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S.N. Chary, Independent Director, Bharat Earth Movers Limited, Bangalore, INDIA


A business biographical study was conducted by interviewing seven highly successful businesspersons of

India. A main objective was to investigate the aspects of leadership exhibited by these extraordinary businesspersons. Additional biographical information was collected through available literature and company information. The businesspersons involved were the IT czars Narayana Murthy Chairman of Infosys Technologies, Azim Premji Chairman of Wipro Corporation , Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw the lady pioneering Bio-technology industry in the country, Deepak Parekh Chairman of HDFC and who pioneered the concept of housing finance in a constrained economy, Venu Srinivasan Chairman of the TVS Motors whose quest for quality got him the Deming Prize, Mukesh Ambani Chairman of India’s biggest petrochemical and petroleum industrial empire Reliance Industries and Verghese Kurien the Chairman of the National Dairy Development Board who was the architect of the Operation Milk Flood in India empowering millions of illiterate rural women.

It was striking to find that while each of these businesspersons was in a different field, they showed

certain common aspects to leadership. The most striking aspect has been the ‘transcendental’ nature of their approach to leading the business. They were so committed to their goals that they transcended the boundaries of self and their business companies, encouraging a second line of leadership within and/or outside their organizations. Commitment to the final goal or task emerged as a very important factor of leadership. The leaders exhibited a high Clarity of the vision of the goal/task. The leadership ‘style’ was not a significant factor being only the intermediate step that would be manifested as per the needs of the task at hand. Leadership phenomenon could also not be separated from the task at hand, since it was the task that generated the high commitment level resulting in high leadership effectiveness.

Keywords: Leadership, Business Leadership, Transcendental Leadership, Entrepreneur Incubation, Executive Selection


Leadership is a fascinating subject and various theories have been proposed to explain the reasons for the effectiveness of the leaders. The earlier theories proposed various traits or characteristics of the leader as responsible for the effectiveness. The later work revolved around the ‘style’ of functioning of the leader that gives rise to the effectiveness. In general, two kinds of styles were perceived to operate: one where the leader is authoritarian and another where he is relationship oriented. Thus, the leader was thought to operate in predominantly one style or the other. In these theories there is permanency about the leader’s predominant style of operation. George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte operated in a certain way while Mother Theresa operated in another way. Thus, while General Patton’s leadership is put in one mould, the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi is put in another mould.

1.1 Business Biographical and Leadership Study Seven highly successful entrepreneurs in different fields of business were interviewed on a one-to-one basis by the author in a business biographical and leadership study in India. These are: (1) Narayana Murthy, Chairman of Infosys Technologies, (2) Azim Premji, Chairman of Wipro, (3) Kiran Mazumdar- Shaw, a pioneering lady who is the Chairperson of Biocon India Group, (4) Deepak S. Parekh, Chairman of Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC), (5) Mukesh D. Ambani, Chairman of Reliance Industries, (6) Venu Srinivasan, Chairman of TVS Motors and (7) Verghese Kurien, the former Chairman of AMUL.

Narayana Murthy is credited to have started the IT industry revolution in India. He started Infosys Technologies in one bedroom of his two bedroom apartment in 1981 with a capital of Rs. 10000 (less than one thousand US dollars). Today, the company has multi-billion dollar sales turnover. More importantly, when very few in India saw any potential in the computer software business, he doggedly



stuck on to it and made a huge success of it. Infosys is also the first company from India to be listed on the NASDAQ.

Azim Premji took over the reins of WIPRO at the young age of 21 and turned the company from a very modest manufacturer of vegetable oil products to an Indian giant in computer hardware and software among other businesses. Today, Premji is counted amongst the world’s richest persons.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is the quintessential pioneer amongst Indian businesspersons. She led the biotechnology business revolution in India from the forefront. She chose to do business in a new field starting out from a garage in her house in Bangalore in 1983. In a country where R&D scenario on an industrial level was very dull, she started a contract research organization. Today, her Biocon India is a top biotechnology firm in India and she heads the Biotechnology Vision Group.

Deepak S. Parekh has been silently leading a financial services revolution in India. He passionately followed the principle of customer service in HDFC during an era when customer service and service industry itself was a rarity in India. He built HDFC to the present heights from a fledgling company in 1977 when he joined it.

