The confluence of leadership and culture in the melting pot of India

International Journal of Public Sector Management

ISSN: 0951-3558

Article publication date: 25 May 2012



Prabhakar, G.P. (2012), "The confluence of leadership and culture in the melting pot of India", International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 25 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The confluence of leadership and culture in the melting pot of India

Article Type: Interview From: International Journal of Public Sector Management, Volume 25, Issue 4


This work is based on an interview with Dr R.K. Pachauri conducted under the aegis of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness Research Programme (GLOBE) research study.

Rajendra Kumar Pachauri was born on 20 of August, 1940 in Nainital, India. He is an economist and environmental scientist who has served as the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 2002. On December 10, 2007, he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC, along with co-recipient Al Gore. Dr Pachauri is also the director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, an institution devoted to researching and promoting sustainable development. This study was initiated to explore the entrepreneurial and leadership behaviours of top leaders and attempts to find out the key leader behaviours that are vital to the businesses. In the longer term it would also help to identify what leader behaviours are important in different countries and in different settings as what might click in India may not click in France and so on. The results obtained from this research will throw some light on how Dr Pachauri steered TERI to success using various entrepreneurial skills under difficult situations during its initial years of inception. This paper also highlights the important role of entrepreneurship for India to meet its growing energy needs.

Literature review

Leadership has been the focus of many people throughout history, from Plato in the West, to Confucious in the East (Turner and Müller, 2005). Mäkilouko (2004) states that the question of failing to see and cope with foreign cultures is still an unanswered one and needs further research. The interest in studying Indian businesses is also recent (Gupta et al., 2005; Prabhakar, 2008; Prabhakar, 2009; Sharma, 2000; Veliyath, 2004) and there is a great scope and need to research into this field. Anbari et al. (2004) believe that effective use of cross-cultural teams can provide a source of experience and creativity to enhance the competitive position of organisations and economies.

Wills and Barham (1994) found that cognitive complexity, emotional energy, and psychological maturity were common factors in what they called successful multicultural managers. Managers need cognitive ability in order to relate with, learn, and understand other people and cultures. Emotional capacity is needed for channelling the stress caused by the confusion and ambiguity of multicultural situations. Psychological maturity means the ability to choose open rather than defensive coping strategies in foreign cultures.

Multicultural leadership is an interesting and challenging subject of research. The researcher has to deal with a research-sample collection problem as project teams work in different countries. There is also the problem of limited knowledge in this field. One does not yet know how applicable the existing knowledge obtained from other research sample groups is for multicultural leadership. Some claim that these earlier results are universal. The fact is, however, that the assumption of universalism is unverified. Some studies have focused on leadership traits in multicultural management (Wills and Barham, 1994; and Bloom et al., 1994) and team processes (Davison, 1995; Li et al., 2002).

House (1971) developed the path-goal theory of motivation to bring together and assimilate earlier, unreliable findings on leader effectiveness. This is a contingency theory model that concentrates on the methods used to manage followers’ expectations through an emphasis on behaviour and the environment. The leader will attempt to raise performance and motivation levels through satisfying followers’ expectations. Progressing contingency theory further, Thamhain (2004) carried out a study on technical-intensive industries and found that in this type of highly competitive, dynamic industry effective team leaders need to understand and manage organisational and behavioural variables, whilst encouraging active participation, accountability and result orientation in staff. The study by Mäkilouko (2004) has certain implications for multicultural companies. First, it seems that relationships oriented project leaders may have a higher potential for leadership success since they tend to be able to maintain project team cohesion.

