The Secret Behind the Success of Global Leaders of Indian Origin

Bindu Menon - Nov 13 2023
Published in: Global Workforce
| Updated Nov 21 2023
The new India is young, upbeat, dynamic, better educated, more confident, socially savvy, more inclusive, and raring to go. The possibilities are endless for this generation of Indians who are inspired by the global leaders of today and aspire to conquer the world tomorrow. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WERC. 

It all begins with this simple word in English: adjust. This word has a colossal cultural connotation and a deep-rooted reason for its role in the lives of global leaders of Indian origin. 

To understand this, one must first understand the Indian middle class. In any culture, the middle class plays a vital role in creating the social and economic fabric of the country. 
Let me give you the demographics to get a perspective. The Indian middle class, reportedly at 450 million, is around the size of the population of the U.S. today. This segment is burgeoning at 6-7% a year and is expected to double to 61% of its total population by 2047, from 31% in 2020-2021. 

It is this middle class that is acting as the agent of change and steering India into becoming the fastest-growing economy in the world, and it is from this middle class that most global leaders of Indian origin emerged. One characteristic trait that runs through all of them is that they lived a life that taught them to adjust. Satya Nadella of Microsoft, Indra Nooyi of Pepsico, Sundar Pichai of Google’s Alphabet, Shantanu Narayen of Adobe, Neal Mohan of YouTube, and even Rishi Sunak of the U.K. would probably agree with me on this. 

Life in the Indian middle class teaches you to adjust and overcome any challenge on the path to success. Adjust to people of all kinds, given the multicultural society we live in; adjust to space, given the density of population; adjust to comfort, given the chaotic commute daily; adjust to living within our means, given the economic conditions we come from; adjust in a job that may not be the right one, given the responsibilities and commitment toward family; and adjust in a marriage that was not meant to be, given that an Indian marriage is between two families and not two individuals. Every step of the way is a lesson that if we only adjust a bit, we can overcome any challenge. 

This ability to adjust gets translated in the corporate world into “adaptability,” one of the key attributes needed to survive and make it to the top. This is why Indians generally find it far easier to adapt to different cultures and conditions in any country; they often have faced many challenges in life way earlier than their counterparts from developed countries. 

Let’s look at the word “leader” from this angle and apply attributes from the middle class to arrive at what drives them to the top.

L – Life lessons from a developing country.

Nothing comes easy, and nothing comes to you on a platter. Not even electricity or water. That’s life in the Indian middle class. And that’s what prepares you to take nothing for granted and to learn very early in life that success comes only to those who seek and earn it the hard way. Life in a developing country is riddled with challenges. But that’s what drives you to dream—of a life in a better environment, of earning an enhanced lifestyle, of reaching the top with name and fame, and leaving footprints on the sands of time.

E – Education is paramount.

Indian middle-class families place an enormous emphasis on education. This is true across cultures within the country. Children are often told that the only key to their success and a dream future is a good education. Degrees and academic institutions define their status in the society. 

Flying out of India to pursue higher education, once considered a privilege, has become a norm. Parents, particularly in today’s India, are willing to forego their fancies and fortunes for the sake of a better life for their children. 

Stereotypical academic characteristics are clearly defined: Indians from the south are supreme at math and science and therefore end up as the best engineers, those from the west are formidable with finance and marketing, the east are the most artistic and creative, and the north are go-getters at business and banking and so on. That might explain why Sundar Pichai is heading one of the world’s leading tech firms and Ajay Banga is leading the top global financial institution for developing countries. 

A – A life without aspirations is a life that is not lived at all. 

“Aim for the stars, and you will reach the sky” is a quote that rolls out of nearly every Indian parent’s tongue. The ascending order of strata within the Indian middle class is bonded at the base by a solid layer of aspirations. 

The lower strata of this segment is always looking up and striving to get one notch higher. They aspire to move up from a bicycle to a motorbike, from a motorbike to a car, and then to a bigger car, and maybe two. The carrot at the end of this lane of aspirations is a job abroad and a lifestyle that will seal it all. 

D – Determination and drive to do.

Armed with education and fuelled by aspirations, the Indian middle class is definitely a determined lot. Determination is like a fire that is burning within.

Their drive to succeed beyond the success of their parents is what leads them to keep moving, keep doing whatever it takes to reach their goals, and overcome every obstacle along the way. The emotional motivation behind this is to make their family proud of their achievement. 

Indian culture is all about being journey-oriented. The confidence to move ahead comes from the knowledge that along with determination and drive, you need to work hardest to succeed. Not by chasing the end goal but by staying focused and giving it your best along the way. The result will be rewarding at the end of the day. 

E – Enterprise is in the DNA.

Indians are known to be an immensely creative lot. To the world, India might seem like one country. But we are more like a continent with several countries within. Every state of India has its own unique and distinct creative stamp and style. This innate creativity in diversity comes in handy when there are challenges along the way that need doable solutions with minimal resources on hand. 
Also, in a tightly knit middle-class society where there is only so much you can do within the economic and emotional framework, you need to think of new ways to emerge a winner from the clutter. 

