Leadership lessons from the man who created the Tata Nano

Leadership lessons from the man who created the Tata Nano

When we think of what a great leader should be, we have in mind qualities such as integrity, humility, passion and commitment towards a vision.

While it's easy to expound on the abilities of effective leaders, great leadership is a difficult task to undertake, let alone carry forward successfully, building credibility, respect and a legacy along the way.

But one such man has managed to exemplify the idea of what it takes to be a great leader. Ratan Tata spent 21 years at the helm of Tata Sons, from 1991-2012, and in that time helped the company to realise annual revenues of US$100bil (RM400bil) and made a number of impressive acquisitions including Tetley, Jaguar Land Rover, and Corus.

One of Tata's standout qualities is his humility, which was with him when he joined the Tata Group in 1961. His first role saw him on the shop floor of Tata Steel, shovelling limestone and handling the blast furnace, as he sought to understand the company and its values from the ground up.

Tata's leadership commands respect throughout the world, which is highlighted by the numerous prestigious awards bestowed upon him. To name just a few, in 2014 he was awarded the Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by the United Kingdom, and was presented with the Padma Vibhushan in 2008 and Padma Bhushan in 2000, the second and third highest civilian honours awarded by the Government of India.

Despite retiring from executive responsibilities in 2012, Tata continues to serve as the chairman of the main two Tata trusts, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Sir Ratan Tata Trust, and their associated Trusts, as well as maintaining a number of non-executive advisory positions.

One of Tata's most famous innovations was the Tata Nano - a project in which he was instrumental - the purpose of which was to bring affordable cars to Indians in an effort to reduce the use of motorcycles. At the time of the Nano's launch in 2008, pricing was around US$1,500 (RM6,000), but has since risen to around US$2,000 (RM8,000). Nevertheless, the car still maintains its "world's cheapest car" claim.

The success of Tata Sons under Ratan Tata's stewardship, and the social change he has seen manifest thanks to the company's innovations, make the Harvard-educated Indian one of the great leaders of Asia, if not the world.

So what can be learned from Tata's leadership? What does it take to be a great leader and to continually adapt, grow and succeed?

Here are just some of the leadership lessons that can be learned from Tata's remarkable journey:

1. Communicate clearly and often

If there's one quality leaders often lack, it's the ability to set out their vision clearly - and to listen to the people who are assisting you on the road to success. One-way communication is rarely effective communication.

Ratan says: "Far more is gained by walking on the shop floor and communicating with the people. Communication is an exceedingly important function for any chairman to do and to be visible in that sense."

2. Don't be afraid of taking risks

All great leaders throughout history took risks as part of their success. Some risks were calculated, while others were more of a gamble. But the overriding principle to being innovative and creating change is that it takes something never done before in order to bring the seemingly impossible to life.

Ratan says: "Where did Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook come from? They came from ideas that people felt something could be done, and that they could make a difference."

3. Never discount the value of trust

You can be a great innovator, an inspirational speaker, an efficient problem-solver and a leader who makes a killer coffee. However, none of that will mean much at all if you lack trust in people, or people lack trust in you or your organisation.

Ratan says: "Trust is the psychological bond between you and your customer, your workers, and stakeholders. Without trust, you run the risk of being a superficial entrepreneur based on criteria which are not truly fundamental to the manner in which you do business."

4. Stay humble

Humility is one of those words that is freely bandied around, but the actual quality is less often practised. It is valuable precisely because it helps to keep leaders grounded without losing touch with reality, and enables them to view objectively their strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly to the interests of their organisation and the people it serves.

Ratan says: "If you sit next to a Nobel Laureate, they never tell you they have won a Nobel Prize - other people tell you."

5. Be yourself. . . everyone else is taken

Tata is a far cry from the ebullient, trumpet-blowing cavalier that often caricatures great leadership. He instead cuts a reticent, soft-spoken, humble leader and serves as a great example that anyone can succeed - and perhaps stands a greater chance of success - by staying true to who they are.

Ratan says: "I realised the shoes I had to fill were far too big to mimic (taking over from his uncle J. R. D. Tata in 1991), and so I decided to be myself and that to do what I thought was right would be the way to go."

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