My friend Ravi knows a thing or two about running a business from India. He has led the Indian subsidiaries of two global multinationals, both well over a $1 billion in revenues, led a sizable Indian joint venture, and serves on the board of a multi-billion-dollar India-based global company. Ravi describes ‘character’ as the price of entry, the most critical attribute for all leaders anywhere, anytime. Ravi then adds that in India agility—the ability to "figure things out on the fly"—is another of the most critical keys to success.
What else do Indian leaders need? Ravi says that as long as they are agile, they just need to add seasoning—at breakneck speed. I’ll summarize these critical components to Indian leadership here.
Character. This is the leader’s rudder, their compass. Character drives energy and passion, the desire to make great things happen. It runs deeper than culture, nationality and ethnicity, and yet exists in plain sight for others to see. No country owns “character." In the context of leadership, there is not an Indian character any more than there is an American or Chinese character.
Agility. Successful Indian companies have an irrepressible quality, essential today, that even many global multinational CEOs lack: learning agility, or the resilience to figure out what to do on the fly. Working in such a volatile and highly ambiguous environment, successful Indian leaders use street smarts, intuition, people skills, and agility to figure things out fast. They experiment with new solutions at each step along the way. This quality seems to stem naturally from their struggles to break through against almost impossible odds. Consciously or not, the best companies in India use agility as a filter for hiring, coaching, and promoting. Agility is not to be taken for granted: look at the recent experience of such iconic companies as Sony, Kodak, Panasonic, and, more recently, P&G—companies that had it, and are struggling to regain it. Agility is spread evenly, if thinly, around the world. Yet given the context of India’s rapid growth, top leaders in India can’t survive without it.
Nurture. Yet many of these great Indian companies lack another quality, also essential today, that most of the top Western multinationals have in abundance: seasoned leadership. These are the qualities of leadership that take time to develop, to nurture: principles, points of view, insights and behaviors established over the years and passed on. Mature leaders high in learning agility use their self-awareness and energy in combination with well-developed leadership qualities that have been nurtured on the job. This is the focus of all leadership development efforts: accelerating maturity.
Are Indian leaders different? Probably not, but their experience and history is. Their agile nature comes from the context of their challenges. Their success, ultimately, will depend on retaining their agility while accelerating their ability to build and grow talent at each stage along the path. Hire for nature, then nurture. And speed it up.