Leading India: What does it take?

While many of the leadership qualities like ambition and high standards are evergreen, leading in India requires a special emphasis on inclusiveness, patience and impatience, soaring and walking at the same time


iStockphoto
iStockphoto

India is unique, both in diversity and in its challenges. It has embarked on the journey towards becoming a global powerhouse. However, India is still nascent and has some distance to go before it achieves its full potential. What will it take to lead India and successfully deliver transformation over the next 20 years?

We all recognize India as a unique country—of riches and poverty, of diversity and of many Indians. We recognize India is on its way to becoming a leading global powerhouse. And we also recognize India with its unique set of challenges. There is nothing quite like India.

The last 20 years in India have been truly transformative. The average size of a company listed on the stock exchange has increased 6x from 1996 and total international sales have grown 10x. Indian leaders are faced with larger companies, increasing international footprints and global competition. With the advent of the Internet and mobile, competition has become limitless. You could be competing with anybody; your footprint has changed and the existing business models are being disrupted almost every day.

During this transformative change in India over the last 20 years, we at BCG have had the privilege of working with leaders across the world and in India, from government to business and non-profit organizations. While many of the qualities of leadership are evergreen, leading in India requires a special emphasis on several qualities that these leaders have in spades! And as we look forward to India’s future, there are some asks of leaders that will be very critical for our country.

So, what will it take to lead in India and what kind of leaders does India need?

Ambition

If people are not laughing at your goals, your goals are too small—Azim Premji

Given all the diverse perspectives and identities that Indians have, the only way for us to come together is to have leaders who can lead with a sense of shared purpose or ambition. Getting small things done in India can be tough, but when people have had bold, shared ambition, they have achieved wonders. For example, every year, BCG compiles a list of 100 companies for emerging markets that are global challengers. More than 20 companies from India make it to this list consistently, and several like Hindalco Industries Ltd, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd, Tata Motors Ltd and Tata Steel Ltd, have even graduated from the list. Many of these companies have taken on the best in the world and have succeeded against them. Leadership that binds with a sense of shared purpose is critical for India’s future.

Inclusiveness

We believe in compassionate capitalism. Growth for growth’s sake cannot be an end in itselfKumar Mangalam Birla

In India, you can’t win alone. You can only win with society, people, government and others. In a country with the income disparity prevalent in India and the large young population, any success that comes at the expense of others, runs the risk of destabilizing society or being very short-lived. It is not enough to just create wealth through business, but it is also necessary to think about sharing its benefits broadly. The best leaders in India have always demonstrated the ability to win-and-win, not just to win alone.

High standards

All birds find shelter during a rain. But (the) eagle avoids rain by flying above the cloudsA.P.J. Abdul Kalam

India has been the land of jugaad and chalta hai. But our companies today compete with the best in many sectors like pharmaceuticals, automobiles and textiles where quality and excellence are essential. A critical ask of leaders today is to set standards very high, possibly beyond what others are aspiring for. Some of the best leaders of India see quality and excellence as their legacy. They focus on it in their organizations beyond what is demanded of regulations. We need such leadership to be able to change the brand of what India can stand for.

Patience and impatience

Challenge negative forces with hope, self-confidence and conviction—Dhirubhai Ambani

Leading in India needs a mix of both patience and impatience. You need the patience to recognize that many things can be two steps forward and one step back. But at the same time, it’s important to retain the impatience to drive change, to push for a better future, to set a different expectation. Our leaders need to live this tension—the challenges of operating in India will not go away overnight and so, being able to foster a spirit of optimism and drive while navigating the environment is critical to success.

Soaring and walking at the same time

A leader must have the vision and passion, and not be afraid of any problemA.P.J. Abdul Kalam

It takes boldness to make real change happen. There will be challenges and challenges but the devil lies in the details. This is even truer in India, where progress can often seem like two steps forward and one step back. At the same time, many patterns of performance are still emerging. Often leaders ask whether they need to focus on the big picture and delegate the details. However, in our experience, successful leaders have been the ones who could both maintain focus on the big picture and revert to it when needed. They also have a grasp of the details and the ground realities. They know enough to course-correct, but have the ability to stay focused on the goals. Being hands-off is not a recipe for success in India.

Shaping the context

If you want to walk fast, walk alone. But if you want to walk far, walk togetherRatan Tata

In India’s vibrant democracy, there are many stakeholders with powerful voices. This is India’s blessing and strength. However, sometimes, if not navigated effectively, this can also seem like India’s bottleneck. And this ecosystem is still evolving and changing. Leaders in India have learnt how to work with this changing, amorphous ecosystem and also to shape it for the benefit of their organizations and society. It is impossible to succeed as an island or by being inward looking. One must embrace the reality of the many and changing stakeholders and dive in to shape its flow.

Building the next generation

In the fullness of time, when it is our turn to give, we must in turn plant gardens that we may never eat the fruit of, which will benefit the generations to come—N.R. Narayana Murthy

There has been a lot of talk about the demographic dividend or the demographic bomb in India. Millions of youth will need employment and avenues to achieve their potential. With the growth of digital, this challenge may be even more accentuated. If we fail in this, the social costs will be huge. We need our leaders to be able to see the best in people and bring that out of them. We need them to help people achieve the potential they often don’t see in themselves. We need them to inspire leadership in others. It is only through such engagement that the youth will participate in and unleash the transformation that India seeks.

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We believe the next 20 years hold great promise for India. The Centre for Economics and Business Research projects India to be a top 3 in terms of GDP (gross domestic product) by 2031. But whether we realize our promise or not will depend on our leaders and on our leadership. The challenges of leading in India are unparalleled. But we also have the good fortune of having some of the greatest leaders the world has thus far seen. The future will require more such leaders and leadership from us!

Vikram Bhalla is a senior partner and director in the Mumbai office of BCG. He co-leads BCG’s leadership and talent practice globally and heads BCG’s family business practice in emerging markets.

Rahul Guha is a partner and director in the Mumbai office of BCG. He leads the people and organization practice in India and is a core member of the healthcare and industrial goods practice

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