Den Hartog et al. (1999) in a GLOBE study focused on exceptional leadership and found that, although culturally-contingent leadership characteristics exist, there are certain characteristics related to charismatic/transformational leadership that are generally agreed worldwide as factors of exceptional leadership. Holmberg and Åkerblom’s (2006) GLOBE study concentrated on exceptional leadership for middle managers in Sweden. They came to similar conclusions as Den Hartog et al. (1999), that both culturally-contingent and globally endorsed leadership characteristics exist in Sweden. However, they further posited that culturally-contingent characteristics change slowly and, therefore, do not believe that a global convergence of leadership styles is taking place. Den Hartog et al.’s (1999) multi-phased, deductive study uses mixed methods through triangulation of quantitative data with qualitative examples. This is a longitudinal study with high relevance still in today’s society. As a GLOBE study, it is based on a very large sample which has been analysed by expert co-researchers. This original paper synthesises a large amount of research, which is very reliable. They carry out a second study to test different levels of management, which helps to increase credibility, authenticity and construct validity. The second study is only carried out in one country, which would likely affect its generalisability, and the qualitative data is not discussed in depth; however, this may not present a problem, as the qualitative data was used for examples. The excellence of this paper is recognised by many, which is proven by the large number of citations it has received – 248 according to Google Scholar and 95 according to Web of Science.

Dickson et al.’s (2003) contribution to the GLOBE study makes a strong case against the existence of universal leadership principles. During their review of cross-cultural leadership, they noted the existence of many different leadership styles, practices and preferences. Dickson et al. (2003) review existing literature using interpretive, inductive and constructivist methodologies. They use qualitative research from secondary sources for their theoretical analysis, but no empirical evidence. However, they cite a large number of theorists and used a varied group of subjects, making their arguments sound very plausible. They are part of the GLOBE study, a study of 61 countries that was conceived of to fill the gap in previous research into leadership and culture. Mäkilouko (2004) uses a hermeneutic approach towards grounded theory building from qualitative data, due to the lack of research at that point on leadership of multi-cultural teams. This is an original piece of work, which seems very plausible, although the author noted a research sample problem due to participants being resident in different countries. The lack of research in this field was also noted to hinder this study, hence the use of grounded building methodology.

Recently some authors have advocated the adoption of “switch leadership”, that is, a continuous adaptation of the leadership style in accordance with the change in situation, phase or sub-phase of the project (Prabhakar, 2005a, b, 2004a, b; Prabhakar and Walker, 2005, 2004a, b, c; Walker and Prabhakar, 2005). Bloom et al. (1994) studied leaders in European companies and suggest some common characteristics for multicultural leaders. These include attempts to manage international diversity, social responsibility of the employees, internal negotiation (participation in decision making), general orientation in people (rather than task orientation), and attempts to manage between extremes to find a consensus in the multicultural environment.

Leader background

Dr Pachauri started his career with the Indian Railways and his very first position was a managerial one. He was thrown into a pool without knowing how to swim. He had to sort of jump into it. The first position involved managing around 1,500 employees at a workshop in Kalka at the foothills of the Himalayas that he was responsible for. It was pretty tough considering that labour had been quite militant there in the past. Then he was shifted to the Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW) in Varanasi that was being established. That was a different challenge in the sense it was a technological challenge and at the same time he had to train and use a large number of workers who incidentally were well-educated and had been technically trained for their jobs. Over and above that, they were given a lot of training within the factory. Then to establish all the production systems and set up the assembly line, he was made the manager of the entire engine division. So, he got into management fairly early. All this was in the middle of the 1960s. The technology transfer (at DLW) was licensed from the American Locomotive Company (ALCO), which incidentally went out of business later. They were a competitor of General Motors (GM) and could not survive. They could not beat GM in their own game. During the course of his work there, he went to the US and Canada to receive training at the Montreal Locomotive Works and visit the facilities of ALCO, and thus got a fair amount of exposure of what was happening in the field. Then in 1971, he left DLW and went overseas to do his Doctoral work in Industrial Engineering. There he took Economics as a minor and enjoyed it so much that he did a PhD in Economics as well. After that he came back to India in 1976 to join the Administrative Staff College of India and spent six years there, and then went back to US to teach another year. And then came to India and joined The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in early the 1980s.

