28 February 2013

Leadership Lessons from N.R. Narayana Murthy

N. R. Narayana Murthy, Indian businessman and co-founder of Infosys (third largest IT company in the world) delivered a talk at AIM last February 21. He impressed upon his audience some valuable lessons on being a successful entrepreneur and leader of industry. So what makes a great leader? Here is my personal integration on how N.R. Narayana Murthy counts the ways.

Character. Good leaders have a clear grasp of what they wish to achieve (their vision), who they are, and what they can offer. Murthy sums this up in a concept: a clear and concise differentiated value proposition, i.e, what an individual or organization can offer that sets it apart from the rest. Add to it a firm commitment to hard work and integrity, and a capacity to sacrifice personal interest for the good of the organization or society. When people see these traits in leaders, they tend to be more attracted to the vision they share, for they lead by example.

A properly-formed character is also the best safeguard against the debilitating effects of mindsets, which come from the data base of our experiences that coagulate into supposedly proven ways of doing things that lull us to complacency and encourage mediocrity. A good leader committed to change is able to recognize innovative ideas and liberate them from mindsets.

Courage. Murthy actually identifies courage as the most important attribute of a good leader. This means the courage to dream big, take moral decisions, implement strategy, go against conventional wisdom, and travel roads less travelled, or in some cases untraveled. If entrepreneurship is about transforming ideas into wealth, of making the implausibly impossible possible, then courage is indeed the defining trait of the entrepreneur. It is also about knowing that subscribing to a value system entails cost. Taking a risk because one’s value system demands it is the true test of courage.

Creativity. Murthy calls it the drive for innovation. A good leader should know how to dream, and be able to convince others that his dream is worth taking – but he should also be open to new ideas. The best way to generate new ideas is to work in improving competence, gaining crucial experience and knowledge in the process. 

For the entrepreneur, creativity may mean the constant search for that which will make his products or services better, faster, cheaper. This is also a good rule for development work. The conviction that there ought to be a better way of delivering services, recognizing rights, or empowering people is the starting point in the journey of transforming inequality to equity.
Care for Persons. Murthy jokingly talks about his transformation from a confused socialist to a compassionate capitalist (as some have described him), but he does walk his talk when it comes to his concern for people. He calls it generosity. At the outset, it makes good business sense to care of people – clients, partners, and employees alike. It ensures repeat business, investor confidence and employee loyalty. More than these however, values such as fairness and transparency, courtesy and humility, and generosity of heart (“praise in public, prescribe in private, take blame for failures”) builds people’s trust in the leader and self-esteem and confidence in themselves. 

At the crucial nexus between having the vision to effect change and other people’s willingness to follow or, better yet, take such vision as their own, lies the trust that they have on the one carrying the message. The truism “the medium is the message” may already be a cliché but still rings ever true today: people will accept and carry the message for as long its messenger proves himself genuinely trustworthy and his message empowering.

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