I have written several articles in Business Today on leadership. In these, I have focussed on, perhaps, the most important attribute that a leader has to demonstrate to earn the trust and confidence of his or her people. That attribute is leadership by example, or walking the talk, or practising the precept. Mahatma Gandhi earned the confidence and trust of the entire nation by his adherence to leadership by example. He would insist on travelling by third class in trains, eating the same food as everybody else, and meeting large crowds at stations. This required lots of plainclothes people to guard him, to check his food to avoid food poisoning and ensure that his health was okay. Sarojini Naidu is reported to have said that it took a fortune to keep the old man in poverty! Poor man, he obviously did not know what it took to make all these arrangements. But, it was well worth it. Millions of Indians followed his example and the nation was the better for it. It achieved the objective of India gaining Independence through non-violence. My own experience is that no amount of empty talk can have even a miniscule impact on people, while much is achieved through leadership by example.
Today, I will write about the second most important attribute of a good leader - deciding issues based on data and facts, starting every transaction from a zero base, and not carrying the hysteresis of bias from prior transactions to the current transaction. These attributes are needed to raise the confidence and trust of people in a leader's transparency and fairness.
I have been influenced a lot in my values by my parents and teachers. It is fair to say that the person who has had the most impact on my professional values is J.G. Krishnayya (called JGK by his students and colleagues), my professor at IIM-A. I was Chief Systems Programmer at the Computer Centre at IIM-A. JGK is probably the finest articulator that I have come across. I still remember how he gave an eloquent review of a book in 1970. When a bright student asked him where he got hold of the book since it had not yet been released in India, he smiled and said he had just read the review in Time magazine! Every conversation with him taught us, his disciples, something new. The biggest lesson that I learnt from him was that of using data and facts to arrive at a decision. In almost every conversation, JGK would impress upon us the importance of using data and facts. There would be so many occasions when he and I would differ passionately on issues in the morning, but by lunch time he would come to my office smiling to pick me up for lunch at the faculty lounge at IIM-A.
When, at the end of a heated argument, I asked him whether he was upset with me, he would simply smile and say that he was disappointed with my poor arguments, not with me. His favourite piece of advice was: "Live and learn". Sometimes, he would also say he was sad about my inability to collect relevant data and facts for my arguments. The good thing with such an approach was that I was encouraged to collect proper data and facts before arguing my case. It also helped me to realise that it is the hierarchy of ideas and opinions that mattered to him rather than the hierarchy of positions, age and titles. It created an atmosphere of openness for discussions since I knew that I could win if I had good data. It also taught me that losing the current transaction did not bias JGK against me and that I had as much chance as anybody else of winning the next transaction. Most importantly, it gave me confidence that my boss was a fair person and that I could argue with him about the next issue. Indeed, the confidence of every one of the juniors and colleagues working with JGK was high since they knew he had no bias and that he just sought merit in every argument.
When I joined as Head of the Software Group at Patni Computer Systems in Mumbai in 1977, I decided to use this lesson in every transaction with my team members as well as my boss, Ashok Patni. He was a courteous boss. It was very easy to argue with him using data and facts, since he, too, believed in them.
I continued this tradition of using data and facts, and insisting on the merit of the argument to decide every issue when I founded Infosys in 1981. This dependency on data and facts, starting every transaction on a zero base, and not carrying the hysteresis of bias from prior transactions to the current transaction, created an environment of openness, honesty, meritocracy, confidence, enthusiasm and fairness among my colleagues. In the 33 years that I was associated with Infosys from 1981 to 2014, the morale of the youngsters was high.
All our employees knew that they could voice their opinions without fear as long as they had proper data with them. They knew that titles did not matter. All doors were always open. We followed the adage "You can disagree with me as long as you are not disagreeable". Whether it was a co-founder or a janitor, the person had full confidence to walk into my office when I was free and discuss any issue and disagree with me. Even today, I get at least 10 mails every week from Infoscions seeking my advice on many personal and professional dilemmas they face. Almost every one of these mails refers to my penchant for fairness, and for depending on data and facts.
Such steadfast reliance on data and facts to decide every issue is a must, when you have a large number of bright and articulate senior colleagues, and when you are in the company of bright, knowledgeable and articulate young professionals. I was lucky to be surrounded by my co-founders, as well as bright, articulate and value-based people like Mohandas Pai, V. Balakrishnan, Srinath Batni, D.N. Prahlad, M.D. Ranganath, Phaneesh Murthy, B.G. Srinivas, Nithyanandan, Panduranga, Rajesh Krishnamurthy, Ramadas Kamath, Sharad Hegde, Deepak Padaki, H.R. Binod, Tan Moorthy, Nandita Gurjar, Hema Ravichandar, Sanjay Purohit, Richard Lobo, and many other smart youngsters. I may have forgotten several names. I have just named a sample of the people with whom I had close interactions. My apologies to those I have forgotten to mention.
But these people had no heroes. Their only hero was data. They had very high self-confidence and dignity. To them, merit, honesty, transparency and fairness were important. What they wanted in every decision was openness to new ideas, discussion, debate, honesty, leadership by example, transparency and fairness. They hated intrigue, dishonesty, opacity, favouritism, bias and game playing. By insisting on data and facts, we achieved transparency and fairness in every transaction in an environment of openness, and had a hierarchy of ideas rather than hierarchy of titles. As long as you had good data with you and you argued logically, they bowed to you, smiled, accepted your argument, owned the decision wholeheartedly, gave their 100 per cent to implement the idea, and defended the decision in public.
Thus if a leader wants to earn the trust and confidence of his or her people, there are two important attributes required - leadership by example, and transparency and fairness in every decision the leader makes. Such a focus on transparency and fairness will only be achieved if every issue is decided on data and facts, and such data and facts are disseminated to every stakeholder on a need-to-know basis.