Tata Group’s outgoing Chairman created the blueprint for the Group’s future and worked with a purpose towards it

Ratan Tata retires on his 75th birthday this week, handing over the baton of his business to Cyrus Mistry, the first chief appointed from outside the immediate Tata family in its 144-year history. While Ratan Tata has been credited with transforming the Tata group into a streamlined conglomerate of more than 100 companies and earning a global reputation for his consolidation and expansion strategies, I am looking at his leadership traits and how those traits influenced the group and made him the most powerful Indian Chief Executive Officer (CEO) brand globally.

Vision & mission

Ratan Tata is a visionary and no one would have any doubts about it if they glance through his stint in Tata. He is a futuristic leader who looked ahead with a powerful vision. In 1983, thirty years ago, he authored a document that was unofficially called the Tata Plan when the company was under the leadership of JRD Tata.

The group got Ratan Tata to draw up a blueprint for the future. At that time he recommended that the group should seek substantial growth in international operations. He also suggested restructuring the group to address the global opportunity better. Another example of his futuristic vision is Nano. “What drove me — a man on a two-wheeler with a child standing in front, his wife sitting behind, add to that the wet roads — was a family in potential danger,” said Ratan Tata, while explaining why he went for the Nano.

Visionary leaders are the builders of a new possibility that never existed before, working with imagination, insight, and boldness. They present a challenge that calls forth the best in people and brings them together around a shared sense of purpose. They operate from a positive intent and alignment with a higher purpose. They are social innovators and change agents, seeing the big picture and thinking strategically. Both globalisation of Tata and introducing Nano to India are just two smaller examples of how visionary Ratan Tata is.

Self-knowledge

Being just a visionary leader is not just enough. A lack of self-knowledge is sometimes the most common everyday source of leadership failures. Having facilitated several top management workshops and coaching senior leadership for a while, I strongly believe that self-knowledge and alignment of values to action is the most important leadership trait and Ratan Tata demonstrates this well.

To perform at your best, without sacrificing yourself to achievement, is to operate from a foundation that is anchored solidly in what is most important and most enduring in one’s life. The question leaders need to ask is how ‘who I am’ is influencing ‘what I am doing now’? Ratan Tata is known as a value-based, socially-focused leader who operated from a higher purpose that is beyond the balance sheet.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that humans operate as if they have a hierarchy of needs. His research focused on the motivations of people who were successful in their lives. According to Maslow, the primary human need is survival. When we are able to master survival, we shift the focus of our consciousness to the establishment of relationships, so that we can feel safe and protected. When we are able to master the art of relationship building, we shift the focus of our consciousness to satisfying our self-esteem needs. Once we are able to feel a sense of self-worth, we shift the focus of our consciousness to self-actualisation .

Process of growth

We continuously grow towards a higher stage, and in that highest state, we become a better human being and this process of growth is termed by him as ‘self-actualisation’.

A self-actualised person is set to develop deep social interest and compassion. Keeping this in the context, if you look at the purpose statement of Tata, it reads, “At the Tata group we are committed to improving the quality of life of the communities we serve.” Anyone who visits Jamshedpur will know the meaning of this purpose statement and how well this statement is expressed and executed there.

The third thing that makes leaders successful is their ability to create and develop a set of leaders in their organisations. Through TAS (Tata Administrative Services) and other leadership initiatives, Ratan Tata was able build a cadre of leaders who demonstrate the Tata values and contribute significantly to the organisation. A common leadership thread runs through and across different Tata enterprises and there is a strong link to the group values and purpose. There is a distinctive leadership profile and leadership development agenda at the top; a leadership engine that takes care of early planning and picking the right people for the future and training them to take on bigger responsibilities.

Though there are different models around leadership, mostly all successful leaders do three things. One, with a vision and purpose, add value and create a new possibility. Two, build next-in-line leaders and leadership pipeline. Three, be a role model, authentic and self-aware. Ratan Tata is an ideal example of a leader demonstrating all these three things.

(The author is the Managing Director of Organisation Development Alternatives Consultants Pvt Ltd)

(This article was published on December 27, 2012)
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