Adopting the 10 mindsets of successful Indian business leaders

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by Stephen Manallack on Monday, February 11, 2013


Session type

Technical level


The objective is to inspire the audience to "be the change they want to see in the world" by adopting the 10 attitudes of mind of successful Indian business leaders. The lecture would be a celebration of India's great thinkers, plus inspiration from modern leaders combined with the best of the west - creating a new mindset of entrepreneurial activity. A key benefit is attendees will see how they, too, can achieve like Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Ratan Tata, Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs - we call "be the change" with the right mindset.


This lecture challenges the stereotypes of success for entrepreneurs and builds a new Indian template - based on the best of Indian history, the best of modern India and the best of the west. It outlines the 10 mindsets of successful Indian business leaders in a way never before done.

The 10 secrets of Indian business success

During more than a decade dealing with India, leading trade missions, writing for Indian business media and advising on cross-cultural issues, Stephen Manallack compiled the secrets of this new Indian business success while preparing his new book for this growing market, Soft Skills for a Flat World (Tata McGraw-Hill)

Indian companies are expanding globally, with icons like Jaguar and Land Rover now in Indian hands. Why is this corporate success happening?

And why are there so many Indian-origin CEOs in global companies such as Pepsico, McKinsey, Unilever, Deutsche Bank, Citibank, Standard Chartered and HP?

Behind this success is not just capital, systems and a huge labour force – the real secret of Indian success can be found in ten ways of thinking of Indian business leaders.

As Australian business leaders in increasing numbers go to India with high hopes, it is vital to know who you will be meeting and what to expect.

Acceptance of change

The first of the ten reasons for India’s business success is that Indians have acceptance of change hardwired into their psyche – they thrive on it. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, warned us: “Ignorance is always afraid of change.”

Lakshmi Mittal is Britain’s wealthiest man and a non-resident Indian who heads up the world’s biggest steel manufacturer, ArcelorMittal, and he has clear views on leadership and on change: “Always think outside the box and embrace opportunities that appear - wherever they might be.”

Often in the west change is seen as “another frustration”, but in India change is good news – they know that when you give up the struggle against change, you find incredible inner strength.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a giant of Indian literature, music and thought, a Nobel Laureate, and he described the mindset: “Let us pray not to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless when facing them.”

Mukesh Ambani, Managing Director of Reliance Industries Limited, has built a strong conglomerate based around petrochemicals and good management thinking. His approach is to build a structure that adapts to change: “The organizational architecture is really that a centipede walks on a hundred legs and one or two don’t count. So if I lose one or two legs, the process will go on, the organization will go on, the growth will go on.”

There have been business leaders in the west who were switched on to changebut a key difference in India is acceptance of change – it is not resisted. Take the example of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the Chairperson and Managing Director of Biocon Ltd and is one of India’s most successful and wealthiest women. Yet many times her chosen path came to a brick wall – she achieved success because of her ability to adapt to change – “I certainly believe that everything happens with a reason. I wanted to join medical school and when that did not happen I took up biology instead. And that led me to specialise in brewing. However when I was not accepted as a brew master in India, I turned to biotechnology in a very accidental manner. In hindsight, I am grateful that the brewing doors shut on me and I set up Biocon instead!”

So this unique Indian view of change (they do not fight it when there is little chance) is one key to success and was well stated by Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, former President of India (2002-07): “I was willing to accept what I couldn't change”.

Live in the moment, now

Living more in the moment makes India’s business leaders very adaptable and opportunistic. This mindset shows up in small ways – arrive in Mumbai with an idea and no appointments, pretty soon you will be seeing the people at the top. Rarely does this flexibility happen in the west, where lead times are long and appointment secretaries plan years ahead – not so in India.

For Vijay Mallya, head of India’s United Breweries Limited, living in the moment and following his intuition has been a cornerstone of his success as a brewer. Mallya is known in India as the "King of Good Times" and he is making a name around the globe.

