Ricardo Semler: A Revolutionary Model of Leadership

January 1, 2016

This case won the Human Resource Management/Organisational Behaviour category at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2016.


The case

Who – the protagonists
Ricardo Semler, the reluctant successor to his father’s multinational company, Semco.

Semco comprises a hugely profitable NGO, a Brazilian business association, a luxury eco-resort, and a set of successful charter schools.

Ricardo was not a natural successor to his father’s business. He did not do well in school and preferred strumming his guitar to poring over his books. But he started to show some entrepreneurial flair in high school when he took on the school’s snack shop. He increased profits and invested them in the stock market, eventually earning enough to fly his entire class to a resort for the weekend.

Things did not start well when Ricardo entered the family business. He slept late, worked from home, and saw his father’s approach as overly rigid. To make matters worse, by 1980 the Brazilian miracle had gone into reverse and the shipbuilding industry that Semco supplied with its marine pumps was particularly hard hit.

Twenty-year-old Ricardo was convinced diversification was the only solution; his 68-year-old father, Antonio, was adamant that Semco’s specialist focus was its best asset. Eventually, Antonio made a leap of faith. He simply handed over the entire operation to his son and walked away.

Antonio Curt Semler left Austria just before World War II to make a new life in South America. He took advantage of Brazil’s first ‘economic miracle’ in the 1950s and 60s to build his company, a major supplier of marine pumps for the shipping industry.

Antonio’s company, now known as Semco Partners, is based in São Paulo, Brazil.

Key quote
‘I am at my best when I am doing the least.’ – Ricardo Semler

What next?
Ricardo’s overarching leadership philosophy could be summed up as follows: that leadership is often most effective when the boss is hunched over his guitar on a Wednesday afternoon, or feeding the ducks with his kids, or hiking in the African mountains – and not doing any special thinking about contracts or investments or strategic planning or the future of global business.

Ricardo’s approach to business ignited controversy and acclaim in roughly equal measure – but it proved successful whenever and wherever he tried it. How come?


The authors

William W. Maddux, Roderick I. Swaab, Betania Tanure, and Elin Williams
The authors explain why they believe their protagonist is so inspirational and the lessons that other business leaders can learn from him.

Favourite case
It is an honour for all of us to be recognised with this award. The case is a favourite of ours in the classroom and we’re delighted that the story resonates so broadly.

Meeting Ricardo
Betania was our main link to Ricardo. She has a longstanding affiliation with INSEAD, so our professional and personal networks were key to making connections and putting the team together.

We worked with Ricardo mostly by email, since he is very busy and based in São Paulo, Brazil, but he was extremely responsive, intelligent, informative, and generous with his time. We sent him a long list of questions and he answered all of them very thoughtfully. We can definitely see why he has been such a successful business leader for so long.

Inspirational figure
We think Ricardo is one of the most inspirational figures in the business world, and his story is truly amazing. There’s something about his personality and his leadership style that resonates at a very deep level with most people, even if they are highly skeptical.

There’s also a great lesson about having the courage to do things differently that is important for business leaders across industries. Certainly, the case never fails to generate a lively debate, regardless of the audience!

Tips for team writing
We think it’s important that expectations for the final product are clear before beginning the project, and that there is clarity as to the role each author needs to play in order to make that final product a success. Then within that overall goal, all the authors can find a way to make their own contribution. It’s also important that the editing team be highly professional, as is always the case for us working at INSEAD.

About the authors
William W. Maddux is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.
e william.maddux@insead.edu

Roderick I. Swaab is an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.
e Roderick.Swaab@insead.edu

Betania Tanure is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at BTA/Pontificia Universidade Católica de Minas Gerais (PUCMG).
e betaniatanure@betaniatanureassociados.com

Elin Williams is freelance writer based in the UK.
e elin.williams@gmail.com


The protagonist

An insider’s view: Ricardo Semler, Semco Group’s major shareholder and chairman.

An enlightening process
Involvement in the case brought inquiry. The process of inquiring is contemplative in nature, at its best. When the people involved are committed to finding an underlying truth or rationale, as this group of researchers was, the benefit is the contextualization of the reply. In this sense, I did get something out of it; and the process of understanding what you do, in light of the framework that comes from impartial people – as was the case, again – is enlightening.

Revising our thought process
Positions related to practices that are rare or outside their time are common to us at Semco and this was a good opportunity to revise the architecture of our thought process.


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