From a freedom fighter, then an officer serving in the Indian Army, to a textile exporter to leading hotelier, 91-year old Capt CP Krishnan Nair has experienced from the ring-side the country’s economy for several decades. He spoke to HT on a range of issues on leadership. Excerpts:How do you define a leader?
I think a great leader has the courage to stand up for ideas or a dream and has the ability to mobilise a team, a country or a movement to achieve it. A leader inspires others to be the best they are capable of and see not only the vision but realise it. Our culture has been thinking and writing about leadership from 3,000 years — from Lord Rama to King Asoka to Mahatma Gandhi — and has given leaders different definitions.
What are the three most important traits of a leader?
I think the three most important traits of a leader are - determination, innovation, and audacity.
Can leadership be learnt? In other words, how can a manager become a leader?
Yes, leadership like all skills can be taught and learned. Over the course of my career, I have had the privilege to meet with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gafar Khan also known as the Frontier Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. I have met presidents and prime ministers from around the world including President (Barack) Obama and the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher, and virtually all business leaders of our time. Despite leading different countries, corporations, and movements, I found one quality that they all had in common is what I call ‘leadership charisma’. This quality is self-learned and comes from a deep sense of meaning and fulfillment in one’s work and by working effectively with others.
On a macro level, an organisation can help their managers become leaders by not only assessing where the managers are today but where they will be tomorrow.
What is the role of a professional leader in a promoter-driven company?
What I have learned through my own experiences as a textile innovator and a hotelier is that a successful leader is a powerful communicator. Too many strategies never get executed because they remain closely guarded secrets of the promoter’s team. The leader’s communication is what inspires a company to execute ideas and stand out and above from the rest.
As the leader of the Leela Group, how do you cultivate leaders?
Leaders are not born… they are made. I have individual relationships not just with my top team and managers but also with my gardeners and guards across our properties. And, I constantly communicate our core value — “Atithi devo Bhava” — treat every guest like God, to all of them.
At The Leela, we cultivate leadership by creating synergies between individual career pathways and the company’s larger ethos, which prepares them for upward mobility within the organisation and practice what we call the “Leela Dharma” — which is a doctrine of duties to be followed by each employee.
Since September 2008, the world has fallen into a maelstrom of serial crises. What is the role of a leader in these times?
The mettle of a leader is often tested during a crisis. Global economic woes have triggered a wave of thinking about changes that need to be brought in organisational leadership, not just in banks and brokerages, but businesses in every industry. The role of a leader in these times is to become a powerful catalyst for change in the practice of leadership and corporate governance.
What has been the biggest leadership challenge you’ve faced?
Each of our properties was a challenge built against nearly insurmountable odds, and contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time. Most recently, I would say, it was building the first new hotel in the heart of the capital’s diplomatic enclave.
Do you think the role of business leaders has come under cloud — globally and domestically — of late?
No, I don’t think so. Indian business leaders have shaped the course of India and radically changed the business scenario internationally.
Leaders have to often carry the cross of other’s wrongdoings and inefficiencies. What role can good leadership play to counter balance this image?
When good people make bad decisions, it’s because they are a part of a bad collective process. Good leadership now must provoke new thinking and new processes. The next generation of leaders should have the perspective, the mentality, the confidence, and the authority to call for a radical change.
What is your one-line leadership mantra?
A lifelong inspiration for me has been the rallying call Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru made to the nation — Success comes to those who dare and act.
Who are the leaders that have inspired you?
Subhash Chandra Bose, VP Menon, the 14th Dalai Lama.
Who is a leader in your industry that your respect?
I have tremendous respect for all the leaders in my industry. What is the biggest leadership lesson that you have learnt? In every crisis lies an opportunity.
What is the best leadership decision you have taken?
The best decision I made was opening a Palace hotel in the heart of New Delhi. I believe that to be a hospitality player to reckon with, a prominent presence in our capital is very important.
What is the worst leadership decision you have taken?
Weak performances test my patience. Probably the worst leadership decision I have taken was tolerating a weak performance longer than I should have.