Venu Srinivasan’s successful quest for ‘quality’ earmarks him as an exemplary achiever. He is in the manufacture of ‘old economy’ products such as motorbikes, auto-components and other engineering goods. But his approach to the manufacture is new, winning laurels world-wide for the quality of his group of companies’ manufactured products. His is the rare Asian company outside of Japan that has won the prestigious Deming award.

Mukesh Ambani presides over a huge industrial empire that he built along with his father and younger brother, starting almost from nothing. Reliance Industries, of which he is the Chairman, is one of the biggest industrial groups in India by way of the capital invested. He has the rare ability to get the industrial projects – in fact, mammoth projects - implemented in record time. The modern petroleum refinery at Jamnagar with an investment of nearly US $ 5 billion and representing 29 per cent of the total refining capacity in India was built in 36 months flat and commissioned in the next 60 days.

Verghese Kurien is a multi-faceted personality. As a businessman, he has been the Chairman of National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) since its inception in 1965 and the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) highly popular by its brand name AMUL. After the Green Revolution in India - of the staple food grains production, it is Kurien’s White Revolution that is highly acclaimed. He has revolutionized dairying and the concept of village women’s entrepreneurship in India.

Some of the excerpts of the interviews have appeared in a business biographical work (Chary, 2002).


There are certain aspects that are common among these legendary business leaders.

2.1 Highly Effective Leaders Display Sensitivity and Superior Vision These are the kind of people who see changes much before they occur. They sense capabilities and constraints and spot pathways and hurdles much ahead of the others. In the 1970s when Narayana Murthy and Azim Premji took to business with computers, computers were hardly known in India. They saw opportunity decades before others could experience it. These two men approached the budding field from two different directions – Murthy was into software while Premji was into printers and other computer hardware - and made a huge global success of it. Kiran saw the potential of the virgin field of biotechnology more than two decades ago. Before Ambanis no Indian businessperson thought of investing in the tremendously capital-intensive petrochemicals and petroleum refining industries. Ambanis have always thought of grandiose projects and have succeeded. Mukesh’s father Dhirubhai started his life as a gas-station attendant, started trading in yarns in the back alleys of Mumbai, and then went on to set up a large modern textile mill. From there, Ambanis moved into the modern manufacture of polyester yarn in a big way trading it globally. Further backward integration led to the establishment of the largest



petrochemical complex in the private sector in India and further into the largest petroleum refinery in the private sector in India. Ambani’s Reliance Industries is the largest business house in terms of capital investment in this country. These achievements have also to be seen in the light of the tremendously controlled and regulated business environment in India, particularly before the country started slowly opening up just over a decade ago.

Deepak Parekh saw a vision of empowering the middle class and realizing their dreams of a house through housing loans which was an unknown concept in India a quarter of a century ago when he took charge of a fledgling company. The Indian government, with its socialistic moorings, did not approve of banks lending money for buying property. Today, Deepak’s HDFC is listed on New York Stock Exchange. Venu Srinivasan of TVS Group brought laurels for his company and Indian business worldwide when his company won the most coveted Deming Prize for Quality a few years ago. In a way, he set quality standards for the Indian industry. Verghese Kurien is the originator of the ‘Operation Milk Flood’ in India. He popularized the concept of milk cooperatives starting with the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation of which he was the founder Chairman. He taught as to how good business and social cause can be combined together with large benefits to both the society and the business firm. His milk dairy at Anand, a small town in India, and Kurien are legendary. He saw opportunities to empower the villagers of India – particularly the illiterate, economically backward and socially shackled women of Indian villages – through business in dairying. He knew the hurdles along the way too, and made preparations for them by rallying popular support.

It is the sensitivity and the superior vision that distinguished these highly effective leaders. They had a very creative mind that could visualize the coming opportunities. They did not wait for the opportunities to mature and thus materialize. They seized these at the very nascent level. They could sense the undercurrent of their times and the times ahead; at a broad level they could visualize as to what could take place and what could be done. It is not that they saw the things in detail. That may not be important for these visionaries. As Deepak Parekh says, “A leader should be a scenario painter, more than a specific planner. He should be a problem predictor, more than a problem-solver.” It is not just the ‘seeing woods and not the trees’ syndrome. What they see is a whole lot of new wood which most others fail to see. They get a sense of the environment around them like no one else does and based on that sense they paint a scenario.

