Leadership Lessons

Leaders should have the capabilities to deal with a dynamic competitive international environment, says Rohit Deshpande.

Leaders should have the capabilities to deal with a dynamic competitive international environment, says Rohit Deshpande.

At Harvard Business School (HBS) we teach that leaders become who they are because of the circumstances in which they are placed, including trial by fire, literally. It’s been five years since the tragedy at the Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, and everybody who had any connection with that hotel has vivid memories of what happened that day.

The staff was trained for typical emergencies such as electrical outages or guests falling sick, but certainly not for a terrorist attack. So what explains their bravery that night? How did the staff demonstrate not just personal heroism but leadership, as they led guests to safety? This is an inspirational story of leadership where ordinary people did extraordinary things.

By means of a multimedia case study I’ve authored, both our MBA students and executive education participants learn how to broaden the lessons from the Taj Hotel story to private and public sector organizations across the globe.

There are many capabilities that an effective business leader should have – skills that can be taught and learned – including the ability to manage circumstances that are changing rapidly due to the changing nature of competition and stakeholders. Let’s tackle competition first.

So much of business today is web based and Internet related that even emerging companies are ‘born global.’ They don’t have to go through the traditional route of starting small locally, then growing, and finally going international. They go global the moment they have a website. They can get orders from any location, which means that their competitors can come from anywhere in the world. Thus, leadership capabilities for dealing with a dynamic competitive international environment are essential.

Second, increasingly the modern corporation is facing competing claims from multiple stakeholders. In earlier days, it could focus on customers, and if it were a publically-traded corporation, on investors or shareholders.

But increasingly companies have to manage the competing claims that come from government regulation, public society, consumer activist groups, and stakeholders working to improve employee working conditions. As a result, good leadership capabilities have also to do with managing the competing claims of different stakeholders.

A few years ago at Harvard Business School, we embarked on an experiment to expand the way we think about how a modern corporation might be managed, and we came up with the notion of “the three lenses.” This approach encourages us to think about business issues not only through a financial lens, but from a legal and ethical perspective. We teach that sustainable businesses operate at the intersection of the three lenses.

An example from India that illustrates the three lens approach is a new case that I developed on Infosys, which, under the leadership of cofounder Narayana Murthy, has been hugely successful financially, and which also operates in an honourable and ethical manner on a local and global level.
In fact, Infosys is renowned not only for nurturing its own brand but for nurturing the concept of India Inc., thus having far reaching implications not only for its own success, but also for the prominence and positive image of India. In the case, therefore, we examine how to brand both a company and a country.

Businesses operating in India must be able to strike a balance between doing well and doing good, and its corollary, doing good by doing well. It doesn’t have to be a trade-off. Doing well by doing good is a process by which an organization evolves its relationships with stakeholders for the common good and demonstrates its commitment by adopting appropriate priorities, processes, and strategies. To be authentic, corporate social responsibility must be central to the mission of the organization.

These behaviours can all be learned and shared. Harvard Business School has more than 100 years of experience developing innovative pedagogy. Our hallmark case study method has evolved from a century of studying organizational behaviour, political economy, and strategic leadership.

The Taj Mahal Hotel case is an example of how leadership in the worst of times can be an inspirational tale of best practices drawn from a real world example on the ground in India. Our hope is that this case, along with our body of teaching and research, will serve Harvard Business School’s mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world.

-The author is the Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School and also the faculty chair of the School’s executive education program Leadership and Corporate Accountability—India.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. You can find out more by clicking this link