An interview of Dr R.K. Pachauri


How did you go about setting up TERI? Your name has been synonymous with it.


Basically, TERI was formed in 1974. But there was no Director at that time. JRD Tata was the Chairman, and the driving force was Mr Darbari Seth, who was the vice-chairman and builder of Tata Chemicals. So, the governing council was running TERI and it was functioning like a funding organisation. The institute funded small little projects for different organisations across the country. But then they realised that this was no way to develop an institution. They were looking for a director and I got into a dialogue with them in 1980 and joined them.


When you took over TERI, what kind of a vision did you have about the institution?


Quite honestly, I had a very modest vision of what TERI should be doing and my vision was limited by what I thought would be practical and possible. The Tata’s had contributed to the initial corpus of TERI. When I joined, this was the resource TERI had, and the governing council still intended that it should function like a funding organisation, so that we could act as a catalyst all over the country for bringing about a change towards a greater use of renewable energy and so on. But they certainly wanted a core group to guide that effort. So, this was the vision that was passed on to me. But I was not going to be satisfied with that. So, I started with a group, took on some research activity funded by outside bodies like the Department of Science and Technology and had some of TERI’s researchers trained in the US with support from USAID and so on. We started with some research activity, some energy modelling activity on our own because I didn’t want to be in any way dependent on the corpus. And then we went from one thing to another. As a philosophy, we have not used the corpus at all and have been able to add to it.


What were the important milestones in TERI’s development, and how did they synchronise with your vision?


To be honest, I didn’t have a defined vision. I certainly wanted to make sure that this institute makes a difference to policy-making, to action in this country and also create a model of success that can be replicated. So, we really moved from one thing to the other. We started with energy policy and energy modelling, and then went into rural energy, working with industry, doing audits and helping them develop more efficient methods of using energy. Then we went into environmental issues in a big way, which was natural flow out of our focus on energy. The nexus between energy and environment is so strong that you can’t ignore one while working on the other. Then in the mid-1980s it was decided by the governing council that TERI should spawn an institute of biotechnology. So, the TERI team applied their minds to this and felt that rather than set up a separate institute, biotech could become a part of TERI’s activities. So, we went into biotechnology in a big way and now we have three separate divisions for this, as well as a range of lab facilities and units.


Why biotech then? Wasn’t it a little ahead of time?


I think that the vision of the governing council was that biotech was an area where India will have an important role to play. But other than this, I didn’t have a very clear focus on what needs to be done. I was asked to take in a very senior person and give him a fair amount of autonomy, since I didn’t know much about the subject myself. I did that and still think that it was one minor aberration in TERI’s history. The person came from a CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, India) background, where the philosophy is that the government will give the funding and we’ll do our own research. Given the fact that he had a fair amount of autonomy, he recruited a large number of scientists who started working on a range of subjects that I began to get increasingly uncomfortable with. Their job was not in tune with everything else TERI was doing. So, I had to take some harsh decisions and get rid of a few people, and give the programme a totally different orientation. And it has worked out very well. The kinds of things TERI are doing for instance, tissue culture, horticulture, biomass production, bio-remediation where we have developed microbial cultures that can clean up oil spills and the sludge that accumulates in oil-refineries. We are also doing a major project for ONGC (Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, India) where the microbial action will enhance oil recovery. So, we have been able to realign the biotechnology activities towards environment and energy.


So, at what point of time could you have a more articulate vision of what TERI should do?


Over an extended period of time we’ve really had no links with the Tata organisation at all. TERI is now in reality an international independent research institution. This is the vision that has evolved over a period of time. I suppose because I’ve myself been very active in the international arena, I felt there should be no reason why Indian intellectual capability and expertise shouldn’t rise to international standards”. This vision of creating TERI as an international institution emerged during late ’80s. Today we have an independent unit in Washington, DC, and a formal presence in the UK, Japan, and one person located in Africa and one in the Middle East.


