11 Jan 2020 11:52 IST

Leadership has to restore trust and efficacy, says IIM Kozhikode Director

Debashis Chatterjee explains what Indian management thought is and the importance of strengthening it

Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode is hosting an international conclave on ‘globalising Indian thought’ with the theme Timeless Leadership, from January 16 to 18. In this interview, Prof Debashis Chatterjee, Director, IIM-K, explains what Indian management thought is and the importance of strengthening and sustaining it.

Excerpts from the interview:

What were the thoughts, motivations and background to hosting a conclave on ‘globalising Indian thought’?

Having been at the helm of affairs of a first-generation IIM for almost a decade now and with more than 25 years as a teacher in the IIM system, one has often asked the question: what is really Indian about the Indian Institutes of Management? The answer to this rhetorical question has sadly been: precious little! IIM Kozhikode embraced globalising Indian thought as its institutional mission a decade ago.

In a modest way the Institute has fostered various elements of the Indian ethos in management and leadership. IIM-K was the first Indian school to incorporate an Indian Business Museum, showcasing India’s unique contribution to the world of trade, commerce and industry over thousands of years. In November 2014 IIMK hosted the pan-IIM World Conclave on Indian Thought and its global application. Year 2047 will be an inflection point, marking 100 years of India’s Independence from British colonial rule and it will also mark 50 years of IIM Kozhikode. As an institution we are asking, what timeless principles can help us stay relevant as a global school in 2047?

What are the challenges facing Indian leadership today?

One fundamental challenge before Indian leadership is restoration of trust in the efficacy of leadership. To mobilise human energy, a leader’s primary role is to create a credible narrative for people to lend their hearts and minds to. Leadership has become more of a contest of packaging rather than actions and decisions that flow from integrity. There is no trust where there is a gap between thought, word and deed. Corporate and political leadership is viewed with deep cynicism in today’s India, because of this gap. Many in the academic, media and business circles do not even trust the official GDP growth figures — and this is not good news.

The second challenge that Indian leadership confronts is the lack of dynamism in many sectors of business, resulting in sluggish growth. The job of our leaders is to mobilise energy through innovation and ingenuity. We need bold policy decisions, free from the shackles of bureaucracy and knee-jerk criticism.

How can the challenges be addressed?

The overarching principle that once integrated India’s institutions is best described by the word dharma. The notion of dharma goes well beyond what the British and the Europeans describe as ‘rule of law.’ Rule of law is based on the authority and influence of law in society that imposes constraints on individual and institutional behaviour. Rule of law is about publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.

Dharma, on the other hand is the holding principle that encompasses the whole of Nature, including human nature. Dharma is much more nuanced and yet paradoxically, more unambiguous than rule of law. Those in authority can easily subvert legal codes and processes but it is difficult to subvert dharma, which has all-encompassing existential, behavioural and moral connotations. Our research tells us India will do well to hark back to its sanatana dharma that rests on three pillars: satyam (authenticity), nityam (sustainability) and purnam (wholeness).

How does IIM-K propose to change the prevailing leadership narrative?

We truly believe that the source of India’s soft power is India’s leadership. The model of rajarishi (raja and rishi) that combines the hard skills of execution of the raja and the soft skills of reflection of the rishi is what is needed in a strife-torn world. Reflection is the saving grace from the depths of despondency to which our new generation has fallen in recent years, with the spectre of strife, war and economic downturn staring at us. India’s ancient message of borderless humanism (vasudaiva kutumbakkam) and global harmony will come in handy in these times.

We have begun to internationalise India’s best and next practices of leadership and governance through a host of short-term developmental and leadership programmes that are being attended by mid-career managers, diplomats and bureaucrats from several countries.

In the last couple of months, professionals from 25 overseas nations visited IIM-K to attend our leadership and governance programmes. With this humble beginning we hope to influence global opinions and shift the world’s attention toward the best that India has to offer.

What is the purpose and agenda of a pre-conclave leadership retreat? What will be discussed?
This pre-conclave will be retreat with managers from industry and intellectuals from the academic world on India’s timeless wisdom on leadership. This wisdom is largely lost in the mad rush toward modernisation and in ushering in the world of artificial intelligence. My belief is Indian wisdom, our soft power, will prove to be just as important as our economic muscle and our burgeoning markets. We need a new tradition of leadership that is meaningful across all cultures and that integrates the multiple domains of our existence in ways consumerism and industrial growth never have. Our leadership retreat is a small step in that direction.

What will be the takeaways for business managers from this conclave?
Conversations on globalisation have for a long time been synonymous with westernisation. Indian thought does have a lot to contribute to such conversations. The churning of ideas with the amalgamation of wisdom and creativity will be an opportunity for inquisitive thinkers to look at the Indian thought with a fresh perspective and a renewed mind. Indian leaders thrive on being known as realised beings by embracing the spirit of sustainability and reverence for life. The keynote and plenary talks, in addition to the panel discussions and paper presentations about globalising Indian thought will open avenues for deeper understanding of the concept, and will advance meaningful probe into its nuances.