Excerpted from From Smart to Wise: Acting and Leading with Wisdom by Fetzer advisor Prasad Kaipa and Navi Radjou.
Wise leaders know when to lead and when to let others do so—and they never get caught up in any role they choose to assume. N. R. Narayana Murthy, cofounder of the Indian software service provider Infosys, a widely admired business leader in India, provides a great model of wise leadership.
Over the years, Murthy diligently groomed and mentored future leaders at Infosys. He was also known for delegating power and giving credit to others whenever appropriate. Rather than clinging to his CEO role, he voluntarily stepped down from his position in 2002 and became Infosys's chairman, a role he relinquished in 2011.
Murthy believes that leaders must put the priorities of their team members, customers, and employees ahead of their own and serve them with humility as servant leaders. He also believes that leaders are part of a bigger society and have responsibilities that extend beyond their day-to-day role in their organization to serve a larger purpose.
Capitalist in mind, socialist at heart
While working in France in the early 1970s, Murthy was strongly influenced by principles of socialism. He became disillusioned with communism as a political system after being arrested and jailed for talking to a girl in French while on vacation in Bulgaria and freed only because he was from India, considered a friendly country. The socialist economic principle of sharing one's wealth with society continued to resonate with him, however. Realizing that he was "a capitalist in mind, [but] a socialist at heart," he went on to start Infosys in 1981, describing his company as an "experiment in entrepreneurship to create wealth legally." It was Murthy's socialist belief in the distribution of wealth that made Infosys one of the first Indian companies to offer employees stock-option plans and helped create thousands of millionaires when Infosys went public in 1991.
In 1999, when Infosys became the first software company in India to receive the highest level of capability maturity model (CMM level 5) certification from Carnegie Mellon University, Murthy shared the company's experience of the certification process with its Indian competitors. He believed that by helping his rivals receive certification at the same level, the entire Indian information technology (IT) services sector would become globally competitive. It was clear to Murthy that letting other Indian companies excel would lead Western companies to pay attention to India—a country that in the 1990s hadn't yet made its mark in the global IT outsourcing sector—and by so doing would help increase the overall Indian market share, including Infosys. India is now a prominent player in the global IT market.
Despite being a billionaire, Murthy maintains a frugal lifestyle: he has lived in the same two-bedroom house in Bangalore for decades. He and his Infosys cofounders walk or use scooters for short distances instead of cars. They take short showers to save water. After a number of kidnappings of prominent businessmen in India, the police top brass offered Murthy protection. He declined, saying he didn't want to annoy his neighbors and block traffic. He has given away tens of millions of dollars to charities, which is in line with his concept of “compassionate capitalism.”
Wise leaders like Murthy are willing to cede their power voluntarily. Seeing himself as a trustee, Murthy had no qualms about letting go of his position and in fact saw it as part of his duty to ensure a smooth and well-considered transition.
Growing as a wise leader takes practice, self-discipline, and a willingness to act consistently with your own purpose, values, and the context.