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Indian Leadership Traits...

Back to the Future

Amit Rangnekar NMIMS-PhD-2004

Indian Leadership Traits-Back to the future 1

Indian Leadership Traits - Back to the future

Compassion and courage in leadership were crucial traits, used successfully by Rama in the

Ramayana. Inspite of radical changes in thoughts and technology, these leadership traits are

followed, and remain relevant today as shown by successful Indian business leaders like the

Tatas and Cipla. Surely, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Standing up for what you believe in regardless of the odds and the pressure that tears

at your resistance, is courage- Napolean

To lead people, walk beside them ... and when the job is done and people say, "We did

it ourselves", means compassion - Lao-Tsu

Leadership is understanding people and involving them to help you do a job. That

takes all of the good characteristics, like integrity, dedication of purpose, selflessness,

knowledge, skill, implacability, as well as determination not to accept failure- Admiral

Arleigh Burke


Throughout history, leadership has always made a difference between success and

failure. In today’s competitive world, old adages hardly hold true. Earlier, the boss was

automatically the leader and the cardinal rules while dealing with the boss were: Rule 1

- The Boss is always right and Rule 2- If the Boss is wrong, refer to Rule 1!

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Tom Peters, has defined a successful leader as “frighteningly smart, with tons of animal

energy, blessed with monumental impatience, able to distill a vision for the troops, able

to recognise and resolve big issues, with a healthy disgust for bureaucracy, a

performance freak, honest, straightforward, rapidly decisive, future focused, not report-

or past-oriented, rigorous in their own execution and follow-up, and highly driven” 1. But,

what is missing from this elaborate definition is compassion and courage.

It is very difficult to pinpoint what exactly goes into the making of a good leader, as

successful leaders leverage several competencies to achieve excellence. But, there are

a few things integral to the success of most leaders. Subtle embedded softwares like

compassion, courage and values, plus evident hardware like influence, effort,

empowerment and commitment, that are driven by operating systems like vision,

teambuilding and targets. While the hardware and operating systems are essential, the

softwares are critical to drive success in today’s competitive intensity.

These softwares have their origins in the ancient Indian scriptures, which espoused

wisdom, virtues and values. The Ramayana as a philosophy, and Rama as an example

of a compassionate and courageous leader who held values supreme even under

extreme pressure, embody these qualities.

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Compassion and Courage

Leadership primarily deals with change and action. Compassion helps drive change

through empowerment and understanding. Courage helps develop a vision, implement

strategy and to stoically bear the effects of change, through thought and action.

Courage and compassion in the business context assume slightly different meanings

than in the semantic sense. Compassion is often misconstrued as being passive, or

allowing others to do as they choose, but it actually means sharing your passions and

emotions with the aspirations of others, to attain common objectives. Compassion is

also driven by conscience, which has a dual action. Conscience helps distinguish

between right and wrong, and secondly warns of the consequences. A failure of either

mode of action can lead to an erosion of values.

Courage in the business context, delves more on the moral part than the physical part.

Courage includes self belief and an ability to take an ethical stance in the face of grave

risks, and under extreme pressure.

These leadership traits are most relevant in the emerging complex business scenario.

The current major corporate weaknesses, reasons for busts, scandals and extinctions

are primarily failures of courage, compassion and values, than only due to poor profits

and performance. These acts of weakness have been perpetrated in the absence of

strong corporate governance measures but are driven by a widespread abandonment of

acceptable values.

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Leadership and the Indian paradigm

Many western companies practice leadership by systems and controls. In India, the

leader’s personality and charisma play a major role, with systems following closely, but

secondary in importance2.

Designations and promotions are not always achievements driven, but also dependent

on seniority, class and education. Designations abound, with prefixes like senior, junior,

under, associate, vice, deputy and assistant. Decisions are often ad-hoc and placatory,

and end up causing more harm than good. Such decisions defy compassion and deter

courage. However, there is an increasing westernization in Indian corporates, evident in

the internalization of systems and controls.