Ambanis realized that in India the demand was constrained by the lack of supply and if the supply was increased, the demand would automatically follow. Demand and supply were not two separate curves, independent of each other, as is usually assumed. Had the Ambanis followed any of the usual forecasting models to estimate the demand, they would not have invested the way they did.

Similarly, it takes a superior vision of Kurien to perceive the potential in the poor village women. They neither have the capital, nor the disposable income. They neither have the modern skills nor the technology. They do not have education. Most are illiterate. Conventional business theories would never have bothered about them. What they have is the eagerness to better the condition of themselves and their children. Only a leader like Kurien could sense that warehouse of potential.

Effective leaders have the ability to see logic much below the superficial, beyond the apparent. Leaders in different domains have exhibited this characteristic. Abraham Lincoln could sense that the time had come to liberate the energies of the black people. Even before the others could see, he could perceive the changes to come in the future and the action that was essential in the present. At a time when no one saw the huge reservoir of strength that the freedom movement could have from the illiterate village folk of India, Mahatma Gandhi could see that potential clearly. Therefore instead of spending time in scholarly debates and intellectual sessions on freeing India from the British – as the others did in the Indian National Congress conventions generally held in the metropolitan cities - he set forth touring the entire length and breadth of India and talking to the poor from the villages and city slums.

2.2 Highly Effective Leaders are the ‘Missionaries’ in Their Task How do these leaders come to have the superior vision? The driving force for the vision seems to be in their ‘mission’. The ‘mission’ does not necessarily have to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Good and bad is ultimately a



value judgment; it is in the perception of an individual. Lincoln had a mission; Gandhi had a mission; Mother Theresa had a mission; Napoleon had a mission; Hitler and Osama bin Laden too had a mission. The effective leaders are so to say ‘possessed’ by the goal/task they would like to achieve. Because of the high sensitivity towards the task, they develop the superior vision or feel of the environment.

Narayana Murthy’s favourite quote is, ‘A good leader makes the impossible possible’. Murthy had his task cut out, by himself, right from the beginning when he was a nobody. Venu Srinivasan is charged about ‘quality’ in the goods and services his companies provide. He speaks about ‘quality’ as a mission and has worked towards it incessantly from the time he took reins of the business two decades ago. One has to note this in the milieu in which the Indian industry has been for several decades – keeping the foreign competition out and operating with licenses for running industries. It had been virtually a seller’s market for the Indian industries. Therefore, quality never had much importance.

These legendary business leaders wanted to fulfill a task that was very different from the ordinary considerations of profit and money. The latter was only a subsidiary goal. For instance, Kiran says, ‘I may be worth millions on a piece of paper. That does not mean anything to me. I am so happy that I have created this organization with such good people. That’s the pleasure I get. It’s not the money I get.’ Similarly, for Premji it is a process of nation-building that has been his mission. He says, ‘How do you use at least a part of the wealth to help in the process of nation building? Because, the wealth has been created in this country and so the country has the first claim on it’. Mukesh Ambani is obsessed with ‘world class’ industry and world class project execution. He keeps proving that ‘Reliance can do it. India can do it’. For Kurien it is the poor woman farmer behind the dairy operation that is as important as the customer. Emancipation of the illiterate and impoverished rural women folk is the mission behind his AMUL dairy industry. Deepak Parekh has the mission of empowering the middle class people. He is offering more and more services to them and that is what makes him really happy. When one speaks to him he sounds like a messiah of the middle classes.

2.3 Leaders are Passionately Committed to the Goal

It is this messianic zeal that seems to provide the dynamism to the work that these legendary business leaders perform. These leaders display a very high level of commitment to their goal/task and pursue it ‘come what may’. This is not just ‘achievement orientation’. Achievement by its very meaning has a maximum. Once that peak is scaled, the achievement is obtained. Whereas, ‘commitment’ is towards a long-term cause having wider ramifications and therefore it keeps expanding just as the horizon keeps expanding as one scales greater heights.

Commitment seems to be the most important factor in leader effectiveness. Whether it is Mother Theresa or Adolph Hitler, they exhibit a common characteristic – that of a very high level of commitment to their goal. To them that goal is their ‘mission’. To the Mother helping the poor, destitute, terminally ill and dying people die a dignified death was a ‘mission’. To Hitler, ‘cleansing’ Deutschland and redeeming the honour of the land was a ‘mission’. It must be stated again that leadership should not be seen in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ terms; similarly, ‘mission’ need not always be ‘holy’ as is popularly assumed. An extraordinary level of commitment characterizes an extraordinary leader.