Any particular institution that you modelled TERI upon?


I find it very difficult to compare TERI with any other institution. I think that TERI is a peculiar animal. We do research, and also work at the grassroots level. So, in some sense, we are a research organisation and an NGO (Non-governmental organisation or not for profit organisation). We have also established a deemed university and run PhD and Masters level programmes. So, we have established a culture that looks at opportunities, looks at new areas to work on, and through that culture we define little parts of this vision of what TERI should be doing. We know that we must support the objectives of sustainable development; we must ensure that in whatever we do we try to make a difference whether it’s at the basic grassroots level or in terms of influencing policy and providing policy research at the macro level. That’s why we keep questioning ourselves. It’s not that if we are committed to an area we’ll remain committed to it all the time. For instance, for about 15 years we worked on fuel cell technology. But we realised that what we were doing would not have paid off. There are big players involved in this area, so the question is “can we afford to be here”? Hence, we carefully decided to refocus. This is something that many government research organisations don’t do. So, in one sense our vision is that we must have an enabling and dynamic culture that ensures that whatever we do is relevant.


How difficult has it been to create this culture?


It’s difficult but not unattainable. Right from the day someone joins TERI, we tell that person that he/she is not just a researcher but a research entrepreneur. We have to do work which is intellectually of a high order, but we have also to ensure that whatever we do is practically applicable and is of some benefit to society or any other entity that we relate to. We should also be able to generate resources to support that activity. We may not do it immediately, but if we are focused that at some predetermined point of time we have to be viable, we can. So, given that this is the guiding force behind everyone, it has not been all that difficult.


What are the major difficulties TERI might have faced in its quest for its vision?


There have been different factors and some of them are still there. We employ everyone on a contract basis, as a matter of policy. But that also requires that we have to create the assurance that as long as one works, one needn’t worry about other jobs. The contract would be automatically renewed. One offshoot of this is that we have a lot of young people, who join us, learn the tricks of the trade and of course make some valuable contribution also, but just at the time we want them to hang on, they are taken up by organisations like the United Nations or the World Bank whose salary levels TERI can’t match. This is the downside of being an internationally known organisation. People know that a guy from TERI would deliver. Some youngsters would go abroad to their doctoral work. TERI hopes that they would return and we often continue to pay a substantial part of their salaries. But only a small percentage returns. So, we have just accepted this fact. Then there have been periods of enormous financial pressure. When our office building was made at the India Habitat Centre, payments had to be made as the building progressed. That was the only period when I had sleepless nights, because I had to worry about where salaries would be paid from without touching the corpus, and also had to make sure that the payments for the building were not delayed by even a single day. But we came up with all kinds of innovative ideas. In 1987-1988, we set up the Professional Corporate Associates scheme. We invited corporate organisations to be members of TERI, in return for which they would get TERI’s publications and services. But basically it was a means to get some outside support. We were reasonably successful in this. At that time we had 13-14 members whom we charged a one-time fee for a lifetime membership. Then in the mid-1990s, we started a project called “Green India 2047” for which we said we’ll need only corporate support. We wanted this project to be totally unbiased and to be seen that way. We tried to assess what India had done to its natural resources in the last 50 years and where we were heading if we continued on the same path. This was a massive exercise and we went to 12 corporate sponsors. We carried those corporate names as the main sponsors of the project. Most of these organisations were from the private sector. It was difficult, but we managed to convince them that this was a project worth doing in the larger national interest. So, from time to time we have faced financial challenges but have been able to meet them by one means or the other. Keeping in mind the growing expenditure of the Institute, the need for enhancing the corpus has become very important. It also gives TERI the ability to say yes or no to a project if we are sure of a significant flow of income from the corpus. We have turned down several large projects because we thought they didn’t provide TERI that intellectual drive and were not of some direct benefit to society or didn’t match our expertise or interests. So, TERI’s interest is to see that the ratio between our annual expenditure and corpus remains constant overtime, so that our ability to assert our independence is not eroded.


