Ashutosh P Bhupatkar

Ashutosh P Bhupatkar (Ph D) is an Independent Consultant.

Tall Leaders – Part II

Ashutosh P Bhupatkar

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 Tall leaders leave behind a strong impact which is felt for a long time by the institutions they created, and the individuals who inhabited their sphere of influence. This impact is felt at the level of philosophy, principles, processes and practices. Over time, however, one can expect the processes and practices to evolve in keeping with the dynamics of the environment. The values, beliefs, aims and broader purpose remain stable under the influence of the tall leaders.

The Legacy

People keep sharing stories, anecdotes and reminisces of such tall leaders for a long time. That is how culture internalises the influence of tall leaders. I recently heard the following first hand account from a retired General Manager of one of the Taj group hotels in India.

When we learnt that JRD was to stay overnight at our hotel on a visit to the local University, our Engineering department worked overtime to make sure nothing in the Chairman’s suite went amiss.  They checked and rechecked every small detail and so did the housekeeping staff.  JRD came in and exchanged pleasantries with the staff in his usual amiable manner. He then asked me to join him for coffee before he retired to his suite. I had met him earlier at another Taj property, so I had to fill him about my postings. Things went smoothly and I saw him off to his suite.

The next morning my engineering manager rushed to me and reported the incident of the previous night. His staff received a call from JRD at midnight about the leaking air conditioner. When the staff member went to his suite, he found JRD kneeling on the floor to mop up the water that had gathered. JRD told the mechanic that he was trying to make things easier for him to get on with the repair work. By this time JRD had checked out of the hotel for his official engagement, leaving me no time to apologise personally for the inconvenience.  He had not said anything about this to anyone in the management either then or later. 

This was JRD’s way of saying he understood all the trouble we had taken and that we would learn our lesson. He trusted his managers and his staff right down to the mechanic and was   with them in dealing with every situation. Who wouldn’t want to work with such a leader?

The question that arises naturally is: would this legacy survive in course of time? Let us look at what happened at Tata Motors after Ratan Tata took over.

He took over the reins when competition in all sectors of the economy was heating up, especially so in the automobile sector. Like all other Indian large manufacturing companies, Tata Motors too went down the downsizing path. But their severance packages were among the most generous ones and the manner in which the retirement process was handled was more dignified. The whole exercise was, no doubt, one of making the best of a bad job, yet they showed that it was possible to hold on to human values while yielding to the compulsions of business economics.

Ratan Tata showed the same kind of affinity that JRD had for the country and its people, when he announced the ambitious Indica project and a decade later the Nano project. That both Indica and Nano are, at present, not doing very well in the market is another matter. But both created an upsurge of pride in the ability of Indian engineering talent to build cars of their own design. Notably, when Ratan Tata retired from the chairmanship of the group, he chose to have a farewell lunch with the workers of Tata Motors plant at Pune.

Having said this, it must be acknowledged that Ratan Tata faced big hurdles early in his tenure in the form of resistance from the CEO’s of several Tata enterprises who had become powerful under JRD’s stewardship. They all enjoyed excellent personal equations with JRD and expected the same kind of freedom under the new dispensation led by Ratan Tata. This led to personality clashes resulting in acrimonious departures of the disgruntled chieftains.

The toughest challenge however, came in 2008 when terrorists attacked the iconic Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai. The attack ended after 72 hours of commando action by the National Security Guard. In the meantime, the hotel staff showed extraordinary courage in herding out hotel guests to safety. Half of the total lives lost in the action were those of the staff members. When asked about the source of this exemplary act by all staff members of the hotel, Ratan Tata was disarmingly honest: “Frankly I don’t know the answer.  It was some kind of leadership from below”. That the legacy of JRD and indeed the whole generation of Tata founders had survived and thrived was so eloquently demonstrated in that fateful and tragic episode.

Interfacing the environment

One of the important measures that Dr Homi Bhabha put in place very early in the development of Atomic Energy was to have a direct reporting relationship with the Prime Minister. This shielded the whole process from needless scrutiny and interference from both, the bureaucracy and the politicians. It left the Atomic Energy establishment relatively free to pursue the strategic agenda of developing nuclear energy in preset directions.  This insulation was necessary in view of the need for flexibility in determining the ends for which it was to be deployed.  It needed the 1965 war with Pakistan to convince the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri that the pacifist agenda of using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes was compatible with the availability of the Nuclear Arms option to be used as a deterrent. Dr Bhabha was, of course, joined in for this strategic vision by Pandit Nehru, the architect of India’s transition to modernity.

The other long term measure instituted by Dr Bhabha was to invest in the training and development of manpower. This was necessary to sustain the supply of trained manpower to serve the needs of the country well into the future. The foundation laid then, of manpower training, has helped the country in diverse application of technologies developed in the wake of building the nuclear power infrastructure in the country. At the same time, India has been able to make the manpower training facilities available to other developing countries.

Apple after Steve Jobs

Questions are inevitable especially when you look at the legacy of Steve Jobs, who is regarded by many as the CEO of the century. Jobs’ record of disruptive innovation is unmatched till date. Not only that, his record of turning around Apple in a decade is unlikely to be surpassed, at least in the foreseeable future. With every passing day, the world learns to admire Jobs ever more.

Two things are certain in the post Jobs scenario.  Apple products are facing stiff competition and the company isn’t likely to bring out radically innovative products at the same rate as they did in the decade before Jobs departed. The challenge then, is to keep up the product improvements, and keep working on the innovative products at the same time. It is likened to riding the horse of incrementalism while getting the superfast train on the tracks.

Apple seems to be meeting the first part of the challenge quite well, which is to bring out newer versions of the once-breakthrough products. That has kept up the market appeal for Apple products. We now have to wait and see how the company fares in bringing some long awaited new products to the market.

To sum up

Once again the question in dealing with the legacy of the Tall Leaders is the extent to which the philosophy and the principles are imbibed and creatively deployed in adapting products, processes and practices to changing times. It is a huge challenge and the two Indians JRD Tata and Homi Bhabha and their respective institutions seem to have met that challenge admirably. The key factors are the successors who do not take the burden of legacy but rather flow with the stream of energy that constitutes the legacy.

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