Commitment is the force or the flow of energy that comes through inspiration, through a resolve to getting the job done – no matter what. It manifests in many ways: as drive, as steadfastness and courage against stiff opposition, as tolerance and openness to various views and issues regarding the task and as flexibility of approach to deal with various and varying aspects, alignments, orientations and scenarios regarding the task over a period of time. The essence of Commitment is the force of the resolve to getting the task done ‘come what may’. Murthy stuck it out with his Infosys Technologies through the thick and the thin. During 1990 when even after several years of existence the business was not yielding results to their satisfaction, his partners thought of selling the company. But, Murthy differed and offered to buy his partners out. He held on and the rest is history.

2.4 Leadership Cannot be Viewed in Isolation of the Task at Hand

To say that a leader reacts in only one style most of the time – such as being instructive or friendly –

would be to underestimate the commitment of the leader towards the tasks which are parts of his mission.



The leader and his mission are inseparable. Depending upon the task at hand the effective leader will adjust his leadership style/leadership coordinates. The very same individual could be a tremendous taskmaster as well as a very friendly human relations person. He would, in fact, adjust his style – even volte face from authoritarian stance to the persuasive one – in order to ensure the achievement of his mission. Therefore, the styles of functioning are not quite relevant to leadership. The higher the level of commitment, the higher would be the flexibility exhibited by the leader in accordance with the need of the task at hand. Whether it is Murthy or Kurien or Venu or Deepak, there is a wide spectrum of perceptions about their styles of functioning by different people who have interacted with them in different circumstances. Different tasks would require different ways of handling people at different points in time. Leadership cannot be viewed apart from the task. (Chary, 2004)

The leader’s commitment is with respect to the mission and its component tasks. With a different ‘mission’ and/or task, the very same ‘leader’ may not exhibit the same level of enthusiasm as earlier. That is the reason why someone very successful in one area of endeavor may not be successful in other area. If a particular task does not ‘call’ the person, he may show little commitment towards that task. He would not be a successful leader in that area. For instance by his own admission, Premji has no interest in politics and holding a high office in government.

2.5 Commitment and the Clarity of vision

Leader effectiveness can, therefore, be seen in terms of the task at hand and the leader’s level of commitment towards that task. Commitment is seen to drive the leadership phenomenon. When the level of commitment is high, the clarity of the leader’s vision towards his goal can be expected to be high. However, the reverse is not true. Clarity of vision regarding a goal/task does not necessarily translate to a high level of commitment.

The clarity is regarding the final goal and not so much regarding the methodology or the package of actions to achieve the goal. The goal and the process at any point should be clear but the entire road map need not be. Because, the road map might change; the leader may decide to take a different road depending upon the environment and other circumstances. However, the final goal or task to be achieved should be clear in his mind. What that goal means and what its ramifications are should be clear. In fact, he is the initiator, narrator and painter of the goal. The scenario that the leader paints should provide sufficient guidance to the people who would follow him.

An effective leader is, therefore, one who has a high level of commitment towards the task at hand and who also has a clear vision of the task/goal to be achieved. Commitment and Clarity of vision are the two vital factors, the former being the more dominant factor. Leader effectiveness can be described based on these two factors.

It has to be understood that the leader operates with the environment around him. That includes the people other than him. We need not term them as ‘subordinates’ or even as ‘followers’. High levels of the factors of commitment and clarity of vision can result in a better orientation of these ‘other’ people. The absolute levels of orientation would depend upon the already existing orientation of these people. That is why we have instances where some visionaries are said to have been ‘much ahead of their times’.

2.6 Transcendental Aspects of Leadership The highly effective leaders are so committed to the mission or the super-ordinate goal that they lose the personal side of it. The mission is so important that they see themselves as just one of the instruments in the achievement of the same. These leaders, therefore, give rise to several ‘second’ line of leaders. In fact, they encourage the formation of such a second line. They transcend the concerns regarding their own organization. Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani oft keeps repeating, ‘Reliance can do it. India can do it’. It has a suggestive tinge that others in India too can follow his route and do equally well. Kurien of AMUL – the dairy business that started at Anand in Gujarat - too goes beyond the survival and growth concerns of his own organization. ‘Let there be one thousand Anands’, he says. In his mind, the organization takes the shape of a ‘movement’. Premji echoes, ‘Successful leaders create leaders under them. Winning organizations have leaders at every level’. Premji gave the example of two masons who were erecting a



wall of a church. An inquisitive passerby asked them as to what were they doing. One of the masons said that he was laying bricks for a wall. The other mason replied, ‘I am building a cathedral’.