Courage and Compassion in Leadership- Lessons from the Ramayana

Rama led an inferior and under prepared army against the might of Ravana’s elite army.

The Rakshasa army was very potent, having defeated the formidable devas and

vanquished powerful kings.

Rama believed in himself and maintained confidence in the ability of his army to

surmount these seemingly impossible odds. Driven by Rama’s inspirational leadership,

where courage and compassion were the major virtues, his army responded

magnificiently and carved out an improbable victory.

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Rama inspite of his royalty, interacted freely with the people. This was rare in the times

Rama lived in, because most princes disdained the common folk while Rama

empowered them with positions. Before and after the battle with Ravana, Rama

continued to maintain the same relationship.

Rama’s compassion commanded great loyalty from his army. Rama genuinely cared for

his people and treated everyone with courtesy and respect, regardless of social status.

Rama maintained his courage and composure even in the darkest hours, like Sita’s

abduction, which inspired his army to a famous win.

Rama stood courageously in the face of great adversity and never compromised on his

principles, even under extreme pressure. Rama maintained his resolve during crisis and

continued to motivate his army by personal example.

Rama’s moral conduct was exemplary and he always pursued the truth. Rama’s values

reflected in all his actions and endeavours. Rama’s resolve of monogamy stood out in a

society, where kings, including his own father, had several wives.

History has been a witness to leaders, who have made an early sacrifice in order to

build credibility and sympathy, and later used it to take unethical decisions, secure in

the fact that their initial sacrifice would make them immune to criticisms. Rama always

said what he meant and meant what he said.

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Rama always followed an ethical code and stood by cherished values. When Ravana

swaggered to battle on the first day without adequate preparations and was rendered

weaponless by Rama, he was allowed to return to his citadel because the code of

chivalry followed by Rama stipulated that an unarmed enemy not be attacked.

These examples of an earlier era inspire great deeds even today. Although ancient

Indian history is replete with examples of leaders who have exhibited great courage and

compassion, the current era also has its own heroes who cherish and apply these

values in their every endeavour.

Courage- Cipla

In 2000, Dr YK Hamied, Chairman of Cipla, India’s largest pharmaceutical company,

stunned the world by offering to sell drugs against AIDS, at a fraction of the major

pharmaceutical company’s price of $12,000 per patient per year.

Cipla’s unique three-drug anti-retroviral combination was to be sold for around $800 per

patient per year. The new tablet, called Triomune, was the first effective HIV

combination therapy in one tablet, and was sold so cheaply that even the millions of

people with HIV in poor countries might afford it. Cipla took advantage of the fact that

three different companies originally made the three drugs and hence they could legally

manufacture the three together into one pill.

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In 2001, Cipla further slashed prices to $300 per patient per year or under $1 per day. In

2004, a three-drug anti-Aids cocktail was sold for $140 per patient per year, subject to

certain conditions.

Meanwhile, in 2003, the Clinton foundation and WHO, approved Cipla to supply

economical, generic AIDS drugs in developing countries. This gave a boost to Indian

generic drug companies who are now considered respectable and quality conscious.

Dr Hamied firmly believes that the company that invents a drug should be adequately

but not obscenely rewarded. Cipla has offered to pay royalties and believes in patents,

but not in monopolies. Dr Hamied is convinced that pricing is never by cost, but by

market value and that it is futile to charge exorbitant rates from patients of poor

countries who cannot afford to pay the high costs for drugs.

The pharmaceutical majors have even accused Cipla of being a ’pirate’ to which they

clarified that their deeds are always in the interest of society, and perfectly legal. Cipla

has also been accused of sub standard quality and they challenged one MNC to test the

medicine at their own lab in Europe. The results showed that Cipla’s quality was at par

with world standards and a red-faced drug giant had to grudgingly slash prices, to


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The fact that the MNCs have slashed prices from $12,000 to almost $ 1000 over the

past 4 years proves that their conscience has been truly pricked and Cipla’s stand

vindicated. Currently Cipla makes 20 AIDS drugs, which it exports to 60 countries.

