Monday, 15 December 2014


Why Nassim Taleb is only half right?

Nassim Taleb, author of celebrated books Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness believes that much of what we call great leadership and excellent organizational management are the result of randomness. It is only that the beneficiaries of randomness happened to be at the right place at the right time. That reminds me of a TV discussion between two of India’s great business leaders, Ratan Tata, patriarch of the Tata Group, the quintessential born-with-silver-spoon-in-the-mouth leader and N.R.Narayana Murthy, Executive Chairman of India’s second largest IT company, the authentic self-made leader and institution builder. Narayana Murthy asked Ratan Tata what made him such a successful leader. In his typical modest manner, and fully aware that he was born a Tata, Ratan Tata answered Narayana Murthy with a straight, unassuming face that it was all luck. Taleb would be happy to hear that answer from a man who was hailed for leaving a great legacy by renowned news magazines like The Economist, Business Week etc. when Tata laid down office a couple of years ago. But the tenacious Narayana Murthy was not one to give up. He said, “But Ratan, luck alone does not take you anywhere; what you achieved is much more than what luck alone could do. After all you strived hard to make good what luck gave you.”

Taleb has a point – yes, it makes a lot of difference in being in Boston or Bangladesh. Luck provides the opportunity. But the opportunity is visible only if one tries to see it clearly, if one knocks at its doors. Ratan Tata not only knocked at the doors of every opportunity he saw, but also learnt great lessons form successes as well as failures. He took Tata Motors global, but had hard lessons to learn from poor positioning of Nano, the small car as the world’s cheapest car. He made Tatas the second biggest global Tea business by buying Tetley Tea when such acquisitions of a global leader by an Indian company was unheard of.. The hair-raising negotiations to acquire Corus, the steel making company took Tatas a notch or two in steel. Ratan Tata was, indeed, born with the silver spoon in his mouth. But that did not stop him from testing his mettle at every opportunity he saw. Luck might have given him the start, but imagination, guts and sweat took him to great heights.

What about the man who asked the question to Ratan Tata? It requires more than stretching imagination to say Narayana Murthy, the son of a school teacher lucky. But lucky he was, not for himself – he was, indeed, lucky for India. Perhaps it is because he was the son of a school teacher that he imbibed some of the great qualities he showed as the promoter and leader of Infosys. This is what Narayana Murthy said in an interview why he could not go to IIT, Kanpur despite getting admission there, "I had got admission to the Indian Institute of Technology by passing the entrance exam with a fairly high rank and a scholarship. But the scholarship was to be disbursed at the end of the year. I remember talking to my father who said that there was no way he could afford to pay since he was earning Rs 250 (then US$ 10) per month. He said: If you’re smart you can go to any college and be able to do something worthwhile. So I joined the local engineering college." Not so lucky as Taleb would like us believe. 

Narayana Murthy was lucky for India because India got a role model who changed not only the language and idiom of business in India but also the way people looked at business. As for himself, it was not luck that made Infosys a company which created thousands of millionaires out of its share-holders and employees. Was it luck that knitted such a disparate group of promoters like himself, Nandan Nilekani, Raghavan, Shibulal, Krish Gopalakrishnan et al into a fine team or was it a hard earned leadership capability? Was it lucky inheritance of gullibility or the cultivated ability to walk the talk which got thousands of his employees commit themselves to the organization?
To be fair to Taleb, luck never sleeps. It always casts its long shadow on every thing we do. But, beyond that, it is the likes of Ratan Tata and Narayana Murthy who stretch themselves much farther than the domains of luck and make their vision a reality. The great JRD Tata could have picked up any other Tata born with similar silver spoon in the mouth like Ratan Tata’s. But he picked up Ratan Tata to lead the group because he saw in Ratan Tata the unflinching commitment to Tata values, as told by him after he picked up Ratan Tata for the top job.. And there have been many children of good school teachers. But one of them had the vision and tenacity to go after it!  And, luckily India has a great role model!
Note: The interviews are not quoted verbatim; I have only given the gist of the dialogue

On 12/15/2014


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