What are your major strengths as a CEO?


I personally don’t feel that I have any strength that I should boast about. But I have perhaps the ability to judge people in a manner that identifies who would work and who would not. And I give an enabling environment, give them a lot of trust and freedom, but also hold them accountable. And I have not been disappointed in that regard. We have a very young team in TERI who love their work by and large and deliver, so much so that in some sense I myself feel redundant. So, I feel proud of the fact that I have been able to inculcate a culture of teamwork and cooperation that’s the strength of the organisation.


And what are your weaknesses?


My weaknesses are that I do have this tendency of saying things that at times I feel I shouldn’t. Even with colleagues, I’m harsh at times, but they have learnt to cope with it now. I suppose I may have some other weaknesses, which my colleagues might be aware of.


Do you have an articulate philosophy of management?


My philosophy is only to show results, and if one does so, then whatever model of management we’ve evolved is a workable model, something that should hold up for others to see. In one of the chapters in Peter Drucker’s books on non-profit organisations, Drucker says that the best managers today are to be found in the voluntary sector. And I think the reason why Drucker feels that the voluntary sector is very well-managed is because of the pressure under which they function and the kind of accountability that makes it essential for them to show results. So, my philosophy is that everybody in the organisation shares the feeling of success and contributes to it.


Any specific organisational changes that you plan to make in TERI?


TERI needs to bring about much greater and faster usage of skills for building teamwork, in strong organisational behaviour, and in ensuring that there is a stronger spirit of cooperation. I would like to see how best to bring it about without damaging the culture of the organisation and yet be able to provide a forward vision that others will be able to articulate and pursue.


Any other thing that you think I have not touched upon?


I’ve enjoyed my work and that’s what I want to tell others too. One must not get burdened by work, but rather work in a spirit of joy because that’s what contributes to making a successful organisation. If people are happy working in an organisation, then it’ll surely succeed. A former president of Honda Motor Company said that when he was the chief executive he would tell his colleagues, “we are not here not to maximise profits or sales, we’re here to see that you get joy out of work”. And this is a very powerful philosophy.

Findings and conclusions

India still suffers with having long hours of power cuts. The movement in the right direction has started with the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. Government of India is making a beginning with the privatisation of power distribution; although they have been saying this for a long time. According to Dr Pachauri, for somebody to invest in power generation, there must be an assurance of being paid for what is generated. If the distribution end is corrupt and decrepit, then no corporate would be willing to invest in this sector. It will take some time. One can’t change the basic characteristics of a society. Therefore, one can’t be impetuous in demanding immediate results.

People in India and other parts of the world notice that TERI has to carry out research in an environment that gives them financial autonomy. TERI has to be conscious of the fact that whatever they do must be funded by one organisation or the other for the value of what they do. If one is in basic research, then one needs to have some assured funding, but in an area like they are in, the ability to generate financial resources should become a part of the activity. They tried this philosophy and have shown that it works.

In terms of an impact at the national level in the energy sector, TERI is impatient for change. But one has to accept the inertia of decades, rigidity of systems is such that one can’t expect miraculous results. Change is very slow. There are times when one keeps pushing an idea and everybody accepts that idea and starts peddling it as his/her own. The moment that happens, it will work so one has to keep pushing concepts and ideas and interact with those who can make use of those ideas.

