New HBS Dean Predicts Bold, Brave Change

Nitin Nohria became the tenth dean of the Harvard Business School on July 1

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohira says he will pursue “bold, brave things” that will set the course for the entire field of management education for the next 100 years. In a wide-ranging interview in the HBS Alumni Bulletin, Nohira acknowledged that he turned down an offer from Stanford Graduate Business School in 1988 to teach at Harvard, that his father was “an extraordinary inspiration” to him, and that he is a vegetarian who loves to cook Indian and Italian food at home. When Nohira doesn’t cook, he and his wife eat cereal.

Nohira, who became Harvard’s tenth dean on July 1, offered no specifics on Harvard’s new direction to either the HBS Bulletin or to a visiting reporter from The Boston Globe recently. “I think we have to bring in a period of innovation in which we are willing to do some bold, brave things that will set the course, not just for our school but for the entire field of management education for the next 100 years,” he said in the alumni interview. “This is the moment to do it… We are strong and well positioned. We have the resources. We have the faculty with the energy to go out and do bold things.”


Nohira said he expects to announce “at least three or four priorities” by the early fall. “I have been a student of leadership and organizational behavior, and in many ways I’m trying to follow what I have advised other people to do. No agenda can be executed unless it is collectively owned and shared by the people who have to deliver on it. I’ve already begun this process by setting up meetings with every faculty member individually to learn from them the priorities that they would set for the school. I’m also talking with key staff, and I’m reaching out to our alumni around the world. Of course, I have my own ideas, too. What I really want to od is to make sure that we find those places where there’s triangulation, where a lot of constituencies collectively agree on the priorities we should pursue. We are very fortunate to have the luxury to take on big challenges. I see my agenda as ushering in a new century of innovation for Harvard Business School.”

An academic who has studied and taught leadership for 22 years as a Harvard professor, the 42-year-old Nohira will now be able to put his own theories into practice at the world’s top business school. When he introduced himself to Harvard’s incoming class of MBAs last Tuesday, Nohria spent most of his time speaking about character and values and invoking the school’s mission statement “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.”


Afterward, sharing a coffee with a reporter from The Boston Globe in his office, he said, “I didn’t want it to be just bouquets and butterflies.” Nohria told the Globe he’s intent on changing the perception that business schools are “all about credentials and connections,’’ instead offering the view that the pursuit of an MBA degree is about “enhancing competence and character.’’ There is a widespread perception, he added, that business leaders have rigged the system so they can reap the rewards of success but let the public absorb the losses after failures. “We have to move to the idea that if businesses creates value for society, they are justified in sharing in the rewards for that innovation,’’ he said. “But business leaders should not be claiming value where they haven’t created any.’’

Asked what life was like growing up in India, Nohira responded that he largely spent his time in three major cities: Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay. “The first six years of my life were in Calcutta,” he said. “Then we moved to Delhi, where I finished my schooling at St. Columbia’s. Afterward I enrolled at  the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay and earned a chemical engineering degree. Very early on I discovered I wasn’t going to be a great chemical engineer. My interests always drew me to think about business. In India, I spent every summer working for a variety of different companies. “

As soon as Nohira finished, he moved to Cambridge for a Ph.D. program at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. I started in international finance, which I what I thought I was going to do. But I discovered organizational behavior and leadership, and ultimately my interests were in that direction. MIT for me was a remarkable period for discovering and focusing on my intellectual passions, even though I think the roots of it go back to the relationship with my father. When I graduated in 1988, I had offers from nearly all the business schools I had ever dreamed of being part of. In the end, the choice came down to Stanford or Harvard. I have to say, and this is not 20/20 hindsight remaking of the story, that I really did fall in love with Harvard Business School the first time I came here.”


Nohira says the motivation to enter business came early in life, largely from his travels in the hinterlands of India with his father. “Perhaps the most important thing to share about my childhood is that my father was an extraordinary inspiration to me. In many ways, I think who I am today has been profoundly influenced by his example. He grew up in a very small village in India and was one of the first people in his family to attend college, where he studied engineering. He then went to England to get a diploma in management from Manchester Business School.

“He returned to India and ended up having a very successful career in business—first as the general manager and then as CEO of a small company, and later as the head of progressively larger companies. So my entire relationship with him was as someone who was a professional business leader. I traveled a lot with my father as he was starting manufacturing plants all over the country. Some years later we would go back and visit, and I saw the extraordinary impact that business could have on society. In places where there was nothing, factories got built, and jobs got created. Out of what was one plant, often in the middle of nowhere, seven or eight years later you’d see thriving communities.”


To rebuild public confidence in business, Nohira said corporate leaders need to “reclaim it” through “actions that produce value. Trust in business is highest when business is seen as doing things that create value for society. You gain society’s confidence when you are seen as solving the biggest problems and contributing in ways that are innovative and imaginative. We need to return to creating real value for society.  That’s the best way to earn back trust. In the meantime, we also have to stand up and say we’re going to do things ethically, honorably, and responsively.”


Asked by the alumni magazine what he does for fun, Nohira said he loves to cook Indian and Italian food. “At home, I’m the chef. If I don’t cook, we eat cereal. And second, I have for a long time been a small collector of Indian contemporary art.  Things that have aesthetic quality are enormously important in my life. So much of India is known largely by Indian antiquity.  There’s no real exposure to Indian contemporary art. That’s a pity because there is a very vibrant contemporary art scene in India, just as there is in every other part of the world.”


Asked by the Globe reporter how he will lead Harvard Business School, Nohria said, “I have no fantasy of being a charismatic visionary,’’ he said, adding that he considers that model of leadership a myth. “Let’s face it: I am 5 feet, 6 inches, bald . . . Charisma is not the first word that comes to mind when people meet me. That’s not who I am, and that’s not what my appointment means.’’