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Seven secrets of effective leadership by Rod Cartwright

16th June 2014


Colleagues may have seen the recent piece in PRmoment on our Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor (KLCM) – our annual global study into effective leadership, effective communication and the umbilical link between the two. So I don’t propose to go over that ground here.

Rather, I wanted to look at an example of what “good” looks like when it comes to the KLCM Good Leader Formula. And having just returned from a fascinating family visit to Mumbai, I wanted to share the story of Captain CP Krishnan Nair, founder chairman of the Leela Group of hotels in India who tragically passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 92.

So, what’s the relevance of a recently deceased Indian hotelier to leadership communication? Well bear with me as the man was a true inspiration!

Captain Nair’s was classic rags-to-riches story. Born in Kerala in 1922, one of eight children and son of a poor paddy farmer, he joined the Freedom Movement at the age of 14, coming into close contact with Gandhi and Nehru, and was even jailed by the British – sparking his commitment to making a contribution to the development of a free India.

Soon after independence he joined the army, rising to captain before quitting in 1951 to join his father-in-law’s handloom textile business. Over the next 35 years, he became the father of the globalisation of India’s garment and textile industries. And then in 1986, at the age of 65 when people usually retire, he decided it was time for another change and ventured into the hospitality sector, setting up the Leela Hotel in Mumbai – named after his wife. From that initial single property, he has expanded the Leela Group portfolio to eight properties across India, with five more major projects underway.

Over a 28-year period, he won countless international awards as a pioneering hotelier and environmentalist, including lifetime achievement awards from the Times, Condé Nast and CNBC. He was named Hotelier of the Century by the International Hotel & Restaurant Association, joined the United Nations Environment Programme’s Global 500 Laureate Roll of Honour and was listed in Business Week as one of 50 global octogenarians who still “rock the world“.

What was it about this remarkable man and his approach to hospitality that so embodied the brand of leadership communication – fusing open communication, decisive action and personal presence – that three years of KLCM research have shown to be so important? Well here are seven for starters…

1. Single-minded purpose. Everything he did was driven by a single minded-purpose – an absolute commitment to showcasing the country of which he was so proud. I’ve seen nothing to suggest plans to go international, with this ever-present focus on celebrating the country of his birth acting as a corner-stone for everything he did.

2. Customers first. Directly linked to this was his mission to exceed his guests’ expectations through gracious Indian hospitality – a precept laid down in the ancient Indian scriptures as Atihi Devo Bhava or “The Guest is God“.  And this is not some glib corporate slogan – it runs through everyone who works there. When my wife and I wrote to thank Captain Nair for the amazing hospitality we enjoyed for our 10th anniversary, he sent us a three-page personal letter. And in staying there last week, we received invitations from his colleagues to visit people’s homes to celebrate their birthday party and to meet “out the back” to get hold of our favourite local beer!

3. Leading by example. Beyond the age of 90, Captain Nair was in the office for 7am, six days a week, 11 months of the year. But only after he’d spent time working with the hotel gardeners. A leader willing to get his hands dirty – literally. He loved his business, he showed that personally and people followed.

4. Hierarchy as just functional necessity. Rather like Nelson Mandela famously shaking the hand of the policeman outside Number 10 before that of the PM, Captain Nair always spent more time when visiting local hotels with the room cleaners, kitchen staff and gardeners than senior management. Why? Because in such an intensely consumer-facing industry, a brand is as strong as its weakest link. Everyone matters to the customer experience – making the infusion of his purpose and beliefs through the entire employee base utterly critical.

5. Progress through others' progression. The Mumbai hotel also houses the Leela Academy, an entire hotel which acts as a training base for ALL Leela employees, but also as a seedbed for the future talent that will run the entire Indian hotel industry. Hardly surprising that staff who were there 18 years ago when we first visited welcome you back as warmly as they did on the first day – with some having been there for the entire 28 years of the Leela’s existence.

6. Effortless authenticity. There was just no front to the man. And as you flick through the TV channels in your room, you find a lovely video of him hosting a session for staff and suppliers on lessons for the hospitality sector with his personal friend, the Dalai Lama! Not some paid advocacy, but the freely provided inputs of one of the many people who enjoyed a close personal relationship with him.

7. Unaffected storytelling. The entire Leela brand is permeated by a real and personal story – that of Captain Nair. Certainly, the acid test will be the extent to which this purpose-driven narrative can continue in his absence. After all, the Harvard Business School defines leadership as "sustainable excellence which endures beyond you". However, as the brand moves forward under the stewardship of his two sons, they could not have inherited a more powerful, entirely purpose-centred legacy.

I would love to hear any personal stories of leaders who have inspired you. Do tell!

Rod Cartwright, partner and director at global corporate and public affairs practice at PR firm Ketchum



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