August 2004 | TR Doongaji

JRD: The eternal icon

On the occasion of JRD Tata’s death anniversary, which falls on November 29, Tata Services managing director TR Doongaji remembers the legendary chairman of the Tata group

As I set to pen this piece, I quite realise that there are many others, seniors and celebrities, who knew JRD Tata more closely than me and, so, would be more qualified to do the writing. All I can claim is that my good fortune had seen me positioned as a junior member of his secretariat in the late seventies. Again, so much has already been spoken and written about JRD in this centenary year of his birth that, at best, my effort cannot extend beyond reaffirming a few of his exemplary qualities.And, finally, there is no escaping the realisation that however extensive the effort, and however hard one may try, it would never be possible to constrict in words the 'spirit' that was JRD.

JRD’s philosophy, and the ethos of the group he symbolised, can best be described through lines, equally apt for Tatas, that I must borrow from an article I had come across some years ago, the title of which was "Business as a Spiritual Pursuit", which read: "(In Tatas) we have retained the fire of idealism and in its glow we have come to recognise that no wealth or power can be more valuable than our dignity; no loss of profit can be more critical than the loss of our credibility; no skills or qualifications can substitute the integrity of our character."

His unflinching and unwavering commitment to the highest principles and standards was the light that forever illuminated his path, inspired his speech and guided his actions. Surely there were those who did not necessarily agree with his views on issues such as the country's economic model, social concerns such as the growing population and business priorities and practices. And yet, even amongst such, I cannot think of one who could have ever doubted the nobility of his intent. No wonder then, JRD will always remain a symbol of integrity, of righteousness, of the highest ethical conduct and of credibility.

It amazes one to observe how successive Tata leadership has, for over a hundred and thirty years, zealously guarded, practised and propagated what internally in the group is referred to as Tata values, the bedrock of the Tata edifice. It is this 'spiritual core' that differentiates Tatas from other business entities globally, as they all must struggle to compete and win in a material world.

JRD's commitment to perfection in whatever he said, did or wanted achieved, bordered on fanaticism. To borrow his own words, he was never satisfied with the second best, in any task, however small. Like Michelangelo, he believed that "trifles make for perfection for perfection is not a trifle." An inconsequential typo in a note or letter would not get past him and back it would come, the word circled in turquoise blue ink (Chairman's ink as we called it) with the comment: "surely we know our spellings." Once, when complimented for my driving I enquired as to what made him approve of me he said "you did not rest your foot on the clutch pedal all the time." Nothing would escape his discerning eye. It would seem obvious then that the products and services of his companies had to be of the highest quality, the best in class; not ignoring, for a moment, the quality of corporate conduct that, in my view, remained always of paramount importance to him.

JRD had a deep, enquiring mind. He was curious; not only about things that mattered to business such as technology or finance; but also about places, people, music, medicine, literature, philosophy, religion, the arts and the sciences. He wanted to know just about everything. A lift in his car to children on their way to school was not just warmth and courtesy, which he had, in full measure; it was an opportunity to learn what they taught in school, an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the future. Building 'learning organisations' suddenly gained importance not long ago in the management lexicon. JRD, by himself, was a learning institution exploring ceaselessly, his thirst for knowledge never quenched. By any standards, therefore, he was truly 'educated’.

"Humility," said Bob Galvin, "does not mean that one thinks less of oneself, it means that one thinks of oneself less." If there could be one person that fits this description of humility, it would have to be JRD. He was humble in spite of the high pedestal on which he was perched and it was this quality that enabled him to constantly learn. He was far, really far, from being pompous. Unlike so many business leaders and executives who strive to remain in the media glare, he was not a man who cared to bask in the public eye. On one occasion when he entered a reputed clothing shop everyone just stopped going about their business unable to get their eyes off him. Realising what his (charismatic) entry had caused, he said loudly, but politely: "I have not escaped from the zoo. Why don't you ladies and gentlemen just ignore me. I am here to have an Indian-style suit tailored for a function at which I am required to be present." That function was the one at which he was conferred the Bharat Ratna by President R. Venkataraman. "He touched power but remained untouched by it."

JRD was unusually warm and caring. Like Andrew Carnegie, he concentrated on "the ounce of gold" in his people and he did not focus on the tons of earth that must be mined to reach it. He said: "If I have any merit it is in getting on with individuals according to their ways and characteristics. At times it involves suppressing oneself. It is painful but necessary. To be a leader you have to lead human beings with affection." He inspired performance; he did not have to command it.

Leadership that depends on visibility alone survives for a given moment in time and tends to wither away with its passage. In the way in which he lived, through the strength of his character and the utter sincerity of his words and deeds, JRD touched and impacted not just minds but the soul of all people. He was a leader who neither craved for nor needed any visibility. His presence was pervasive; it could be felt, always, as it is even to this day. And, so, JRD lives on like a blossom perennially in bloom, its fragrance undiminished — the eternal icon.