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BW Businessworld

A True Gentleman Leader Of Our Times

Highly misunderstood, misjudged but silently respected

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I had barely left Mumbai Airport in a car towards the city when an anxious TV anchor called me for my reactions on live television. What is the topic, I asked.  Cyrus Mistry had died in an accident and the news had just been broken. 

I remember the utter shock and the deep sadness which engulfed me. In such a situation – totally unprepared and stunned ‒ whatever we say comes from the bottom of one’s heart.  I will build on those five minutes with the anchor on the national network to articulate my thoughts for this column.

Cyrus epitomised that life isn’t easy even for the most privileged and that we are ultimately defined based on how we face the challenges life throws at us. Not many would have had the courage of conviction to take on the mighty Ratan Tata knowing fully well that the conclusion was a foregone one. Not many would have had the grace to take the insulting manner of his ouster as chairman of Tata Sons without playing dirty. 

But that is who he was ‒ a thorough gentleman and a man with human qualities which were genteel to the core. People who have directly worked with him – in Tatas and SP Constructions – testify to his astute understanding of business and financial acumen. His ability to grasp complex issues was evident as a leader in the Tatas, when his approach to resolving the legacy hot spots were based on objectivity and not on the easy path lesser mortals would have chosen of maintaining the status quo for political reasons. I had written and spoken extensively about the courageous and unprejudiced path he had chosen at the peak of what was labeled as the Tata - Mistry feud. Nothing more can be the ultimate validation of the strategies he followed than the fact that Chandra – a fine leader too – followed a broadly similar path in reorienting the group over the last six years, albeit at a pace and thrust, which was more in alignment.

It is not often recognised, at least publicly, that it was his vision and execution capabilities that   transformed the Shapoorji Pallonji Group from a pure contractor to an end-to-end business entity straddling across the entire construction value chain – design and engineering, construction and asset development. In an industry known for sharp practices, the values he espoused of ethical management and utmost integrity defined the institutional culture of the SP group in all its dealings.

He believed in the adage that ‘when everyone thinks alike no one really thinks’! He was amongst a few industrialists who as a leader, at least in this part of the world, who did not endorse cheerleaders in the team but encouraged open debate against his preferred viewpoint before arriving at a decision. He never let pride obscure judgment as is the common failing of many of his more illustrious contemporaries. His tenure in the Tata Group had brought this whiff of fresh air which was refreshing to many I know at Bombay House. 

Alas, the relationship between facts and conclusions are not always symbiotic, and life is all about the endless journey between perception and reality. The battle he fought between the emotional and the rational was always a difficult one to win.

Cyrus ‒ a fellow alumnus of the London Business School – and as I knew him from afar, gave far more importance to the principles of righteousness in all that he did rather than take the path of self- centered convenience. His humility and accessibility to those from whom he would get nothing in return is the true test of a genuine human being and a noble soul.

In a world where we desperately need more good people in leadership positions, Cyrus’ loss will be felt by all those who thoughtfully reflect on what we have lost as a community of business leaders and, as a nation in pressing need of role models who symbolise that wealth, power and influence need not necessarily coexist with megalomania, unethical practices and hypocritical pretences as ingredients on the path to success. Popularity, celebrity status and perceived prestige are all depreciating assets; lasting goodwill is all that matters in the final count.

One of the fundamental teachings of the Zoroastrian faith is “Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta” ‒ Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. Cyrus epitomised this during his tragically short, but eventful life. May he rest in peace in what is a far better world. My condolences to his family and all those who loved him.

The author is a Sloan Fellow of the London Business School, non executive director, and an advisor to chairmen, of corporate boards.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Magazine 24 Sep 2022 cyrus mistry

Prabal Basu Roy

A Sloan Fellow from the London Business School, Director and Advisor to Chairmen of corporate boards, the author has formerly been a Group CFO in various companies.

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