Living in a multicultural and diverse environment within the country is a huge learning, as each culture may think as alike as they think differently. The advantage is an amalgamation of ideas and solutions when there is a need or a crisis. 

This is perhaps why India is a hub of startups today and has the third largest startup ecosystem in the world. 

R – Resilience.

Life in the Indian middle class is nothing short of a roller-coaster ride. We learn to ride the ups and downs, but almost always together as a family or a community. India’s collective culture teaches us to be empathetic and look out for each other, thus empowering each other to feel reassured and positive about failures in life. This remarkable quality to rise from the ashes and start all over again, with the backing of a team or a family, is highly stimulating for a leader. 

Also, there is a certain responsibility attached to it. Knowing that you are doing it not just for yourself to succeed but for an entire organization or even a whole generation to come that might be inspired by this very resilience is a reason to rise to the top. 

To substantiate my views, I reached out to a few global leaders of Indian origin who have claimed their place, made a noteworthy impact in their respective industries, and are now inspiring many who walk in their path. 

Rachna Chadha, global mobility lead at World Bank Group, believes that the secret behind the success of Indians is a combination of factors: their sheer hard work and passion to make the most of what they are made of, agility in any given situation, the value systems that they have been raised with, and the determination to dream big. 

Another woman tech leader in the global automotive industry asserts that growing up in a middle-class environment in India meant needing to adapt and finding ways to achieve your goals within available means. The encouragement and reassurance from parents to push for greater goals is something that continues to drive you even when you are out of their shadow. 
No goal seems insurmountable, and the attitude of “we can figure this out” continues to propel you to find a path forward. This is further accentuated by empathy, which is also learned at a very young age because of the need to be considerate to those around you. That gives you the ability to push yourself, but never at the expense of someone else.

Vishwadeep Kuila, co-founder of Proklean Technologies, insists that the Indian education system is very tough and very well-rounded. Specialization happens much later than in the Western education system. We, therefore, produce good generalists. This also includes India’s affinity for the English language, which is a huge advantage. He agrees that Indians are much more adaptive due to their middle-class upbringing. The leaders today have mostly had it tough when it came to pursuing higher education in developed countries, both economically and in terms of competition at getting into the best universities. Several Indian CXOs have done their post-graduation in the U.S. He concludes by saying Indians are high on emotional intelligence and hence make good leaders.

India has the largest youth population in the world; over 66% of the country’s population is said to be below 35 years of age. The power of the youth is the driving force behind development and transforming the nation into the fastest economy in the world. Add to this the fact that an increasing number of women are being educated and entering the workforce, with dreams in their hearts and a very good head on their shoulders. 

Shreya Radhakrishnan, a young Indian who is chalking out her path to a leadership role in the international finance industry, has an interesting take to share. 

She concurs that being in a developing country has a significant influence on our drive to become global in various capacities. We believe that life will be better in developed countries. This drive, coupled with our analytical thinking, makes us good at what we do. And the fact that most Indians are culturally conditioned to work hard.

However, she says that in India, there are still far fewer women leaders than is ideal. That’s why it doesn’t translate to numbers globally. Adding to this, women leaders here are still trying to work through remnants of patriarchy that are steeped in our culture.

To sum up the subject of Indians steadily adding to the CXO stack in the global world, it was important to know what sets them apart from other cultures. 

Nicole Barile, an intercultural expert who has worked with nearly every culture on earth and has coached several Indian professionals and leaders to her credit, affirms that Indian nationals are often successful as global leaders because they have grown up in such a diverse country with multiple cultures within it. Adapting to other ways of thinking and working is par for the course. Such exposure across cultures equips leaders with the global skills and mindset required for international growth.

There are several more attributes that contribute to the global success of Indians at the top. Living in a multilingual society makes it easier for Indians who move out of their comfort zone and must adapt to a new country and culture. English as the first language in urban Indian schools comes as a great advantage when they move to other English-speaking countries. Foreign languages sit easy on the Indian tongue because an average Indian might be able to juggle up to three languages at a time besides English. It is the same with cuisine as well given India is a multi-cuisine culture. 

The quest for learning in Indians is almost a never-ending story. We are raised to believe, quite literally, what the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi once said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” This philosophy also teaches us humility, which is an indispensable virtue for any leader. 

Cultural diversity is inevitable in pan-Indian organizations. The work atmosphere here prepares you for taking up roles in multinational companies anywhere in the world. Add to this the willingness of Indians to learn from new cultures and apply it in their work and personal lives, their ability to let go of what they are conditioned to and adapt to what works in the new environment, their patience with people from other cultures who are finding it hard to adapt, and their empathy to understand and help uplift those who need a hand and empower them to reach their goals.

The new India is young, upbeat, dynamic, better educated, more confident, socially savvy, more inclusive, and raring to go. The possibilities are endless for this generation of Indians who are inspired by the global leaders of today and aspire to conquer the world tomorrow. 

Bindu Menon is the founder of ReloIndia, an expat relocation and intercultural training consulting services company in India. The author can be reached at