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JRD Tata: A Visionary Leader

JRD Tata, A Visionary Leader


“I never had any interest in making money. None of my decisions were influenced by whether it would bring me money or wealth.”                            -JRD Tata


As we all know, real & true visionaries not only take their companies, but often the entire society to another level of development. India has produced an impressive list of such corporate visionaries like JRD Tata, Dhirubhai Ambani, A V Birla, N R Narayana Murthy, H P Nanda, Keshub Mahindra and more recently Ratan Tata. The list of such visionary leaders in the corporate world is ever expanding and each one of them starting from scratch have built international empires. Further, all these visionary leaders looked beyond their business interests and focused on “societal” interest as well. In other words, they wanted to serve society through their businesses and beyond.

Okay. All this is fine. But, What is it that Makes A Visionary Leader?

A visionary perseveres through a wide variety of challenges, uncertainties, personal short-comings/setbacks and has a strong connection with higher wisdom. And most of the visionaries are able to identify opportunities over time that stirs up passion within them thus making them do something good for the country. A CEO has to be forward-looking in order to be a visionary; he has to have a big vision, which goes beyond the current businesses.

Further, he needs to have a focus on the future, understand the market and technical trends, and be capable of overcoming resistance to breakthrough. In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous) environment of today, a visionary CEO has to be forward-looking, positive and with open-minded attitude. Only then one can get the best possible results. So a visionary CEO thus has to work with a forward rather than a backward focus. He should continuously challenge himself rather than blaming the others.

What’s so special about them?

A forward focused CEO expands his horizon and looks at ideas with a fresh perspective, rather than considering them ideas through a narrow point of view. His focus will be on identifying the latent needs of the customer and meeting them, thereby expanding the market. This also includes changing, and often undefined, needs of the customer being created at a similar speed. A visionary CEO builds a business that will lead the company to future growth, while keeping the core values and core business constant. He draws a fine balance between the past, present and future and builds businesses that continue to grow over time. It takes lot of commitment, passion and perseverance to make a visionary CEO. JRD Tata is such a visionary, who built the Tata group from a small industrial shade in a remote area of Jamshedpur and went on to create, single handedly, the most trusted and widely respected Tata empire. Let’s see how JRD’s relief & revival plan gave India a push:

JRD Tata: A True Visionary

In 1938, JRD was appointed as chairman of the Tata Group, which he led for over 50 years with an unrelenting quest for excellence. Many great Tata enterprises were born during his tenure such as Tata Motors, Tata Consultancy Services and Titan. The Sunday Times of London said this of him in 1951:

Highly strung, but tenacious of purpose, he works quickly and intensively. His passion for accuracy and interest in detail are often disturbing to colleagues and to his own health. He does not disguise his contempt for superficial knowledge and glib opinions.”

If there is one aspect of JRD that outweighs his drive for perfection and his significant business achievements, it is his abiding love for the country. Three anecdotes bring this to life. In 1944, before India became independent, JRD along with G D Birla and Kasturbhai Lalbhai helped in crafting the Bombay Plan for India’s industrial growth. And this was several years before the governments own first five-year plan was conceived. The Bombay Plan created a storm, because it was ahead of its time, calling for massive investments in roads, railways and power — areas which are essential for our country’s progress even today.

The plan caused great discomfiture to British rulers, leftists, Gandhians and many businessmen, because of its radical proposals. The Economist magazine called the plan “a commendable piece of enterprise”. Many years later, President R Venkataraman recalled the Bombay Plan as one of JRD’s contributions to India. Most importantly, this initiative reflected JRD’s view that industry should play a key role in national development, a theme which has always been central to the Tata Group.

In October 1947, even as the partition of India led to waves of refugees coming into the country, J R D Tata wrote to the PM Jawaharlal Nehru suggesting to create a national fund for relief and distress. Further, he committed that the group would make a substantial grant to such a fund. Nehru agreed with JRD’s suggestion, and that’s how Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund(NRF) was established. As we all know, over the years PM’ s NRF, provided great relief to millions of Indians impacted by natural and other calamities/disasters.

Another initiative of JRD was founding of Tata Airlines way back in 1932. Driven by his own passion for aviation and his belief that air transport would be critical for the nation’s future, he built an enterprise that placed the country firmly on the aviation map. And let’s not forget the fact that he was the first person to qualify as a pilot in India. The then Director General of Civil Aviation wrote about this venture in The Times of India:

“Scarcely anywhere else in the world was there an air service operating without support from the government. It could only be done by throwing on the operator the financial risk. Tata Sons were prepared to take that risk.”


JRD was India’s most well-known industrialist, widely respected for his enormous contribution to the development of Indian industry and aviation in particular. Tata headed India’s largest industrial conglomerate with uncommon success. But this was only one aspect of his life. He was also a man of great sensitivity and was pained by the poverty he saw around him and sought vigorously to alleviate it.

He also was a philanthropist who wanted India to be a happy country and did all he could to make it so; a patron of the sciences and the arts; and a man with a passion for literature, fast cars, skiing, and flying. The above anecdotes illustrate Bharat Ratna J R D Tata’s core belief that “no success or achievement in material terms is worthwhile unless it serves the needs or interests of the country”. Even as the group marks its 150th anniversary this year, let’s pay a tribute to an icon who is truly a jewel of India.


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