5 Leadership Lessons from India

Wishing everyone sustained and sustainable success in 2019.

We had the great good fortune to be able to spend our New Year in India.  We chose India because we wanted our children (13 and 15) to appreciate that their life in the UK is not “normal”.  We flew to Delhi and then did the so called “Golden Triangle” via Agra and Jaipur back to Delhi with a stop in rural India to visit a game park and see tigers.

India is a fascinating and beautiful country, which is highly likely to become the dominant economy of the 21st century.  It has a population of around 1.3 billion with a median age of about 27 (Europe is over 40) and a 300 million strong middle class (larger than the whole population of the USA).  (see the Ageing chapter of Stealing from the future for more on this)  The people are hard working, resourceful and remarkably calm, they are also kind and helpful.  From my personal experience they value education more highly than any other country of the 35 plus I have worked in.

The palaces built over the last thousand years are more opulent than any of their contemporaries in Europe.  The visible poverty in both towns and villages today is extreme and distressing.  The air quality in the cities at this time of year is frightening, with pollution visible even indoors, but then it was only in the 1950s that Londoners had to contend with smog that killed thousands.

Religion is important and Hindus have over 30 million gods to choose from.  Perhaps because of their religion attitudes are very different to Europeans and it is particularly visible in the way they drive.

When driving it seems that there is a responsibility to ensure that every available bit of road is used, it is best if traffic always keeps moving at a steady pace and road markings are largely for decoration.  Overtaking is done whenever and wherever and oncoming traffic accommodates it.  If you only have a short distance to travel it is OK to go on the wrong side of the road, especially if there is a solid central barrier in the road.  Road users appear unperturbed by cutting in.  Hooting is essential, in a friendly just letting people know you are there kind of way.   Remarkably it seems to work fairly well most of the time and that is more down to the tolerant, live and let live attitude than to rules or driving skill.

To the leadership lessons…

Lesson 1 – Rulers need to show their wealth

We appear to be very vulnerable to manipulation by extreme displays of wealth.  The Mughal Emperors (Muslim kings descended from Genghis Khan and the Mongolian rulers of Persia) and the Maharajas (Hindu kings of regions of India) built fabulous palaces which ostentatiously displayed their wealth and power.   The common response to these wildly excessive disparities of wealth is to either subordinate to it, ally with it or occasionally to be inspired by it.  What rarely appears to have happened in India or elsewhere is, what might be a more rational response, which is to collaborate with the masses to negotiate a fairer share of the wealth.

The lesson is perhaps to believe in ourselves more.  We don’t need rich and powerful patrons to create sustained success for ourselves, in fact on the whole they are only interested in their own success, not ours.  Rather than supporting Rulers and Bosses who only care about themselves we should support Integral and Authentic leaders who care about our shared future.

Lesson 2 – There is beauty in acceptance

To a European visitor India feels chaotic, noisy and intense.  For the locals it is normal, but they also appear to be unfazed by it.  There is a Buddhist saying (Buddhism and Hinduism are closely related) “If you can do something about it, why worry? If you cannot do anything about it, why worry?  This balance of fatalism and resourcefulness is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche.

The lesson is to accept the things you cannot change with good grace and at the same time to be resourceful, determined and creative about changing the things that need to be changed and can be.

Lesson 3 – Populism is popular and short term

We didn’t seek to discuss politics while we were there, but the conversations seemed to happen anyway.  India has a somewhat populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, several people we spoke to were supportive of Modi citing his anti corruption and infrastructure focus as being positive for India.  Another person we spoke to said that the focus on infrastructure was very much at the expense of the environment, wildlife and climate.

The lesson is that effective leadership of an organisation or countries is badly compromised if it is evaluated on the basis of short term popularity with any stakeholder group (this is a real challenge for democracy).  Leaders have to find a way to ‘sell’ a sustainable long term vision, even if it requires some unpopular compromises to get there.  The great challenge of being an Integral leader is garnering sufficient short term support to deliver the value that is almost always in the longer term.

Lesson 4 – Hubris leads to nemesis

Starting in 1911 the British moved the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi and built New Delhi as a planned city, adjacent to Old Delhi and designed by Edwin Lutyens.  New Delhi is almost a 1930s version of Milton Keynes – all wide avenues and roundabouts.   Vast government offices (see lesson 1 above), parliament and the Viceroy’s palace were the centrepiece of New Delhi.  British rule in India lasted for only another 16 years before independence.  Independence was in no small part influenced by the Integral leadership of Gandhi.

The lesson is there are great risks in believing your own propaganda, as leaders we must find the skill to appreciate even critical feedback and also to examine all of our decisions, not just for their potential outcomes, but also for the motivation that lies behind them.

Lesson 5 – Many gods

In contrast to monotheistic religions Hinduism is extremely diverse and appears to tolerate a very individual approach to which god or gods if any a Hindu worships.  Hinduism is a set of ethical principles and lifestyle choices designed to create a life that is positive for the individual and the community.

The lesson here is that as an Integral leader we need to honour a broad range of stakeholders and understand their different perspectives and priorities.  There are the normal stakeholders of customers, employees, shareholders etc and there are less culturally accepted stakeholders like “the future” and “the environment”.  We need to do our best to serve the interests of all of these stakeholders medium to long term interests and avoid being sucked in to focussing excessively on a minority of them or on the short term.

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Neil Crofts

+447803 774239


About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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