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JRD Tata

JRD Tata and Leadership

An insight into JRD Tata's leadership style and inspiration excerpted from the biography 'Beyond the Last Blue Mountain' by RM Lala

July 2022     |     1331 words     |     5-minute read

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It was Jamsetji who gave the House of Tatas its unique position in the nation. Jamsetji’s conduct shows that in his later years he did not ask ‘What enterprise is the most profitable?’ but, ‘What does the nation need?’ If the answer was steel, hydro-electric energy or a University of Science, Jamsetji would make best efforts to fulfil that need.

JRD did likewise. ‘What does India need?’ I have heard this question asked by him at meetings of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and I am sure his fellow Directors have heard the same question at Company Board meetings. Alfred Sloan said, ‘What is good for General Motors is good for America.’ JRD thinks the other way round. ‘What is good for India is good for Tatas.’

Jamsetji said one other thing that JRD has not forgotten:

We do not claim to be more unselfish, more generous or more philanthropic than other people. But we think we started on sound and straightforward business principles, considering the interests of the shareholders our own, and the health and welfare of the employees the sure foundation of our prosperity.

During the course of a discussion, JRD explained why Jamsetji meant so much to him. Said he: ‘Jamsetji was a man of great intelligence, a man of extraordinary vision. There are some very intelligent people but they have no sense at all of the future. Jamsetji had that sense. His vision of the future gave him a sense of what needed to be done for the country. And then he had integrity. Not only money-related integrity. Jamsetji had integrity of thought and mind. The final attribute was his great humanity—the way he thought about workers nobody in India or abroad thought at that time.’

JRD thought the other way round. ‘What is good for India is good for Tatas.’

JRD was also impressed by Andrew Carnegie, the Scotsman who came to America a poor man and rose to be the Steel King of the United States, then spent the last years of his life distributing the enormous wealth that he had amassed. JRD quotes Carnegie: This, then, is held to be the duty of the man of wealth; to set an example of modest, unostentatious living, shunning display or extravagance . . . to consider all surplus revenues which come to him simply as trust funds, which he is called upon to administer . . . the man of wealth thus becoming the mere trustee and agent for his poorer brethren.

JRD Tata and JJ Bhabha at the Titan factory in Hosur. Also seen is BG Dwarakanath.

These words, thought JRD, could well have been spoken by Jamsetji. JRD concludes his Foreword to Jamsetji’s biography:

That he was a man of destiny is clear. It would seem, indeed, as if the hour of his birth, his life, his talents, his actions, the chain of events which he set in motion or influenced, and the services he rendered to his country and his people, were all predestined as part of the greater destiny of India.

Jamsetji headed Tata and Sons (as the firm was then called; it became Tata Sons—a private limited company—in 1917) for only seventeen years. So while the original vision was his, it was his successors who completed his mission for India. Of those who succeeded him, JRD has had the longest innings as Chairman. What were the tools he used to fulfil Jamsetji’s dream?

On the plus side, there was Jamsetji Tata to inspire him and he made it a point to analyse Jamsetji’s career and emulate him. On the minus side he felt keenly his lack of technical education, which he would have attained had he taken Mechanical Engineering at Cambridge, as he had intended. But fate and his father intervened to summon him to India. ‘My father really in many ways had ruined my career by depriving me of a University education. I would have been an engineer and I’ve always felt the loss of that. I’ve always felt inferior to my own self because of what I could have been if I had an education.’ However, when it is pointed out to him that but for his father inducting him into Tatas at that point of time (eight months before his death), he may not have been so well placed in the Tata hierarchy, he admits to the wisdom of his father’s decision. 

For fifty years JRD has worked on a consensus basis. Many able men are lonely men because they do not consult, they do not share their problems. In their insecurity some men are open, consult others and work out a consensus. Others in their insecurity turn inwards, become secretive and keep their cards close to their chest. They have little or no interaction with their peers. Lonely, they rob themselves of the richness of the experience of others. Charles De Gaulle often said he felt ‘the chill of loneliness.’ With his hauteur he had reconciled himself to, ‘accept the loneliness which is the wretchedness of superior beings.’ President Carter titled his book about the years in the White House: Lonely.

JRD Tata and engineers at Tata Motors (then TELCO) in Pune

JRD did not have a state to rule, but he did have an industrial empire and till 1970, under the Managing Agency System, he had the dominant voice in the management of all companies managed by Tata Sons or Tata Industries. And although Directors of all the Tata companies were appointed at his discretion, he genuinely sought out and paid heed to the views of his colleagues. It was in this manner that JRD converted his lack of confidence at not having had a formal university education, into a strength. He never stood on false dignity but tried to arrive at decisions on the basis of the information and opinion he received. In other words, he was a great synthesizer.

‘I like people and trust them unless they show themselves unreliable or incompetent.’

In the later years of his life, he has been criticized for being too much of a consensus man. This criticism does not worry him for he has worked out for himself the advantages of decision by consensus. He trusts people and holds that suspicion is the mark of little minds. ‘I like people and trust them unless they show themselves unreliable or incompetent.’ for it.

Excerpted with permission from 'Beyond the Last Blue Mountain' by RM Lala, published by Penguin Random House India.

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