Cultural side to leadership

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on November 22, 2020

Exploring the relevance of Indian-ness in our leaders

Recently I read an interview of Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga where he gets asked how his background as a Sikh has influenced the way he approaches work. What a strange question, I thought (obviously the interview was in a western publication)! But Banga’s answer was really illuminating — among other things, he talked about how the concept of humility and having your feet on the ground all comes from the principles of the religion.

Banga’s response came to my mind while reading Steve Correa’s book The Indian Boss at Work: Thinking Global Acting Indian (SAGE Publications; price, ₹695). The former Diageo CHRO who has had stints across Jio, Vodafone, Unilever, Xerox and Patni Computers has written a book which dives into our cultural contexts, mythologies, scriptures and philosophies, to understand what is Indian-ness and how it links up with our way of working.

Many of our organisations and leaders follow western management frameworks, but there is a relevance of Indian-ness to the way an Indian leader operates is Correa’s contention. He asserts: “There is a distinctiveness (and I don’t mean uniqueness) about the Indian leader — how he thinks, feels and behaves at the workplace. That he acts in response to the kaal (existential time and prevalent social characters) and desh (his inheritance, such as identity of race, caste, religion or place) and contextually to the Indian environment ever unfolding.”

Deeply researched

The breadth of Correa’s research is spellbinding. It’s a stimulatingly intellectual book as Correa, who now runs his own HR consultancy, draws from varied works ranging from Sri Aurobindo’s writings to Tagore, Amartya Sen, Ashish Nandy, Sudhir Kakar not to mention old philosophical treatises and scores of organisational research findings.

It’s not a book you can read quickly as it is deeply reflective, probing and questioning. But the book is by no means heavy either. It is packed with anecdotes and interviews and case studies so that you can co-relate the concepts and opinions put forth.

The foreword by Krish Shankar, group head, HR of Infosys sets the stage well as he succinctly summarises the essence of the book. As Shankar points out, the cultural side to leadership has never been as exhaustively examined as Correa does. Culture is the context for action, writes Shankar, as he says it is time to listen to the wisdom of a civilisation that is 7,000 years old.

Correa brings out that wisdom. A largish section of the book is spent exploring what is Indian-ness. He readily admits his own disproportionate exposure to Western thoughts, be it movies, books or management ideas, and how it’s only now as he explored Indian-ness and our heritage and influences that much changed. As he says, the wisdom of Indian-ness beckons a discovery from within, not a ‘borrowing from outside which is limiting, and within its roots lie a cosmic vision’.

After exploring many tributaries of thoughts on Indian-ness, Correa dives into how time (kaal) and (desh) influence. Aptly enough the chapter opens with Dhirubhai Ambani’s case study. Then he delves into the facets of the Indian leader after which he moves into the origins of the Indian leader.

Correa’s book is peppered with cultural truths as he talks about how most of our top talents come via the engineering degree, followed by an MBA route. He also explores the role of the family, again a very Indian thing, devoting a whole chapter to it, following it up with chapters on women leaders and young leaders.

The most interesting parts of the book are the spotlights — interviews with leaders probing them on what their Indian-ness means to them. Each chapter has a few of these — interviews with leaders like Naina Lal Kidwai, Manu Saale, Rajiv Memani, Harsh Mariwala, etc .

Correa also plays devil’s advocate answering the question whether the book would be relevant to millennials. After all, would the culture codes really apply to them. His answer to that is in a quote from Socrates dating back to circa 400 BC.

The book is not preachy. Correa has avoided that trap neatly, desisting from offering solutions or giving directional paths. He simply points out facts and opinions, his own and others’. It’s a book to keep.

Published on November 22, 2020

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