Leadership, made in India
The West has long looked to India with a mixture of wonder, bemusement, and sometimes pity. India is the subcontinent of mysterious contradictions, a land of incredible beauty and wealth, but also crushing poverty. Its spiritualism -- manifest in its many religions -- has provided inspiration. It was Mahatma Gandhi who taught the West the power of nonviolent protest in support of social justice.
Yet when it comes to management and leadership, too often India looks westward when perhaps it should be looking inward, too. I say this as one who has been asked for leadership advice by many Indian nationals either via email or after one of my presentations. Part of my response is to remind people from different nations the virtues of their own cultures.
First some background. The rise of Indian businesses, and accompanying management models, grew out of deregulation of the early 1990s. From independence in 1947 until 1991, as the authors of The India Way explain, Indian businesses operated under what was called the "license raj," a government-controlled bureaucracy of regulations that limited production as well as competition. When the Indian government loosened control in the early 1990s, a flowering of enterprise occurred and brought with it a new way of business that the authors label the India Way.
The four principles of the India Way are: holistic engagement of employees, improvisation and adaptability, creative value propositions and broad mission and purpose. To some extent, these principles complement the four Hindu aims of life: dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth), kama (desire) and moksha (salvation). While by no means unique to India, these principles, the authors argue, account for the success of Indian businesses in ways that reinforce entrepreneurism as well as social purpose.
These principles come to life in the rich case studies. Two were of particular interest to me. The first described HCL Technologies, a leading IT firm, whose provocative slogan is "Employee first, customer second." The firm sees itself as a company that must lead by example. Transparency is the rule within the company -- so much so that senior executives post results of their 360-degree behavior evaluations online for all employees to read.
Vineet Nayar, a twenty-year veteran of HCL, wrote a letter to employees upon completion of his first year as CEO. "I am here as long as I have your support and confidence," Nayar wrote - and the authors contend that Navar means to earn that support, since he spends as much as half of his time in meetings with employees, "communicating his vision for the company and managing the corporate culture."
ICICI Bank, the subject of another case study in The India Way" emphasizes leadership and is focused on becoming a world-class bank, ICICI, though, is also mindful of its mission to serve the needs of Indian citizenry. Its retail banking operations operate in both cities and in rural communities. To do the latter, where deposits are measured in the hundreds of dollars rather than thousands or millions, means operating on thin revenue streams, a 100th of what Western banks might consider viable.
What I find refreshing in both of these case studies, as well as many others in the book, is the balance of business acumen with employee engagement. Many American businesses preach the same values, but all too often the engagement tends to fall by the wayside, especially in times of crisis when business comes first; people second.
The India Way is a product of rigorous research. Those interviewed for the book make up a "who's who" of Indian business success, while survey data and questionnaires provide rich background that supports the authors' conclusions.
The book reminds us that management is a multi-national discipline, not an American export. And when it comes to leadership, especially as it provides both aspiration and inspiration, Indian business executives have much to teach us.
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