His “living in the now” style helped him unleash the Kingfisher brand: “…while going through the archives of United Breweries, which was a British company my father bought in 1947, I stumbled across this label of Kingfisher Beer that had been launched in the 1850s, but was no longer in production and sale. And something excited me about Kingfisher, you know, the bird. I saw color, I saw vibrancy, I saw movement, I saw a bit of cheekiness, you know, the kingfisher sort of fishing.”

Mallya right from the outset has been a “now” leader – instead of commissioning market research, he got out of the ivory tower and chatted to university students and found they had lots of aspirations. “They wanted to live a more free more western-oriented life. Because India, since independence has been a very controlled, sort of socialist economy. So I decided that Kingfisher would be a lifestyle brand, positioned on a lifestyle platform.” Kingfisher now dominates the Indian beer market.

Being in the “now” results from learning how to control the mind - Anil Ambani, Managing Director of Reliance ADAG: “Concentration can be cultivated. One can learn to exercise will power, discipline one's body and train one's mind.”

Kumar Mangalam Birla is the Chairman of The Aditya Birla Group and he also counsels leaders to look after ‘the mind’: “Leaders must have the ability to mind your mind, which means quickly recognising when one is wrong and changing track accordingly. Also, far from being egocentric, they should have a great sense of humility.”

Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar is a great example of focusing on the now: “I am not thinking too far ahead, just want to take it one thing at a time.”


One of the inspirational features of Indian business leaders is how they build generosity into their personal and business life – while too many measure successful leadership in the west just by the share price.

To understand this thinking, turn again to Rabindranath Tagore, much loved philosopher, author, songwriter, painter, educator, composer, Nobel Laureate (1861-1941) “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” Every business leader in India knows this quote.

Mr Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of The Aditya Birla Group, has pointed out: “Great businesses are never built on the quick sands of opportunism. I reiterate that if living by our values means, perhaps, growing at a pace slower than we would otherwise have liked, so be it. For us, leadership lies at the heart of knowing what we stand for.” Often that means giving to the community – at the expense of shareholders.

Ratan Tata epitomises the Tata Group’s success and ethics: “Some foreign investors accuse us of being unfair to shareholders by using our resources for community development. Yes, this is money that could have made for dividend payouts, but it also is money that’s uplifting and improving the quality of life of people in the rural areas where we operate and work. We owe them that.”

Patience, not anger

Of the great texts of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, is an influential part of the education of so many Indian business leaders and it sums all this up so beautifully: “Delusion arises from anger. The mind is bewildered by delusion. Reasoning is destroyed when the mind is bewildered. One falls down when reasoning is destroyed.”

In most offices you will find a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi who was an advocate of forgiving others rather than reacting with anger: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” He explained: “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.”

One of India’s modern thinkers, Sadhguru, understands the west so well and points out: “People want intensity, but the only way they know how to be intense is through physical action, anger or pain.”

The Indian thought process enables good leaders to focus on their reaction to events, which they see as more important than the events themselves.

Ethics and respect

While many see India as held back by corruption – particularly at government level – the companies having global success are remarkable for their corporate governance.

My exposure to this aspect of India began in 2005 when the Chairman and Chief Mentor of Infosys, Narayana Murthy, spoke about corporate governance and morality in business: “We follow one principle – the softest pillow is a clear conscience”.

Forbes Magazine has written “Infosys is a model of transparency, not just for corporate India, but for companies everywhere…”

Azim Premji is the founder and Chairman of one of India’s most successful new IT firms, Wipro, and his view is clear: “Character is one factor that will guide all our actions and decisions. We invested in uncompromising integrity that helped us take difficult stands in some of the most difficult business situations.”

To understand the different starting point of many Indian business leaders, consider the views of Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and Managing Director of petrochemical and diversified industries giant, Reliance Industries Limited: “As long as we place millions of Indians at the centre of our thought process, as long as we think of their welfare, their future, their opportunities for self-realization we are on the right track.”

