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Stephen Manallack
Searching for leadership values via the Himalaya, Infosys and Tata
2 September 2006
Steve Manallack* offers three insights on management to guide India's future leadership.

The search for values to underpin leadership continues, though too many Western business leaders remain fixed to the view that the sole purpose of business is to "make money for investors", a narrow value that may provide a clue to community disenchantment with corporate leadership.

Despite this mantra, most leaders in the West actually have a strong social conscience, make contributions to better the society and try to solve problems or contribute to solutions in their local communities. And Western business leaders remain accountable for what they do — nobody is seen to have risen "above" the need to be answerable for their actions. Is this always the case among India's leadership?

Three leadership insights provide a guide to the way forward for India's future leadership:

  • From the Himalaya comes the leadership advice to "climb on the mountain's schedule, not ours" and don't look for the best climbers but look for "selflessness" because this team will not leave you behind.
  • From the founder of Infosys, Narayan Murthy, is a call for India to be more open to adopting Western business values while also "extending our family values beyond the boundary of our home".
  • From Tata Sons executive director, R Gopalakrishnan, comes the timely warning for leaders to seek results "with goodness and moral purpose" because as the community sees amorality expanding (the heart of darkness), the "natural human instinct is a craving towards light".

Teams that operate best have a higher objective than themselves and humility makes a great leader, according to veteran Mt Everest climber and filmmaker, David Breashears who survived one of the deadliest accidents in the history of Everest. Breashears told a Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, "Leadership and Change" forum that the mountain had taught him things about leadership and planning.

In May 1996 Breashears and his team were to face the double challenge of climbing Everest and making a film about it. He stressed that climbing with so much equipment meant they had to plan carefully, but that "a good plan makes you nimble, not stuck. Ours gave us options…wiggle room". They needed it, because a freak storm hit the day they were to climb the summit and Breashears and his team turned back when others went on.

While the temptation to go on was enormous, Breashears says, "We had to climb on the mountain's schedule, not ours," and it was this that probably saved his life and those of his team. By nightfall, eight climbers from other teams that pushed towards the top had died. This included one of the best-known climbers, who was leading a team of "individuals" who had paid lots of money for him to take them to the top.

How does Breashears assemble his team? "I look for talented people who believe in their craft, not those who are looking for praise. The most important quality is selflessness. I know that no matter what, no one would leave me behind," he jokes.

He believes in sharing a common goal and vision and points out that "people who say 'me first" are dangerous on Everest. "The kind of leader I want wakes up and asks what did I do wrong yesterday and how can I fix it today? Your team doesn't need to like you, but they have to trust and respect you. A leader who puts his interests first is a highly demoralizing force."

A successful Indian business leader who would certainly not leave you behind on the Himalaya is Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys, and for a long time he has "pondered" on the role of Western values in contemporary Indian society — a different starting point in the quest for leadership.

Murthy stresses his pride in Indian culture, especially the "deep rooted family values", involving tremendous levels of loyalty. But he questions whether this attitude to family life extends to community. At one level, he points to littering of streets and right through to corruption and breaking of contractual obligations — evidence that Indians can be "apathetic to the common good".

Turning to the West, he says India could learn from respect for the public good, freedom from corruption, the will to solve social problems, acknowledging the accomplishment of others, accountability (even from those at the top), dignity of labour, professionalism above personality issues, intellectual independence and acceptance of contractual obligations.

There is no doubt a valid point in here, but it must be said that the citizens of New Orleans had to wait a long time before the will to solve social problems finally took hold, that Enron and other examples show corruption occurs, and that leaders in the West can display arrogance and be mightily contemptuous of competitors. In other words, it's not all one-way traffic and many leaders in the West are looking to the east for inspiration on the meaning of life and the basis of ethics.

For inspiration on leadership, Murthy turns to former US President Dwight Eisenhower: "People that value privileges above principles soon lose both". Murthy also borrows Gandhi's words that "there is enough in this world for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed".

The search for leadership has been also addressed by R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons, who outlined four features of ethical leadership:

  • Great leadership has a sustained impact on people
  • True leadership is institutionalised, not personalised
  • Leadership is never proven, it is tested each day
  • The public-life flaws of leaders affect moral purpose

He concludes that the gap between the demand for leadership and the supply of leadership is huge, and he warns, "The greatest mistake leaders can make is to assume that results alone matter, that morality and goodness do not count."

Gopalakrishnan sums it up well, "Like human happiness, leadership is easy to recognise but difficult to grasp."

He provides part of the answer on leadership, "Great leaders do what they have to without regard to appearances, because they genuinely believe that theirs is but one lap in a relay race." I know where this is heading and it is a good point, but I would gently take issue with leadership "without regard to appearances" because my observation is that the best business leaders know they have to get the message across, know that the facts and the truth are their best allies in times of crisis and know that perceptions in the market place translate into additional corporate share value. Perhaps, in a way, this reinforces the shared view of these three leaders — real leadership must have a moral and ethical basis.

*Stephen Manallack is a communication consultant, professional speaker and trainer, based in Melbourne, Australia. His training programs include creating a corporate communications culture, and how managers and leaders can create engaged employees. Stephen is the author of You Can Communicate (Pearson 2002). He is a member of the committee of management of the Australia India Business Council. Website: www.manallack.com.au

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