Leading academic institutions in the West have seen a spate of academics of Indian origin rising to the top. Nitin Nohria at Harvard Business School, Madhav Rajan at Chicago Booth, Sri Zaheer at the Carlson School of Management, and Soumitra Datta at Cornell are just a few recent examples. Recently, Srikant Datar became the second successive India-born manager to be selected to lead Harvard Business School, possibly the most prestigious academic leadership position in the global business school community.
What do these academic leaders have in common? Many of them were educated at the crème de la crème of India’s undergraduate and post-graduate institutes (the IITs and IIMs feature prominently here). They then went on to receive doctoral training at the top institutes in the world. This implies that by the time they started their research program in the United States, they had already survived competitive systems where they had to overcome selectivity ratios of 1 in 100 just to enter a premier institution.
In November 2018, we authored our book about a new, emerging phenomenon: the rise of the Indian manager to positions of global leadership (The Made-in-India Manager, Hachette India). We spoke about a breed of managers who had their formative upbringing in India and were now leading reputed global institutions. Since then, there have been numerous cases of Indians rising to the top, both within global corporations, and internationally-renowned academic institutions.
Our core thesis was that there are a certain set of qualities that being brought up and educated in India endows you with. These include the ability to handle ambiguity and a high degree of competitive intensity, the ability to remain rooted in a core set of values derived from a strong family influence, and a deep and pervasive hunger to rise above one’s current circumstance. We also suggested that the ability to ‘think in English’ was an important icing on this cake. We noted that factors enumerated by us were not necessarily distinctive for Indians, but it was the combination of factors that created a new breed of Indian leader—the emergent, made-in-India global leader.
A recent study by researchers at MIT, Michigan, and Columbia showed that South Asian managers tend to outperform managers from other regions when it comes to senior leadership positions in business. Our thesis about the ‘made in India manager’ was further corroborated. The study suggests that managers of South Asian origin tend to be more assertive in many business settings, and this makes a critical difference. Hard work, flexibility, and learnability seem to set many of these leaders apart.
Srikant Datar himself is an example of many of these qualities. Srikant started his career as an accounting professor and is the author of a widely accepted and well-known accounting textbook. This, of course, is where his story gets interesting.
Srikant has made multiple transitions in his academic journey and has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to learn new subjects and achieve mastery. He was one of the early proponents of design thinking. He developed and led the Harvard course on design thinking, which is a highly popular course to this date. Today, he is the faculty chair of the Harvard Innovation lab. He has ventured further into other emerging areas like analytics, critical thinking, and machine learning.
Srikant has also been keen to give back to his country of origin. He sits on the board of multiple top Indian academic institutions (including IIM Calcutta and Bhavan’s S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research), and has shared his material on design thinking with many Indian academics and significantly shaped the growth of this subject in Indian institutions. His values remain deeply rooted in Indian wisdom, and at a recent conclave in India where he was the keynote speaker, he spoke with great candour and originality on Mahatma Gandhi as the original innovator and design thinker.
Srikant is also the author of the bestselling book, Rethinking the MBA, a book which questioned the current paradigm of management education, and laid out suggestions for a more humanistic, innovative, value based curriculum.
Srikant’s career demonstrates much of the resilience, hard work, strong value core, adaptability, and learnability that characterise made in India managers. These qualities are needed in a world which is increasingly ambiguous and dynamic. There is a need for a new breed of academic leaders at the helm of academic institutions across the world. They are leading academic institutions at a time when academia is in the throes of an unprecedented crisis. They will need to draw on their unique blend of ‘Indian values and Western efficiency’ to lead their institutions, and positively shape the face of management thought and practice in the years to come. In doing so, they may inspire many others to follow the trails they have blazed.
Views are personal. Banerjee is Dean at Bhavan's S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR); R Gopalakrishnan is a noted corporate leader, author and executive in residence at SPJIMR.