Guru Prakash PrabhakarBristol Business School, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK


Anbari, F.T., Khilkhanova, E.V., Romanova, M.V. and Umpleby, S.A. (2004), “Managing cultural differences in projects”, Proceedings of the IPMA World Congress on Project Management, Budapest, Hungary

Bloom, H., Calori, R. and de Woot, P. (1994), Euro Management: A New Style for the Global Market, Kogan Page, London

Davison, S.C. (1995), “Leading and facilitating international teams”, in Berger, M. (Ed.), Cross-Cultural Team Building: Guidelines for More Effective Communication and Negotiation, McGraw Hill, London, pp. 158–79

Den Hartog, D., House, R. and Hanges, S. et al. , (1999), “Culture specific and cross-culturally generalisable implicit leadership theories: are attributes of charismatic/transformational leadership universally endorsed?”, Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 219–56

Dickson, M., Den Hartog, D. and Mitchelson, J. (2003), “Research on leadership in a cross-cultural context: making progress, and raising new questions”, Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 14 No. 6, pp. 729–68

Gupta, V., Levenburg, N. and Saran, P. (2005), “Ebony Department Stores: strategic growth roadmap for an Indian family business”, paper presented at Family Enterprise Research Conference, Oregon State University, Portland, OR

Holmberg, I. and Åkerblom, S. (2006), “Modelling leadership – implicit leadership theories in Sweden”, Scandinavian Journal of Management, Vol. 22 No. 4, pp. 307–29

House, R.J. (1971), “A path-goal theory of leader effectiveness”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 16 No. 3, pp. 321–39

Li, J., Xin, K. and Pillutla, M. (2002), “Multi-cultural leadership teams and organizational identification in international joint ventures”, International Journal of Human Resources Management, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 320–37

Mäkilouko, M. (2004), “Coping with multicultural projects: the leadership styles of Finnish project managers”, International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 22 No. 5, pp. 387–96

Prabhakar, G. (2008), “Haldiram’s: India’s entrepreneurial answer to the McDonald’s and the Pizza Huts”, International Journal of Business and Management, Vol. 3 No. 5, pp. 95–9

Prabhakar, G. (2009), “Dr R.K. Pachauri and his experiments with the Energy and Resources Institute: an interview on Indian research entrepreneurship”, paper presented at AUMEC: Ankara University International Conference on Marketing and Entrepreneurship, Antalya, Turkey

Prabhakar, G.P. (2004a), “A switch will induce a better pitch”, Student Paper Award, PM Days ’04: Projects and Emotional Intelligence, Vienna

Prabhakar, G.P. (2004b), “The impact of switch leadership on project success”, Pre-IRNOP-VI Doctoral Conference, Helsinki

Prabhakar, G.P. (2005a), “Switch leadership in projects”, Project Management Journal, Vol. 36 No. 4, pp. 53–60

Prabhakar, G.P. (2005b), “Switch leadership in projects”, Student Paper Award, Proceedings of the PMI Global Congress – North America, Toronto

Prabhakar, G.P. and Walker, S.E. (2004a), “A switch in time saves nine”, Proceedings of the PMI Research Conference, London

Prabhakar, G.P. and Walker, S.E. (2004b), “A switch in time saves nine – II”, International Project and Programme Management Workshop, Lille

Prabhakar, G.P. and Walker, S.E. (2004c), “Switch leadership”, Cahiers de Recherche d’ESC Lille, no. 04-02

Prabhakar, G.P. and Walker, S.E. (2005), “Intercultural team maturity: unity in diversity”, Cahiers de Recherche d’ESC Lille

Sharma, P. (2000), “Family business in India”, Family Business Review, Vol. 13 No. 4, p. 349

Thamhain, H. (2004), “Linkages of project environment to performance: lessons for team leadership”, International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 22 No. 7, pp. 533–44

Turner, R. and Müller, R. (2005), “The project manager’s leadership style as a success factor on projects: a literature review”, Project Management Journal, Vol. 36 No. 2, pp. 49–61

Veliyath, R. (2004), “Inheriting the mantle: management of succession and transition in Indian family business”, Family Business Review, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 181–8

Walker, S.E. and Prabhakar, G.P. (2005), “Intercultural team maturity model: unity, diversity, capability”, Proceedings of the 19th IPMA World Congress, New Delhi

Wills, S. and Barham, K. (1994), “Being an international manager”, European Management Journal, Vol. 12 No. 1, pp. 49–56

Related articles