One of the abiding features of the uncertain world we live in is the disenchantment of young professionals with work life. ‘The Great Resignation’ looms over enterprises dependent on harnessing the energies of a generation of productive youth in one of the world’s youngest countries.

At moments such as this, it might be opportune to go back in time and learn a few priceless lessons from one of India’s finest talent managers on his 118th birth anniversary. In terms of stature, it is difficult to overstate the contribution Tata group’s longest serving Chairman, JRD Tata made to laying the foundation for India’s economic ascendancy. For over half a century, he nurtured multiple generations of admirable talents, each a contributor to the nation’s economic progress in their own way. Curiously, he would do this at a time when the literature on motivating talented professionals was woefully thin. That was an era where workers were essentially deemed ‘inputs’ into the manufacturing process rather than sentient beings to be inspired.

Inspite of this, JRD Tata chose to take a curiously unconventional approach for his times. “You have to lead people with affection”, he declared, one presumes, to the astonishment of those that might think “affection” has little place in the stern environs of enterprise. What, then, could this pithy advice mean, and could it help managers solve the disillusionment demoralising their teams? How might we decode “affection” in the context of the workplace?

The origin of the word “affection” comes from the Latin word afficere which means to “to influence”. During his lifetime JRD Tata would preside over the conduct of what has become the Indian sub-continent’s largest and most entrepreneurial enterprise, and pre-eminent brand. His influence resonates today stronger than ever before, and its cornerstones were laid through the way JRD Tata managed to influence the prodigious talents that the group, and he, would engage.

The Bombay Plan

Take for instance, the impressive John Matthai. As the newly appointed chairman and the youngest member of the board in 1938, JRD Tata was able to influence a group of stalwarts on the board to include John Matthai. This was not without good reason. Matthai, an economist who served as both the country’s first Railway Minister and its Finance Minister, was a renowned academician and policy expert.

It was Matthai who drafted the keystone document referred to as the ‘Bombay Plan’ at JRD Tata’s behest. Born from the desire to chart out India’s economic development, it would bring together some of the finest Indian minds of its time. It foresaw the need for economic self-reliance and laid out in impressive detail the steps that would be needed to achieve this mammoth task.

Later, when Vice-President R Venkataraman praised JRD Tata, citing the Bombay Plan as his contribution to India, he was quick to deflect it by saying, “My only contribution to it was to arrange for the Bombay Plan to be written. It was done mainly by John Matthai, but after considerable discussion”. Perhaps ‘affection’ refers to a leader’s ability to harness the intellectual energies of people and make them feel part of creating something bigger.

Moolgaokar’s contribution

It would be this same instinct that brought into the Tata fold another notable talent, Sumant Moolgaokar, a graduate in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College, London.

Moolgaokar designed India’s first cement plant for Associated Cement Company (ACC). Known to be reticent and shy, his talent would not escape JRD Tata’s discerning eye for human potential.

“How long are you going to make the glue that sticks the bricks together?” JRD jokingly teased him. This friendly jest would reveal a grander ambition for Moolgaokar — that of leading a company that would, in many ways, redefine India’s industrial surge.

In 1949, Moolgaokar was made Director-in-Charge of Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company or TELCO, that would go on to become India’s largest manufacturer of commercial and passenger vehicles, Tata Motors. Moolgaokar believed that merely assembling and manufacturing trucks was insufficient. A company should have ‘in-built strength’.

He gave TELCO the capacity to design and manufacture its own machinery, dyes, and presses to make the parts of a vehicle. Though some Directors felt he was spending too much money for the future instead of the present, JRD supported Moolgaokar.

“I realised early,” said JRD, “that Sumant was a lone wolf. If I let him run it his way, he would deliver the goods. And he did.” Again, this suggests that ‘affection’ alludes to a leader’s ability to advocate for the ideas of the talent they nurture in order to allow them to truly flourish.

As the careers of various noteworthy professionals took flight within an expanding Tata enterprise, so too did its airline venture.

Air India International inaugurated its Bombay-London service on June 8, 1948. Its world-famous ambassador, The Maharajah, would become an instantly recognisable celebrity brand mascot for the ages.

Man behind the Maharajah

Its creator was a young graduate from Cambridge who went by the name of Bobby Kooka. Hired by JRD, Kooka had an irrepressible irreverence that, much like the mischievous Maharajah, often appeared in the most unlikely of places. In various advertisements and hoardings, Kooka used levity directed at senior company officials and even Ministers, and Members of Parliament.

Each time, JRD would have to soothe ruffled feathers. Explaining why he did it JRD said, “…I forgive him all the scars that I have borne because of the pleasure, the laughter and the relief from frustration and boredom that he provided to thousands, and perhaps millions, of people”. Viewed through the prism of this experience, ‘affection’ seems to entail appreciating people’s ingenuity even when it is inconvenient, so that they can bring the kind of joy and amusement so many cubicle-dwellers crave, but do not find in their workplace.

In each of these instances, JRD Tata’s lived experience offers us a deep insight into how talented people can be inspired to engage. It shows us that allowing ‘affection’ to manifest in its various avatars can re-engage individuals and elevate them to their highest potential. Whether it is by impelling their intellectual energies, advocating for their ideas, or by unleashing their ingenuity.

As JRD himself would later reveal in his inimitably humble way, “If I have any merit, it is getting on with individuals according to their ways and characteristics… At times it involves suppressing yourself. It is painful but necessary.”

These instances offer managers in India and across the world, a leadership lesson that is hard to find in Western models of human resource management — that leading people, more than anything else, is the art of allowing them to lead you. That ‘affection’, employed deftly and appropriately, could turn the ‘Great Resignation’ into the ‘Great Rejuvenation’.

The writer is Vice-President, Corporate Brand and Marketing, Tata Sons. Views expressed are personal