An Interview With Nitin Nohria, Dean of the Harvard Business School

An excerpt from the new book Passion & Purpose

Nitin Nohria is the Dean of the Harvard Business School. Prior to becoming Harvard’s tenth dean on July 1 of 2010, he served as a beloved professor at the school and was co-chair of its Leadership Initiative and head of the school’s Organizational Behavior unit. He has been a member of the HBS faculty since July of 1988 and has also served as a visiting faculty member at the London Business School in 1996. He was interviewed by John Coleman, Daniel Gulati, and W. Oliver Segovia, authors of the new book, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders. This interview is an excerpt from the book published by Harvard Business Review Press.

Let’s start from the beginning. Why did you choose business as a profession?

It goes back to very early childhood experiences I had with my father. I still remember when I was very young, probably ten, my father was CEO of a large company. Part of his job was to go out and build plants all over the countryside. In India at that time, the government often gave incentives for large companies to create plants in underdeveloped parts of the country. So I remember going with him to these groundbreaking ceremonies that commemorated a new plant being built on site.

We’d go and there was, literally, absolutely nothing. These were barren areas, and other than a little tent that had been created for that particular groundbreaking ceremony, there was nothing. And then sometimes, seven or eight years later, I went back to these places and where there had been nothing, there was this bustling township.

It was an amazing transformation. Where there had been no plant, there was not a series of plants because the original plant had attracted suppliers and those suppliers had in turn attracted new companies. I remember meeting people in these places whose lives had been transformed by business. The had gotten jobs. They had been able to send their own kids to school. They had been able, in some cases, to send their kids to college—and not only in different places, but to schools and colleges established in these particular neighborhoods because business had created enough prosperity to fund them.

So in a very deep, visceral sense, I came to realize that business had this amazing power to transform society and to create prosperity in a number of ways.

When I first went to study chemical engineering in IIT Bombay, my hope was at some point to become an entrepreneur. My first instinct about business was to create one myself. And so when I graduated from IIT Bombay, even though I was going on to the PhD program at MIT, my initial hope was still to be an entrepreneur. In fact, I had even signed a technology license with an Irish company to go out and create a company when I graduated. But it was an MIT that I discovered that in so many ways, being an academic was like being an entrepreneur—it was just being an intellectual entrepreneur.

You could choose a topic of your own, and go out and study it. And in an odd way, by accidentally discovering the field of leadership and organizational behavior, I learned that I could study the things that fascinated me—which were people like my father, and the whole act of leadership and management. That’s how I got attracted to the idea of a career in business and then in particular, a career as a business academic.

Have you seen changes in the ways students are thinking about business during your time at Harvard Business School?

One thing that has been constant is that students come to Harvard Business School, or choose business education as something that they want to do, because they view it as an accelerator for success. That I think has always been true. You accelerated because new options opened up for you. You accelerated because you can go back and rise faster in your organization. We have always attracted ambitious people who want to get ahead in life.

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