A wall-mounted sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesha hangs above a surrealistic print of green cats and floating goldfish—an eclectic combination of artworks in a corporate office, but somewhat of a personal talisman for Nitin Nohria, the dean of Harvard Business School (HBS).

Nohria prefers to meet people at a small discussion table instead of the presidential desk. Photographs by Susan Young/Mint

The artworks—like the rest of the items in Nohria’s sunlit office in Morgan Hall on the HBS campus in Boston—shine a light on one of his most defining traits: cosmopolitan leadership. Nohria’s collection of paintings, posters, rugs and artefacts straddle several continents and decades and reflect long-standing professional and personal interests and friendships. Books on business management and economic theory are placed alongside decorative African and Chinese artefacts. Modern Indian art and family photographs rub shoulders with a framed photograph of the Boston Celtics basketball team in action, given to Nohria by Paul Polman, multinational firm Unilever’s chief executive officer.

(Clockwise from left) Nohria’s earliest artworks include a Ganesha statue and a quirky print;a photograph of the Boston Celtics basketball team, given to Nohria by Paul Polman of Unilever; a photograph of Nohria with three of his predecessors.

Managing paradoxes

Being internationally minded, however, is only one aspect of Nohria’s version of “cosmopolitan leadership". The trickier paradox is to remain both humble and ambitious; to respect and learn from others, yet retain enough self-confidence to drive change. This outlook is particularly vital for someone in Nohria’s position as head of a 100-year-old institution with more than 200 independently minded faculty, and a brand synonymous with management education. HBS is also a hefty organization, with 1,100 full-time staff positions, $500 million in revenue for the fiscal year ended 30 June 2011, and a $2.8 billion endowment.

The presidential desk in Nitin Nohria’s room

A photograph of Nohria on the bookshelf with three predecessors—John McArthur, Kim Clark and Jay Light—is, he says, “a very important picture for me. This represents 30 years of deans at HBS, almost a third of the history of the school". Next to it is an architectural model of the proposed Tata Hall for executive education, which is under construction. Nohria acknowledges that the campus’ impressive architecture is part of its “enduring legacy" and that he feels responsible for its “continuing evolution".

Morality and power

There cannot be a more pressing time to take stock of the school’s legacy, both physical and intellectual. The financial crisis of 2008 provoked serious questions on ethics in management education. Some prominent HBS alumni—most notably, former Enron president Jeff Skilling, and more recently, former Goldman Sachs director Rajat Gupta—have ironically fulfilled the school’s promise “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world" in an unintended manner, with negative results.

A model of the Tata Hall being constructed at HBS

Nohria is passionately optimistic about business as a force for good. “The greatest invention in the world, to my mind, is the business enterprise, because it is a sustainable venture which relies on self-interest," he argues, explaining that “being self-interested is not the same as self-centred. Adam Smith actually says that what distinguishes businesspeople are their moral sentiments, of still recognizing that as they pursue what they do, they can do it in a way that is in the interest of society."

His office on the HBS campus is decorated with modern Indian art and a curated selection of artefacts, gifts and books from around the world

“I believe that we will have students experience much more, in a vibrant way, what it means to be in power, and then have some memory of that, what it means to be powerful," he says, explaining, “If there are powerful memories, then they can be triggered, and can change behaviour in interesting ways."

Nohria’s optimism is not without its challenges. The abundant HBS campus, built over the course of a century, with tennis courts, lounges and a country club atmosphere, is more easily associated with living the good life than anything else. He admits that it can be construed as a “bubble, separated from the rest of the world", but is committed to his personal endeavour. “I deeply believe that we need to remind people that this is the most honourable thing that you can do. I will only feel good if people will say the mission statement at HBS is not just an empty bunch of words," he reiterates. A hope for both a more prosperous society, and its business leaders, perhaps.

Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.

Write to Aparna at businessoflife@livemint.com

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