'Leadership is a right you must earn'
Vineet Nayar is the vice chairman and joint managing director of HCL Technologies Ltd, a $4.3 billion (around Rs 23,220 crore) global IT services company. In 2005, Vineet became president of HCL Technologies and during the next five years he led a remarkable turnaround of the company, which saw its revenues and employee base triple. Excerpts from an interview:
How do you define a leader?
Leadership is a state of mind, akin to that of an explorer for whom the unknown is a lot more exciting than the known. A leader is one who is not simply obsessed with getting to the top but also about what he would do after he gets there. A leader is not afraid to stand apart from the crowd, to be different, to step out of the comfort zone and risk all for what he/she believes in. Above all, leadership is not an entitlement or a position; it is a right you earn by your actions every day.
What are the three most important traits of a leader?
First is the ability to inspire people by pursuing a vision that gets people to jump out of their beds every day and go to work for an idea which is bold, unique and has a higher purpose. People feel inspired only when you can help them discover what they want to do and not what you want them to do. Secondly, the ability to think beyond the obvious and see an opportunity in every challenge. It's like the diamond cutter in search of rough diamonds. Lastly, an ability to work your guts out till you make every breath count as if it's your last. If you are not willing to give up the safety of the status quo and live or die by your ideas you cannot expect others to follow.
As the leader of your company, how do you cultivate leaders?
I believe leadership cannot be cultivated. Leaders just need fair and equal opportunities and they grab these opportunities and earn the trust and respect of the people whom they lead. True leaders are those who lead with their ideas - and not their position.
Can leadership be learnt? In other words, how can a manager become a leader?
Every person has a leader within who is just waiting to be discovered. Some people are afraid to discover what they are really passionate about. Others may know it but are not willing to give it all they've got because they are unsure and insecure. While some others know it and want to lead but just don't get the opportunity in their field of interest. In my mind it is futile to teach "leadership". Instead you should help people discover what they're really passionate about and give that leader within an opportunity to express, experiment, lead and gain in confidence.
What is the role of a professional leader in a promoter-driven company?
A true leader's role and responsibility does not materially change with ownership patterns as he draws energy, inspiration and the right to lead as much from those he leads as from the board and shareholders. The most successful leadership journeys I have witnessed have been those where leaders have inverted the management pyramid and ceased to think of themselves as the only source of change. They try hard to transfer the ownership of the organisational change and growth to the next generation of leaders who are closer to where the decision impacts the organisation. An organisation that takes 50 small decisions at the front will always be more effective than the one which takes 5 big decisions at the top.
Since September 2008, the world has fallen into a maelstrom of serial crises. What is the role of a leader in these times?
It is rightly said that success has many fathers and, thus, in good times, many claim to be effective leaders. However it is only in tough times that the true leaders stand apart... In moments of crisis, successful leaders are neither distracted nor depressed. They are excited instead, because they see an opportunity in the imperfection and uncertainty. Like a race car driver, when you're driving straight there is nothing you can do if somebody is ahead. The opportunity to take a lead is always on the bends. The role of a leader in such a scenario is to find opportunities in risks and to enthuse and empower their team to chase them fearlessly…and have faith. Yes, in the end, it's all about keeping the faith.
What has been the biggest leadership challenge you've faced?
I am not sure which one would be the biggest, however two have been the most exciting. The first was setting up a small startup in 1993, Comnet, based on an idea and a belief that looked unconvincing on paper. The challenge was to attract the best brains in business and to get them excited about creating something unique, which they did and built it into a $1 billion business. The second was back in 2005 when we as a group of about 30,000 employees of HCL Technologies started our transformation journey by rediscovering our magic. We focused on not just 'what' we did but also 'how' we did it and gave birth to the idea of 'Employees First, Customer Second' which is now debated and adopted across the world by other organisations.
What's your one-line leadership mantra?
If you want to be a leader, there has to be irrationality in your expectation from yourself, your team, your idea, your company, and even the world at large.
Who are the leaders that inspire you?
Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
What is the best leadership decision you have taken?
The best decisions I have taken are those where I invited others to decide what is best for our organisation, resisting the temptation to take decisions myself. As a leader, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that you're the only guy who can take the right decision.
And the worst?
Decisions, both big and small, have turned out to be bad decisions or disasters, at times. I have been unafraid to own up to them, as each one of them has taught me many important lessons.