The broader issue exposed here, is the fleecing of vulnerable patients by companies

under the garb of patents. With over 90 % of the 50 million HIV patients in the world

unable to afford potentially life saving medications, charging exorbitant prices at the cost

of saving human lives, hardly makes social or economic sense.

Moreover, most of the AIDS drugs were not originally invented by the pharmaceutical

majors – but were in-licensed products. By making AIDS drugs affordable, available and

accessible, Cipla has given hope to millions living with the virus. Cipla supplies free

drugs to stop mother-to-child transmission and offers free technology to make AIDS

drugs to state-owned companies in all Third World countries.

Cipla has exhibited courage and magnanimity by championing the cause of the world’s

poor by ensuring availability of quality life saving medicines at affordable rates. In doing

so, Cipla has taken on the might of the world pharmaceutical industry, and won. Cipla

has exposed the plight of the poor, vulnerable patients who die despite the availability,

but due to the unaffordability of life saving medicines. More importantly, Dr Hamied’s

fortitude has ensured that the Indian pharmaceutical industry is firmly etched on the

world pharmaceutical map, as a provider of quality medicines at affordable prices.

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The Tatas - Compassion

Jamsetji Tata’s vision pioneered steel, power and science education in India, which

propelled the country to industrialisation. Jamsetji, a true nationalist also devised

innovative welfare measures that formed the basis of corporate philanthropy, empathy

and compassion in India- synonymous with the Tata name even after 136 years.

Jamsetji ensured that a significant proportion of profits and assets were devoted by

charitable trusts into social, medical and educational development initiatives, a legacy

continuing to this day. Jamsetji’s compassion envisioned his workers, shorter working

hours, well-ventilated workplaces, provident fund, paid leave and gratuity, long before

they became statutory in the west.

Jamsetji conceived a steel plant and a township five years before he actually set it up

and wrote to son Dorab in 1902, “Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every

other of a quick-growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens.

Reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples,

Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches." 3

The JN Tata Endowment enabled Indian students to pursue higher studies in England

and at one point, almost 40 % of Indians entering the elite Indian Civil Service, were

Tata scholars. In 1899, Jamsetji pledged Rs 30 lakh from his personal fortune towards

setting up of the Indian Institute of Science at Bangalore, which started functioning in

Bangalore in 1911.

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Jamsetji’s grandson, JRD, during his 53 years at the helm of the Tata Group, pioneered

the group'
s entry into airlines, chemicals, healthcare, commercial vehicles and infotech,

besides consolidating the traditional business lines in steel, electricity and hospitality.

Throughout his life, JRD, espoused and patronised various social causes including

family planning, gender equality and child welfare.

The principal contribution of the current chairman, Ratan Tata, has been in swiftly

propelling the group from the old into the new economy. This transformation was

achieved over a decade, with spectacular success, but without compromising on

cherished values like compassion and ethics. Ratan Tata exhibited firmness and grace

in ousting well entrenched and powerful Tata satraps, who were synonymous with the

business lines that they had successfully nurtured for decades.

The Tatas have an enviable record of excellent trade and industrial relations, which

epitomise the Tata spirit of giving back to society and the communities in which its

enterprises grow.

The Tata leadership has zealously guarded, practised and propagated the Tata values,

the bedrock of the Tata edifice. It is this '

spiritual core'that differentiates Tatas from

other major business entities globally, as they all strive to compete and win in a material


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The social sensitivity of the Tatas is evident in their desire to channelise considerable

profits to enhance the quality of public life in India. The Tatas contribution in the fields of

business, education, sports, labour, social sciences, science, technology and medicine

is unparalled.

JRD’s philosophy remained,” (In Tatas) we have retained the fire of idealism and in its glow

we have come to recognise that no wealth or power can be more valuable than our dignity; no

loss of profit can be more critical than the loss of our credibility; no skills or qualifications can

substitute the integrity of our character." 4

By strictly adhering to these values, the Tatas have remained a symbol of integrity,

righteousness, highest ethical conduct and compassion.

