Tall leaders are seen as towering personalities by their peers and followers alike. The vital factor however, is the way society looks up to them. It is the latter that accords them this exalted status. Their achievements, outlook and vision, and their hold over their followers are tremendous and incomparable. They become legends, sometimes during their lifetime. In a few exceptions, like that of Dr BR Ambedkar in India, their stature increases posthumously as history unfolds, allowing a more accurate assessment of their contribution. It would be interesting to see how such tallness gets achieved. What happens to the tall leaders and what kind of legacy or burden is passed on to their successors.

JRD Tata, Steve Jobs and Homi Bhabha are some of the names that come to mind when I think of tall leaders in the world of business and technology.

JRD Tata

JRD was the scion of Tata family and earned the highest civilian honour in India, the Bharat Ratna, towards the end of his life. He was born and brought up in France, but came to India after the First World War and joined the family business. He saw the momentous events of the twentieth century unfold before him in the form of the great freedom struggle of India, the Second World War and the historic transformation of a traditional country like India. He took over the reins of Tata Group when he was in the mid-thirties and was at the helm when the group had become an industrial empire in his eighties. There were many other businessmen of his era but none commanded the respect and affection of the masses of India the way he did.

Business and businessmen had never enjoyed great reputation in India, perhaps because of the experience people had during the War years of being at the receiving end of hoarding, blackmarketing and profiteering of the businessmen. But JRD was an exception and the Tata Group continues to enjoy an unsullied reputation even today, over two decades after his exit. His reputation comes from doing honest business, acting responsibly toward the state, the country and society; and taking great care of its people. It was this reputation that helped a great deal when Tata Motors bought Jaguar Land Rover from Ford Motors in 2008. The government, the community and the unions favoured the Tata deal.

But JRD’s tallness doesn’t come simply from upholding the Tata values of doing business, nor does it stand upon the impressive growth Tata enterprises registered during his stewardship. One can surely think of a few business leaders who upheld values and led business growth. I think Tata’s greatness comes from the fact that he constantly envisioned and actualised his group’s contribution to the industrial economy and national development.

Look at what he says,” I am an ordinary businessman and citizen who tried to make the best of the opportunities to advance the cause of India’s industrial and economic development.” Rare is the business leader who takes his citizenship role so seriously.

The Tata group had already established itself as a premier industrial house when JRD took over the reins in 1938. Steel, power, textiles and chemicals businesses were thriving then. Tata saw the need for greater international trade and also pioneered aviation through Tata Airlines. After its nationalisation, he continued to lead its growth as Chairman purely in an honorary capacity. This was a rare example of the government asking a private player to continue in his leadership role. The trust that he earned from the political leadership of the country then, was the result of his unflinching commitment to the cause of national development. He was the main sponsor of the Bombay Plan that articulated the industry’s vision for growth of independent India. The Bombay Plan had clearly recognised the need for a foundational role for the public sector.

He also read the signs of the times and encouraged Tata Consulting Services to collaborate with Burroughs for making computer hardware in the country in the 70’s. Today TCS thrives as the top IT major from India.

He saw far into the future and hence invested in people. He groomed several leaders like NA Palkhivala (ACC), FC Kohli (TCS) and AB Kerkar (Taj Hotels), and allowed full freedom to stalwarts like S Moolgaokar (Telco), Rusi Mody (TISCO) and D Seth (Tata Chemicals) to grow into stalwarts. Being able to work with such varied talent and expertise calls for not only a great vision, but also generosity of spirit. The Tata Administrative Service and the Tata Management Training Centre were steps that he took to ensure a continuous stream of talent being groomed to take over the leadership of Tata enterprises.

Tata not only led the industrial group that saw tremendous growth of its business enterprises, but also influenced the way businesses were run and how governments viewed private enterprise in India.

Steve Jobs

With the advent of iPod, iPhone and iPad, Steve Jobs became a legendary figure who changed the game in computing, music, telecommunication, and animation and retail sectors. He not only founded Apple but made it into a world -renowned company. The Apple brand might well be called a cult of the 21st century.

The products he brought out embodied new concepts and new thinking. He had the confidence of knowing the consumers’ minds because he was THE Consumer! He married technology with aesthetics, art with engineering and value with individuality.

With Steve Jobs, product design scaled new aesthetic heights. Simplicity was the ultimate sophistication for Jobs. He used to say, “Great products motivate not great profits.” Such a singleminded focus on making great products that were innovative, intuitive and aesthetic was indeed becoming rare in the twenty-first century. But Jobs showed the way with awe-inspiring value-laden products.

And he achieved this stupendous feat by spending a fraction of what other companies spend on R&D. He did not allow bureaucracy to creep into Apple. Teams were formed around an individual and were given a free hand to work on their mandate and report in an informal setting such that sharing resulted in enriching minds. Jobs advocated face to face engagement on believing that creativity came from spontaneous and random meetings. He stressed on focus and simplicity, and always pushed for perfection. He confronted every convention and the constraints that come with it.