It appears that the highly effective business leaders believe that the leader and his organization have to

be like a large banyan tree - sending hundreds of offshoots that also take root and thrive. They transcend the narrow concerns about themselves and their organization. They think, ‘Let every one of them thrive and grow big’. They cross the distinctions of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Their mission overrides everything else.

‘Profitability is important, but as a sub-set of a larger goal’, says Venu Srinivasan. There is not too much

of a difference between these business leaders and the reformers who work for a social cause.

Venu’s statement sums it all up very well. He says, ‘Every great leader has had a firm belief in a force or power greater than himself’. For him, it appears, the quest for quality is a way to get closer to that higher force.

Such thinking can offer tremendous freedom to the leader. A free unbound mind can think of several

creative ways of achieving the mission. The effectiveness of the leader would, therefore, further increase.

A highly committed leadership takes the form of transcendental leadership. The leader ceases to see the

distinction between the ‘leader’ and the ‘led’ in terms of their potential. The distinction between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary gets more and more blurred. The highly effective leader is a transcendental leader who perceives the extra-ordinary in the ordinary. The ‘Long March’ of Mao Zedong, the fourteen years of enduring the bitter war in Viet Nam, the resilience of the Jewish community in Israel would not have been possible if the respective leaders had a personal agenda behind it all. Unlike his predecessors in the Congress party, Mahatma Gandhi had very little personal agenda. He gave his one

hundred per cent to the cause of the real freedom – economic, social and political - of the Indian masses. Signifying his relinquishing his personal goals – however small – he gave up wearing even a shirt; a loin cloth was his only garment. It is no wonder that Gandhi became a leader in India unequalled in his effectiveness and durability.

Many of the business leaders quoted above have, in a small measure, imbibed this concept. Whether it is Murthy, Premji, Venu, Deepak, Kiran or Kurien, they all exhibit this quality of ‘simplicity’ i.e. detachment of the personal needs. Their dress is simple. Until just four years ago, Murthy lived in three-bedroom apartment in a middle class locality of Bangalore. He used to send his son to school in a shared auto- rickshaw. Premji does not have a personal parking slot for himself at the office. Venu, Deepak, Kiran and Kurien are simple folk in terms of their needs, their walk and talk.

Would Mahatma Gandhi have become a phenomenally effective leader had the task been different? Perhaps not. He had failed miserably in his legal practice in India despite acquiring the best of legal

qualifications in those days, the Bar-at-Law from England. It did not simply call for his commitment. It was

a frustrated lawyer Gandhi who went in search of a job in South Africa where he stumbled upon his

mission. Would Deepak have become a business leader of this level had he continued in his job as a chartered accountant? Would Kiran have achieved the same heights of effectiveness had she not faced the gender discrimination and instead got a job as a brewery master in one of the breweries? After all, she had trained in Australia as a brew master. The point is this: Leader effectiveness has much to do with the task at hand, one’s commitment level towards that task and the clarity of vision regarding that task.


The analysis and findings from the present leadership study would be quite useful in the incubation of entrepreneurs, in the selection of business leaders and managers, and in the design of programs for organizational effectiveness. Transcendental nature of leadership, the task at hand and the two important factors of commitment and clarity with respect to the task at hand may be applied in situations of business start-up and project implementation. Transcendental leadership could be a useful tool for organizational renewal and in Human Resources selection, recruitment and development.




Chary, S.N., Business Gurus Speak, Macmillan, New Delhi, 2002. Chary, S.N., “A New Perspective on Leadership”, IABE Annual Conference, Las Vegas, 2003; JABE, March 2004.


Prof. S.N. Chary, currently a Director on the Board of Bharat Earth Movers Limited, Bangalore, India obtained his MBA at University of Rhode Island in 1972 and his MS in Engineering at the same university in 1971. He was a professor at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore for over 25 years and was the Director of Kirloskar Institute of Advanced Management Studies. He has led a number of nationally important management consulting projects and is an author of several books.