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How the greatest leader J.R.D. Tata nurtured proved his worth

Sumant Moolgaonkar, a protégé of J.R.D. Tata, exemplified all the qualities the industrialist valued in leaders, especially a respect for human dignity

Sumant Moolgaonkar (left) with J.R.D. Tata. Courtesy: Penguin Random House India

J.R.D. Tata nurtured leaders. He picked men who had vision and a fire in their belly to realize those visions. He gave them the freedom to shape their enterprises, provided they honoured the Tata values of fairness to all stakeholders, excellence in whatever they did, and respect for the dignity of all human beings. Amongst the many great leaders that Mr Tata nurtured, the greatest was Sumant Moolgaokar, Mr Tata said….

Moolgaokar had an unshakeable belief in the worthiness of, and the potential within, all human beings. He picked potential leaders well. He could sense the spark within them. And he knew how to stoke the fires in their bellies.

A man with his high standards was frequently disappointed. He would have to express this, if only to urge people to try harder. However, he never raised his voice at another human being. At least, never publicly. Sometimes, when he was really unhappy, he would have a ‘private chat’. In these chats too, he was economical with his energy—no raising of his voice, and very few words too. A frown, or a smile, or even a turning away of his attention, would say whatever needed to be said.

AB, who was Moolgaokar’s hand-picked man to build the latter’s visionary factory in Pune, had many private chats with Moolgaokar. AB was a firebrand and was driven by a vision. He was born in Nagpur where, as a teenager during India’s freedom struggle, he was jailed for attempting to blow up the railway tracks. AB told me that he had smoked hashish with the other prisoners, and also that he had learned a freedom anthem from them, snatches of which he would sing sometimes when he was in his element.

Moolgaokar had an unshakeable belief in the worthiness of, and the potential within, all human beings.

AB had studied engineering in England. He was one of the first Indian engineers to be selected to work with German engineers from Daimler-Benz, when the Tatas signed an agreement with the German company in 1954 to produce trucks and buses to the German company’s standards in India. The terms of the agreement were clear. The German company was paid a substantial technical fee, in addition to royalties on sales in India, on the condition that it would transfer its technology to the Indian company. The proof of this was that the trucks that were produced in Jamshedpur had over 90 per cent domestic content in less than fifteen years—and some were even exported by the German company with its proud three-pointed star on their front grilles as proof that they met Mercedes’s quality standards.

The transfer of complex technologies does not happen merely by sending blueprints and operating manuals from one company to another. Complex technologies are successfully transferred only when they have been absorbed in the minds of learners. Eager learners must understand the nuances of the new technologies, and they must learn to make their own judgements when applying them to their local contexts. Moolgaokar had observed that AB was the best of the Indian learner-doers. Even the Germans relied on him whenever blueprints from Germany had to be adapted to Indian conditions, and that too without compromising on German quality.

When Moolgaokar told Daimler-Benz that TELCO would not renew the fifteen-year technology agreement between the companies when it would expire in 1969, because TELCO wanted the freedom to export the vehicles made in its factory as India-made trucks, with the Tata ‘T’ on the grille, instead of the Mercedes star, to show the world that India could do it too, Moolgaokar picked AB to lead the team of Indians that would set up and run the new factories in Pune....

The Learning Factory by Arun Maira, published by Penguin Random House.
The Learning Factory by Arun Maira, published by Penguin Random House.

Moolgaokar hand-picked a few more Indians from Jamshedpur for the team that would build the Pune factory. They were contemporaries of AB. They had worked in different divisions in Jamshedpur. AB was a deputy to a German boss in Jamshedpur, as were these men. AB relished the idea of being the big boss now. He began to yell at these men, even on the shop floor, as the Germans, who were hard taskmasters, had done sometimes. The Indians had not protested against the Germans’ behaviour in Jamshedpur, because the Germans were their teachers, and as Germans they were accepted as superiors in technology. However, when AB, who was their peer, yelled at them, they could not stand it.

They complained to Moolgaokar that AB was not talking to them respectfully. Moolgaokar had a private chat with AB. AB was upset that his underlings had dared to complain about his behaviour to his big boss. He could be vicious. He found other ways to publicly shame his colleagues. For example, instead of yelling at one of them, he would yell at one of their subordinates in front of the workers. Thus, he would dare them to stop him and to contradict him in public. Thus, relationships between AB and his team deteriorated further.

Moolgaokar confided in me that he had a dilemma. He knew AB was the best in his field of work, and was perhaps indispensable. He told me the story of Abraham Lincoln’s dilemma about General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had begun to turn the tide of the American Civil War against the South. Grant was a hard-drinking man. Some members of Congress thought he was not a good role model for the young soldiers. They asked Lincoln to fire Grant. Lincoln did not acquiesce to their demand. He said that if he knew what brand of whiskey Grant drank, he would prescribe it to his other generals too, who had not been performing so well in the war!

Moolgaokar confided in me that he had a dilemma. He knew AB was the best in his field of work, and was perhaps indispensable. He told me the story of Abraham Lincoln’s dilemma about General Ulysses S. Grant

Moolgaokar explained to me that whereas Grant’s bad habit had evidently not hurt anybody, AB’s behaviour was harming other human beings. AB was publicly stripping them of their dignity, which Moolgaokar would not tolerate. He told me that he had also learned that two officers working for AB had signalled that they would resign unless Moolgaokar reined AB in.

Moolgaokar summoned AB. They met alone for some time, and then I was sent for. Moolgaokar updated me that he had told AB that his behaviour must change. They had also come to an agreement. AB had accepted that I would be his resident behavioural coach in Pune! A few days earlier, an announcement had already been made that I would be moving to Pune as the senior deputy general manager, reporting to AB, the general manager. The order had said I would be responsible for all non-technical matters, including all matters relating to people. Off the record now, Moolgaokar said, I would also be AB’s coach.

I was stunned. I was twenty years younger than AB. How could he accept this? However, AB surprised me by reaching out for my hand. He said, ‘I know this will be hard for you, Mr Maira. But I need your help.’

Excerpted from The Learning Factory: How The Leaders Of Tata Became Nation-Builders by Arun Maira, with permission from Penguin Random House India.

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