data so you could think for yourself. He used his extraordinary intellect to unearth and challenge the entrenched logic that kept organizations stuck. And, he gave permission for others to challenge as well. He asked questions that caused people to pause and think. My personal favorite was one he said often after sharing an insight. He would pause and say, “Is it not so?” It always made me think a bit harder.
Smart Around CK. I had the incredible honor to work along side CK for several years at Oracle, while he taught and guided our executive team as we retooled our strategic intent. It had been many years since I was a student at business school, but I became CK’s “student.” I listened intently to his lectures, watched and studied him interact with Oracle’s executive team, and I benefited from priceless 1-on-1 tutoring in strategy, leadership, and the power of collective intelligence. And, all the while, I sprinted to keep up with him as he positioned me in critical roles that challenged, stretched, and grew my capabilities.
Years later I was visiting CK and his wife Gayatri at their home. Gayatri pulled me aside and whispered, “CK would never tell you this himself, so I will. CK told me that you might be the smartest student he has had.” It was one of those compliments that can fuel a person for a while – for me, probably a decade or two. But still, when Gayatri said this, I laughed inside thinking, “Surely CK has had a thousand students at Harvard and Michigan who are a lot smarter than me.” But then it hit me. I was smart around CK. When I worked with CK, I was brilliant. He made me think deeply. He made me question things and challenge assumptions. His intelligence provoked me.
I left the Prahalad home that day thinking about what Gayatri had shared with me. I wondered why I was so smart around CK. Gayatri gave me a gift that was more valuable than a personal compliment. She helped me see that some people make us smarter. I began to wonder, “why are we smart and capable around some people but not around others.” It is the question that germinated the book Multipliers.
CK Prahalad: Multiplier and Mentor. Not only did CK’s observation spark this work, he guided our research and thinking. When I first shared the idea for the book with him, he encouraged me telling me that the idea was important, relevant and a source of competitive advantage. He then outlined many of the core assumptions of Multipliers, as if he had been thinking about the subject all his life. When I anxiously reviewed my research with him, he responded with, “Your research is solid. It is time to publish.” His confidence in us gave us courage. And, his generous support never faded.
Multiplier Practice: CK astutely observed, “The real leadership skill of the next decade isn’t what you know. It is how well you can access what other people know.” As a leader, spend less time telling everyone what you know. Instead, ask questions to uncover the knowledge in the people around you.
We say goodbye to one of the great management thinkers of our time, and I say goodbye to a much-loved mentor. The world will miss the mind of CK Prahalad.
Is it not so?