Jobs used to call Apple a network of several start-ups, because each team functioned like a start-up. His concern for the consumer extended right into the retail shop experience of purchasing an Apple product. No wonder people love to do all kind of memorable things in an Apple Store, such as getting engaged!

Jobs followed his intuition in later years because he recognised the latent needs that technology companies were leaving unmet. Everyday use of technology products can become humdrum. But life is lived every day and has so much to offer each one of us. We grow attached to products that work significantly for our benefit. They become a part of us. Jobs understood this very subtle human need to love and to be loved. He made products that spoke intimately to their owners and owners in turn became devoted to them. That’s the iGeneration of products that Jobs made. He never sold products to the market, but rather gifted them to the consumers, who returned the gifts with profits.

Homi Bhabha

Homi Bhabha died in an air crash at the age of 57. By then he had established two institutions – Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and Atomic Research Centre, Trombay. He had also groomed a band of talented researchers who would eventually lead India into the Nuclear Power club. India hadn’t even completed two decades of independence when he died. Bhabha was a mechanical engineer and a nuclear physicist. He was a connoisseur of arts, painting and music, and was often compared to Leonardo da Vinci by no less than Sir CV Raman, the Nobel laureate.

Bhabha returned to India at the start of the hostilities of the Second World War and joined the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He was ever so watchful about developments in the nuclear field, that the absence of research papers from the then renowned nuclear physicists in the period 1942-44 struck him as odd. He suspected their engagement on some highly secret military project. He lost no time in proposing to the Tata Trust that India needed to set up a Research Institute for fundamental research into nuclear physics and astrophysics. He also lost no time in convincing Jawaharlal Nehru in starting India’s nuclear programme in 1948, barely a year after gaining independence. The Atomic Energy Act was passed in 1948, paving way for the establishment of the Trombay facility in 1954.

In the period of our years (1948- 52), Bhabha had recruited talented youngsters like Homi Sethna, PK Iyengar and Raja Ramanna, who later headed the Atomic Energy Commission. Bhabha worked with tremendous energy in getting equipment, building facilities, recruiting people and training them. Given the nature of nuclear energy, India had always stated that this nuclear power would be used for peaceful purposes. India’s policy was however, never documented in order to keep the strategic options open. It was always discussed by Bhabha as the Secretary, Dept of Atomic Energy with Pandit Nehru, the Prime Minister of India. To earn such high respect and confidence was certainly a measure of the man that Bhabha was.

He was active internationally to gain vital information and understanding of the developments in different countries. He managed to get Canada to collaborate for the heavy water treatment plant needed for enriching uranium. Despite being a newly independent and underdeveloped country, India managed to develop its nuclear capability largely on the strength of its scientists and technologists.

His colleagues noted that Bhabha never accepted mediocrity and always met challenges head on. He recruited people with outstanding talent and gave them support, encouragement and stimulus to grow and achieve perfection in the work they were doing. He never allowed bureaucracy to stand in the way of talent. He ensured that the Secretary, Dept of Atomic Energy reported directly to the Prime Minister of India. In no small way, he also influenced Nehru’s thinking about the place of science and technology in India’s development.

Common Factors

We have seen three tall leaders, two from India and one from US, who also had an India connection. Studying them together throws up interesting findings.

All three of them cared deeply about people working with them and about people in the world outside. They went to great lengths to nurture talent by giving ample scope to utilise and develop their capabilities. In their scheme of things, the human resources took the place of pride alongside natural and physical resources. But all three of them went beyond this. They designed and shaped institutions and organisations around highly talented individuals and groups. The outstanding talent was not only a resource for the organisation, but also its core. The organisation grew around their competence. JRD recruited FC Kohli and gave him the reins of the Consulting and Computers business, which we see today in the form of TCS. Steve Jobs recruited what he called startup entrepreneurs, or A grade individuals and asked them to lead teams on the given mandate. Bhabha recruited and groomed future leaders of Atomic Energy in India like Homi Sethna, PK Iyengar and Raja Ramanna.

The true significance of what an organisation does lies not in the products or profits, but its contribution to the world outside. Nuclear Power for a newly independent, newly industrialising yet poor country is at once a statement of faith, aspiration and capability. It lifted the spirits of multitudes of educated, half-educated and uneducated Indians alike. In the same way, the Tata group is not an Industrial House, but a lighthouse for all those who want to believe in business and believe it can do well for society despite the prevailing cynicism.

JRD aligned himself with progress of that time and understood the role Business and Industry had to play in newly independent India. His forays into Aviation and Computers certainly spoke of his vision of an industrial powerhouse for his country. Steve Jobs redefined the meaning of technology for mankind by marrying it with arts, aesthetics and creativity. Technology now becomes neither the master nor the slave; but an intimate friend, thanks to Jobs’ vision. All the tall leaders define meanings of the field of activity for society at large and focus their activities to realise that contribution to society. This role is not for the weak hearted; it calls for leaders with conviction who grow tall in the process of fulfilling those promises.