Harvard’s Nitin Nohria – The Arc of leadership

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Baker Library at Harvard (Photo: Michael Weymouth)

Baker Library at Harvard (Photo: Michael Weymouth)

Nitin Nohria, Dean – Harvard Business School

There was a big buzz internationally when Bombay native Nitin Nohria was appointed the Dean of Harvard Business School, the century-old iconic U.S. institution which has produced innovative and inventive business leaders who have had an impact across the globe.

“He’s a person who not only studies leadership but embodies the qualities of a leader in how he engages people and ideas, in how he thinks about organizational change, and in how he sees the consequential challenges ahead,” says Harvard University President Drew Faust while emphasizing Nohria’s commitment to scholarship, his global outlook and instinct for innovation and collaboration across traditional boundaries.

Indeed, in the current volatile economic climate with so many topnotch business houses showing feet of clay, accountability and ethics will be important qualities to nurture in business students in this increasingly global business marketplace.

“I feel a profound sense of responsibility for continuing Harvard Business School’s proud legacy of groundbreaking ideas and transformational educational experiences,” says Nohria,the first Indian to hold this post.  “With business education at an inflection point, we must strive to equip future leaders with the competence and character to address emerging global business and social challenges.”

When he speaks, the business world certainly listens: he has over 16 books under his belt, which he has co-authored or co-edited, including Handbook of Leadership Theory & Practice, In paths to Power: How Insiders and Outsiders Shaped American Business Leadership, and In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the 20th Century. The third book in the trilogy is Entrepreneurs, Managers and Leaders: Leadership Lessons from the Airline Industry

Other books like Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices and Master Passions: Emotion, Narrative, and the Development of Culture take on the social and individual choices business leaders must make.

Nohria, who is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration, has taught M.B.A., doctoral, and executive education programs for two decades at the Business School and has been a mentor to many a student. It’s interesting to note that this business guru actually started out as a chemical engineer, graduating from IIT-Bombay.

“He brings a unique perspective to his position as Dean of HBS, being an engineer by training at a school which is generally viewed as a general management and consulting powerhouse,” says Ram Kelkar, President of the IIT Bombay Heritage Fund. “In spite of reaching the pinnacle of success at a storied institution like the Harvard Business School, he has remained grounded in his roots as an IITian.”

Nohria, who writes about choice and passions, did himself go through varied paths, receiving a Ph.D in management from the Sloan School of Management at MIT before finding his true calling in business.

Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School

Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School. Photo: Stephanie Mitchell

Nitin Nohria: In His Own Words…

“My father was a CEO, so I grew up in a family that gave me a very real sense of the positive impact that business can have upon society – from providing goods and services to creating jobs to building entire communities,” says Nohria, whose father KK Nohria headed Crompton Greaves.  “As a Ph.D. student at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, I started out in international finance but I discovered organizational behavior and leadership, and ultimately my interests went in the direction of international business and organization theory.”

“I am very fortunate to have found my true passion – in fact, most days I pinch myself and say, ‘Wow, I’m doing work that feels so natural to me,’ he adds. “ I always advise students to think about their careers over the long term – more of a marathon than a sprint – and to choose something they care deeply about.  That is the best way to have success.”

And passionate Nohria is about all the underpinnings of the business world.  As Ram Kelkar points out, “His writings and research interests suggest that he will bring a renewed focus on ethics and character in business. Given that the actions of managers on Wall Street and Main Street brought the global economy to the edge of a financial precipice, this renewed emphasis on ethics could make a big impact in molding future business leaders at HBS.”

Nohria’s interests spill into other aspects of life, and the questioning and reasoning also extend and become informed by art, culture, people and the world around him, as he moves between continents, fusing both identities of Indian immigrant and American citizen.

“I try to maintain balance in my life.  I am an academic, so I certainly try to learn something every day,” he says. “But I also have always loved the arts – in fact, for a long time, I have been a small collector of contemporary Indian art, which is not as well known as the masterpieces of Indian antiquity.  I think both of these aspects of my life inform each other, and enrich each other.”

While Harvard Business School is a huge chunk of his life, we asked him what a day away from HBS was like for him. He says, “I enjoy spending time with my family.  We’ve taken some wonderful vacations together and like exploring new places.  Here in Boston, we follow our local sports team, particularly baseball – Boston Red Sox – and basketball – Boston Celtics.”

And yes, the Dean loves to cook! Nohria, who lives with his wife Monica, and daughters Reva and Ambika in Lexington, near Boston, is king of the kitchen. He says, “At home I’m the chef – I’m a vegetarian so I specialize in making Indian and Italian food.” And though this Bombayite left many years ago, he carries fond memories of his IIT years and of the city. Ask him what he misses the most about Bombay when he’s in Boston, and he says, “Bombay remains almost a second home, as I still have family members and friends there who I am able to visit fairly often – so fortunately I don’t have to miss it at all!”

In fact, in his current hectic schedule as Dean of Harvard Business School, he’s headed for a worldwind tour of several countries, and will be in Bombay this month. He will surely be speaking with CEOs and industrialists as well as those aspiring to leadership, talking about a changing world and the qualities needed to succeed in an increasingly globalized world.

Asked for some parting words of wisdom, he lays out a simple, commonsense formula which has worked for him: “Go about  things in such a way that you feel proud of what you’ve contributed to the world, not just to your own life. I’d also like to share the advice I received from my father a long time ago that I have never forgotten:  ‘Be yourself and be humble.’  I have kept those words in mind throughout my life.”

© Lavina Melwani

(This article first appeared in Hi Blitz, a lifestyle magazine in Mumbai)

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Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

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