Gurucharan Das is an author, management guru and public intellectual. Das’ latest book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of dharma, focuses on the very important Indian word ‘dharma’ and uses the backdrop of the Mahabharata to analyse the topic of ‘being good and uplifting ones dharma’. Before turning into an author, Das was the CEO of Procter and Gamble India and later Managing Director (strategic planning) at Procter and Gamble Worldwide. He’s a regular columnist for several Indian newspapers and recently wrote India-centric articles for newspapers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. The Smart CEO caught up with Das to chat about several aspects of leadership from an Indian perspective.
Take us through this transition: from Managing Director at P&G to bestselling author. What was your big idea when you turned author?
Sometime in 1994, I realised I had already worked for 30 years, it was long enough and I wanted to do something different. Around that time the reforms had taken place, and it continued to baffle people. There was nobody explaining how these reforms will affect business and society. I was passionate about writing, and decided to turn author. My book, India Unbound, explained the story of India in a coherent fashion right from the independence era to what I expected to happen post-reforms. My latest book, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of dharma, deeply analyses the epic, Mahabharata, to answer one big question ‘why be good?’
How do you see things pan out for India over the coming years? What are we doing well? And, what do we need to fix?
I think, what I predicted in the early 90s has more or less happened. India has risen economically and it has risen in the back of its people and entrepreneurs rather than being pulled up by the state. The Indian economic story is intact and we’re certainly doing well on that front.
What we need going forward is more or less clear. We need governance reforms; we need to reform the bureaucracy, the judiciary, policy-making agencies and even the political class. If we do not ‘change’ in these areas, we may get stuck like the Latin American states and just be a middle-income state with a per capita income of anywhere between US $5,000 and US $10,000.
I am also hopeful that India can take advantage of the demographic advantage it has. Government should focus on the education and health sectors. They can even rope in the private sector through public-private partnerships to set these sectors rights. With the economy growing at a robust pace, jobs will be created. We certainly need good schools and primary healthcare centers to ensure our people are ready to take up these jobs.
How should leaders handle a crisis?
At a broad level, each crisis is different and needs a different sort of response. But, fundamentally, leaders have to be transparent and pro-active. Let’s take the example of the microfinance industry and SKS Microfinance. If the leaders in these industries are transparent, several problems will be solved. Some creditors in the sector have done wrong things, but that doesn’t mean the whole sector is flawed. I fear, if we don’t take action now, we might throw the baby along with the bath water. In general, transparency and a pro-active approach to solving a crisis will help leaders and companies go a long way.
Having interacted with senior management professionals for quiet sometime now, could you suggest one big idea for Indian management teams?
Actually, my suggestion to Indian senior management professionals is a rather simple one. Leaders need to inculcate the importance of teamwork into the whole ecosystem – with employees, customers, suppliers and all stakeholders. Indians, traditionally, are very good individual players. If we can create an environment to get the maximum out of a team, there will be nothing like it.
How should leaders tackle the execution challenge?
Bridging the gap between strategy and execution is one of the key responsibilities of a leader. The leader should set an example by getting into the messy details of execution. The leader has the ability to work across boundaries, rope in people from outside and break any obstacles for his team. The other aspect that is very important and often ignored is to reward people who execute well. A good strategy is one that can be executed well. The two things should not be separated.
The art of being ‘good’
In this book, Gurucharan Das has turned to the Mahabharata to analyse the age-old Indian topic of ‘Dharma’. Going beyond just the story of the epic, Das has focused on analysing almost every character in the Mahabharata in detail. The Mahabharata itself is the story between two warring cousins, and how at the end of the war, almost no one is alive. While the Pandavas won the war, the eldest brother, Yudhishtira, is devastated by the amount of damage that the war caused and decides to pursue the path of non-violence.
From greed and envy to success and happiness, several human characteristics are analysed. Das talks about how most Indian parents today want their children to grow up to be ‘Arjuna’ and not ‘Yudhishtira’ (the eldest brother of the Pandavas) and why ‘success’ and ‘winning’ play a critical role in the Indian household today. Overall, it made a fascinating read and the book will definitely make you think about what is the right thing to do in everyday life and business.