True Tata value proposition

Debashis Chatterjee | Updated on March 23, 2011

Mr Ratan Tata, Chairman, Tata Steel   -  th

I met Mr Ratan Tata when we conferred on him the LP Singhania-IIM(L) National Leadership Award, given away by then President, Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. The reason he was given the award goes beyond the business achievements of the group. Mr Ratan Tata changed a lot of perceptions as a business leader.

Satraps who felt that he would simply not be able to fill the shoes of J.R.D. Tata were running Mr Ratan Tata down during his early days. He changed the mindset and that perception.

Beyond the group's success in India and abroad — the success of Indica, the concept of the Nano, Corus and all of that — was a very grounded leader following someone so much bigger in our consciousness.

It's like a Sachin following Gavaskar and going a number of rungs beyond. Mr Ratan Tata has taken the Tata legacy further.

India's liberalisation has helped Mr Ratan Tata, coming when it did. The large-scale shifts in terms of policies helped expand the focus and frontiers of the established business empire. I don't see how a Corus deal could have happened in a pre-liberalisation era. But, we need to give him credit for fundamentally altering perceptions about leadership with finesse and humility.

We were doing a training programme at IIM-Kolkata which Mr Ratan Tata attended. Essentially, he had the humility to be a nobody when everyone there knew who he was. That's what enabled him to hit the shop floor in his company. I had gone to him with a team to seek support for one of our initiatives, the Global Centre for Leadership and Human Values. The nature of the initiative required us to approach an ethical organisation to sponsor it. He offered us Rs 60 lakh over the table.

He said this was something perfectly suited for Tatas. Mr Ratan Tata is a rare combination of humility and a generosity of spirit. While he has inherited some values from JRD, as much as JRD was flamboyant, Mr Ratan Tata is more grounded and reserved in his expression.


What has helped him is the fact that he came from the outside, without a background in the business, and could see world of JRD from an outsider's perspective. Today, the Tata name is truly global. 60 per cent of the business is from other markets. And everywhere in the world I go, Tata is recognised as not just another business, but as an Indian institution with value systems in place.

When I sent him my book, I received a half page response signed by him soon after. That level of responsiveness of the leader is what makes his company so much agile. I dare say that JRD would have been his own enemy if he had stayed for longer, with a pre-liberalisation era mindset.

Mr Ratan Tata took over at the right time. He brought in a cutting edge to the group. You can be humane and be sloppy. Or you can be like the Tatas — humane, with extraordinary vigour of performance.

People say he is fiercely private as a person. Though I have known him only professionally, I know that he sometimes spends just half a day in Europe on business. A man with that kind of a schedule is entitled to his privacy!

The number of times the board has wanted him back is testimony to the fact that he has created disproportionate value. His ability to deliver, with no fanfare, is what sets him apart. He has, most importantly, stayed true to the values that the Tatas stand for. Once, when Mr Gopalakrishnan suggested the idea of Tatas' contribution to help those affected by the Latur earthquake being announced, he received a simple ‘No' from Ratan. Some things are sacrosanct about the Tatas.

Timeless traditions

Mr Ratan Tata was flying a plane even as he was rebuilding it from the inside. The fuel driving it was the Tata values. Timeless traditions of integrity, respect for the rule of law and commitment to human values are synonymous with Tatas.

It will be a Herculean task to find a successor to Ratan Tata, but the equity that the Tata name enjoys is bound to attract the best in the world. The measure of a great leader is what the leader is within. Without integrity, nothing else matters.

Leaders with high performance and doubtful integrity are disasters waiting to happen, as we have seen recently with cases like Satyam. It is all the more critical that Tatas get an impeccable leader to follow Ratan Tata, because the Tata name is synonymous with India. We can't let this citadel fall.

Mr Ratan Tata's successor needs to have a profile that combines JRD's flamboyance, Ratan's grounded-ness and vision, and someone with a perspective of the future as it unfolds. Whoever the person is, Mr Ratan Tata's legacy will loom pretty large over him – or her.

(As told to Gokul Krishnamurthy by the author, who is Director, IIM Kozhikode. He was Fulbright Fellow at the Harvard University and MIT, and has taught in IIM Lucknow and IIM Calcutta. He founded the Global Centre for Leadership and Human Values at IIM. He was named one of the 15 ‘ thought leaders' of the world by Harvard Business School for his contribution to the theory and practice of leadership. )

Published on March 23, 2011

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