Another business leader who champions this approach is Kumar Mangalam Birla who is at the helm of India’s first true multinational – the Aditya Birla Group: “I think the only one thing which I can probably think of is a very common and strong thread is a sort-of shared value system. And I think that value system that's based on the trusteeship principle. That, you know, a part of the profits that you make get bowed back for the good of society.”

Problems are a gift

To understand one of the dramatic differences in thinking between India and the west, consider this quote from Pema Chodron, Buddhist Nun: “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chair and Managing Director, Biocon Ltd, shows how this works: “My philosophy in life is that every failure can be converted into a success. As somebody said, defeat is temporary but giving up is permanent. The way I approached it was that I am going to be just not brainwashed by perceptions. I thought let me do it my way."

Another way of expressing this comes from Swami Sivananda: “Crave for a thing, you will get it. Renounce the craving, the object will follow you by itself.”

The Indian born Lakshmi Mittal, head of Arcelor Mittal, knows about tough times and has this view: “Everyone experiences tough times, it is a measure of your determination and dedication how you deal with them and how you can come through them.”

Right Words

When Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People “Communication is the most important skill in life” we in the west learnt how to be “out there” and “upfront”, a kind of “me, me, me” expression, but you find a different picture in India. To westerners, much of Indian corporate communication can be frustratingly low key – but the power of it is finding the right words for the right time.

Ratan Tata modernised the Tata Group and expresses this communication style this way: “I do not know how history will judge me, but let me say that I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to transform the Tatas from a patriarchal concern to an institutional enterprise. It would, therefore, be a mark of failure on my part if it were perceived that Ratan Tata epitomises the Group’s success. What I have done is establish growth mechanisms, play down individuals and play up the team that has made the companies what they are. I, for one, am not the kind who loves dwelling on the ‘I’. If history remembers me at all, I hope it will be for this transformation.”

By turning to Indian philosopher, Krishnamurti (1895-1986) we can find much of the thinking that leads to a low key but sincere communication style: “If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our backgrounds, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen to what is being said.”

The Indian response to the Covey quote would be that the biggest obstacle to the art of communication is the rise and fall of our thoughts. These thoughts stop us listening, and without listening how can we communicate?

One Indian business leader told me that the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu had a big impact among India’s business elite: “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others. Be gentle and you can be bold; be frugal and you can be liberal; avoid putting yourself before others and you can become a leader among men.”

Leaders as gurus

One Indian business leader who really encapsulates India’s leadership style is retail champion, Kishore Biyani, who was born into a small trading family, and created Future Group, a $1 billion company that includes many leading retail brands.

Working for Biyani would be an adventure: “We can chop and change anything we do, anytime. Nothing is constant for us. Nothing is constant here. We believe in destroying what we have created.” Destroy and create – two great themes of ancient and modern Hindu thought and now part of Indian business leadership.

Biyani clearly has an action orientation in his view of leadership: “Business schools work on creating efficiencies, creating productivity and managing consistency. But life is not like that. Life is chaotic.”

Within Future Group he is famous for taking a different approach to structures and the work environment: “We don't have structures; it is a non-hierarchical organization that works with people coming together to do things.”

TT Srinivasaraghavan is the Managing Director of Sundaram Finance, a diverse company that is active in savings deposits, mutual funds, car finance, insurance, home loans, business process outsourcing, IT and software and logistics. TT is a most honoured business leader in his home city of Chennai (once Madras) and expressed it this way - that Sundaram is first a family and second a company. Fundamental to his business is ‘trust’ and what he calls a ‘chain of faith’ that flows from people who trust each other — from the board through to senior management.

As head of Sundaram, he talks about the old Indian way of learning through having a teacher and a disciple - ‘guru’ system. Sundaram in a way tries to build a management system like that. As a result, when they hire it is never at the top searching from some miracle from outside - they hire for the bottom and build people up.

The Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, lovingly called ‘Amma’, and known globally as India's “hugging saint mother”, urges us to bring humility to the table of leadership: “Huge trees are uprooted and buildings collapse in a cyclone, but no matter how strong a cyclone is, it cannot touch the grass. This is the greatness of humility.”

Life as a spider web

While the west strives for simplicity and certainty, Indian business leaders know that life is like trying to find your way through a spider web – where does it begin, where does it lead, who can tell?

Using money as a measure of success does not work in the spider web - Sadhguru has the best advice here: “Money is empowerment, but by identifying yourself with it, you are making it an impediment. There is nothing wrong with money. If you leave it in your pocket and do not identify with it, it is useful. Once it gets into your head, it becomes a perversion. If you would make your inner well-being the top priority of your life, you would find that money is easily handled.”

Another key to success in the spider web is to focus on what we are doing rather than on results – the Bhagavad Gita says: “Better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace.” Successful Indian entrepreneurs seem to find this peace - they are not constantly staring into some distant future outcome, but instead focus on what they can do today.

Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman of The Aditya Birla Group, gives us inspiration: “Well, I think the golden rule I can think of is the fact that you must follow your passion and do something that's close to your heart. And I think that that's very important, well, to be successful and to be happy.”

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chair and Managing Director, Biocon Ltd said: “I believe I have created intellectual wealth from very frugal resources and that is what I am acknowledged for. I do hope I can inspire ordinary people to build enterprises from very little monetary resources but a rich mind to succeed. I am proud of having created a valuable organization and that is the wealth I am proud of Biocon is really about building intellectual wealth and not about creating material wealth. It is the opportunity that the company has provided to hundreds of scientists that matter to me.”

In the spider web, facing challenges and taking action is the key – again from the Gita: “Action is greater than inaction. Perform therefore thy task in life. Even the life of the body could not be if there were no action.” Taking a positive approach was the advice from India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: “Life is like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”

Leading by not conforming

The western dilemma of conformity versus creativity was summed up by the great Indian thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti, who said: “So, having made life into a technical process, conforming to a particular pattern of action, which is merely technique, naturally we have lost confidence in ourselves, and therefore we are increasing our inward struggle, our inward pain and confusion.”

When Apple’s Steve Jobs made his “crazy ones” speech, it was as if he had insights into the non-conformist mind of India: “Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules...the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Thinking of others rather than “profits first” is one way Indian leaders do not conform. The wisdom of this was pointed out by Paramahansa Yogananda: “Business life need not be a material life. Business ambition can be spiritualized. Business is nothing but serving others materially in the best possible way.”

For Indians, one of the most popular western business leaders is Britain’s Sir Richard Branson, who said: “…even when you’re successful, it is vital that you don’t solely lead your company from a distance. Walk the floor, get to know your people. Even though I don’t run Virgin companies on a day-to-day basis any more, I still find it crucial to get out and about among our staff.”

Sadhguru uses a sporting analogy: “You must have the fire of wanting to win but also the balance to see that if you lose, it is okay with you.”

India’s non-conformity is supported by a “can do” belief - Tagore is the inspiration to action: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.”


An open mind that will examine and question everything presented to find what is meaningful and useful for you.

Speaker bio

My new book is the first to celebrate the 10 mindsets of successful Indian business leaders while combining this with the very best of the west. i would therefore be the only speaker able to outline a new Indian template of entrepreneurship - the best of Indian history, the best of modern India and the best of the west - a winning formula. I know the importance of attitude of mind because I have been in business since 1980 and experienced every high and every low.


  • 2

    [-] Stephen Manallack 7 years ago

    Yes - I can condense it into less than 30 minutes if needed. Thanks for your interest.

  • 1

    [-] Vijay Anand 7 years ago

    Stephen, do you believe you can contain this session in a 30 minute talk?

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