Relevance of compassion and courage as leadership traits in India

Compassion and courage remain critical to successful leadership. Compassion helps

understand underlying organisational currents, aspirations and frustrations. Compassion

aids team building and development, that help retain precious talent, and drive success.

Compassion as enshrined in the Ramayana speaks about caring, sharing, interpersonal

skills and development, relevant in today’s context against the backdrop of high attrition

and turnover rates. Compassion as espoused by the Tatas, speaks about nation

building, by empowering people through education and creating work environs and

facilities to harness their strengths.

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Courage in the face of adversity is rare, and needs belief in self and team to inspire and

motivate them to stand up to challenges in a highly competitive world. Rama’s team

triumphed over Ravana’s elite army, because they believed they could win from

impossible situations. Through a judicious mix of grit, guts, glory and god, they

triumphed over a much superior army.

Dr Hamied’s inspirational leadership and Cipla’s superior reverse engineering skills,

gelled to revolutionize the global pharmaceutical industry. More importantly, it helped

save precious lives of the world’s poor patients, who finally got access to affordable,

quality medicines.

Cipla’s strength of character stands out, as they chose to showcase their adroit skills by

taking on the might of the pharmaceutical majors, to benefit the world’s poor, rather than

enter more lucrative market segments without drawing any attention.

The common thread between the leadership of the Tatas and Cipla in their relentless

pursuit of excellence and sterling performance (annexure 1) has always been to put

people before profits, be it the teeming millions of India or the AIDS stricken poor of

Africa. Courage and compassion personified.

"We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow,

and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear." George Merck, Chairman,

Merck & Company, USA, in 1950.

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In an era of vulnerable virtues, where technology has touched and radically changed

every sphere of our lives, the essential software driving successful leadership, even

after 7000 years, remains the original versions of courage and compassion, be it Rama,

Cipla or the Tatas.

Amit Rangnekar is pursuing a PhD in Business Strategy from NMIMS- Mumbai, where he is also

a visiting faculty. Equipped with a Masters in Marketing Management from Mumbai University

and 15 years of progressively responsible pharmaceutical industry experience, his research

interests revolve around the key dynamics and demographics, affecting pharmaceutical strategy

and performance. Email-

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Annexure 1

Tata Group (Source

• Operations in 40 countries with 220,000 employees

• Exports to 140 nations

• 91 companies in 7 business sectors, 32 publicly listed enterprises

• 2005 Revenues $18 billion (Rs 769 billion), 3% of India’s GDP

• Highest combined market capitalisation in the private sector in India

• Shareholder base of over 2 million

Cipla (Source

• Worlds biggest pharma company by units sold

• Number 1 pharma company in India by domestic sales

• Exports to over 150 countries

• Facility approvals by all world pharma regulatory authorities

• Revolutionised AIDS therapy worldwide with $1 per day therapy

• Established Indian pharma firmly on the world map

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• Lala RM (1992), Beyond the last blue mountain- a life of JRD Tata, (2nd ed.),

Viking India

• Rajagopalachari C (1951), The Ramayana, (4th ed.), Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan

• Narayan RK (1987), The Ramayana, Vision Books

• Cipla Annual Report- 2002, 2004, 2005

• Indian Drug-Maker Leads the Charge for Low-Cost AIDS Drugs, (March 2003),

Treat Asia,

• A Very Pushy Drug Dealer, Time Asian heroes, Time magazine,

• Century of trust, Retrieved from the Tata group website at


Peters T (2001), Tom Peters true confessions, Fast company, pp 78 (53), December

Gopalakrishnan R (2002), If only India knew what Indians know, Indian Management,

pp 24, April 2002

Jamsetji Tata, The Tata Titans. Retrieved from the Tata group website at
Lasting legacies. Retrieved from the Tata group website at

Amit Rangnekar NMIMS-PhD-2004