Leadership Secrets from a School that Turned Out Some Top CEOs

by Shankar P.

What do Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Adobe Systems CEO Shantanu Narayen, MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga and Fairfax Financial Holdings founder and CEO Prem Watsa have in common? They are a few of the corporate leaders who spent their formative years at Hyderabad Public School, Begumpet, a 95-year-old private high school in Hyderabad, the capital of the Indian state of Telangana.

Is there some winning formula at this high school that helps produce people who go on to head some of the world’s largest corporations? “Our secret sauce is a human touch, ethical practices and being grounded with people and the environment,” says Skand Bali, its principal. The school also seeks to instill in its students an appreciation of failure in any venture as “an opportunity to look for different options,” he adds. “We teach our students to take defeat with grace.”

Lessons from a Cricket Coach

According to Bali, “the empathy quotient” the school seeks to ingrain in its students helps them develop an attitude of healthy competition. “Our students do not have a crab mentality, where they pull each other down and grow. They learn to grow in an inclusive way.”

Nadella, for one, has carried to his corner office at Microsoft, a multi-national technology company, some of those approaches he learned at the school. For example, he told our sister publication Knowledge@Wharton during a recent Wharton visit (see Related Links) that empathy is a key source of business innovation. He said that although many regard it as a “soft skill,” not especially relevant to the “hard work of business,” it is a wellspring for innovation, since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.

Nadella also said that he tries to avoid the hubris that “brought down empires, companies, and people … from ancient Greece to modern Silicon Valley.” He learned how to navigate that from his high-school cricket coach, who taught him to understand “the line between having confidence in your own capability yet having the ability to learn.”

Hyderabad Public School attempts to inculcate leadership traits in its students in a variety of ways. One is its prefectural system, where students lead entire classes, early on from primary school, he says. The school has also set up a “department of progressive learning” that aims to create future leaders by providing them opportunities to work on “global problems,” such as why it is important for the U.S. and North Korea to have a peace agreement, or other issues such as crimes against women, racial equality and casteism in India, says Bali. The newly formed department will be operational from June. Although it is optional for students, he hopes it covers all of the school’s 3,300 students over time.

A progressive leadership style is “more about collaboration and innovation and not as much command and control,” leadership consultant Cassandra Frangos said in a recent Knowledge@Wharton interview. Another aspect is “emotional intelligence or being attuned to some of the complexities or psychology of people and the way that they are led, and the way that they can give their best to an organization,” she noted. “That is one [area] where I’ve often seen leaders derail, where they’re not thinking through the hard and the soft side of management.”

Fifteen-year-old Ahana Basu, a Class 10 student at the school, used to be a shy person until a few years ago. Her teachers encouraged her to step forward and speak up on issues she cares for. That helped her hone her skills in writing poems and as a travel writer. Her teachers selected her to be the junior editor of the school magazine, The Shaheen.

“Now, I’m not afraid of speaking in front of a large group of people; I could lead a small group of 10 to 20 people,” says Basu. She wants to earn a doctorate in English and pursue journalism as her career.

Ties to Family and Community

When Nadella visited the school a year ago for a robotics conference, he inspired 14-year-old Tharunimm Jamal, another Class 10 student, but to take a slightly different route. While people like Nadella grew up in India and achieved success in foreign lands, Jamal wants to “promote India” through his work. His career plan is to become a robotics scientist and use robotics and information technology for the betterment of agriculture, India’s military and the civilian population of his country.

Bali has three pieces of advice for high school students. One is to be “grounded, caring and loving,” and look beyond “the negativity” that media often portrays at the brighter sides of our society. Secondly, he wants his students to knit closer ties with their families and their communities. “Our youngsters spend very little time with their elders in the family and social life – that’s one human quotient that is getting lost,” he says.

The school attempts to build those bridges in many ways, such as taking them on trips to schools for the differently abled, including schools for the blind. Thirdly, he wants them to recognize that they have in front of them “an immense ocean of opportunity.” Appropriately enough, the school’s emblem Shaheen signifies “sharpness of vision and an innate ability to soar to great heights.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

We encourage you to read the recent K@W interview with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, which you can find in the side toolbar under “Related Links.” You may be surprised to learn that he did not have a “driving ambition” to succeed when he was a teenager. Discuss three takeaways from the interview with Nadella that you found interesting.

Consider some of Skand Bali’s leadership secrets and advice for aspiring CEOs. Discuss them with a group. Did you expect these values to be so important to reaching the top level of a huge corporation? Why or why not?

Hyderabad Public School grooms young leaders to have a global perspective and to understand global issues. What do you consider the most critical global problems? Form a group and choose one global issue to tackle. After the exercise, discuss how you believe discussing and listening to the perspectives of others on global issues prepared you to be a better leader.

8 comments on “Leadership Secrets from a School that Turned Out Some Top CEOs

  1. The way in which someone is able to use their knowledge in such manner and still want to help the country in which he came from is awesome. Sometimes people forget about where they are from, but they aren’t as strong as the people who remember where they are from and what can be fixed. Every CEO or person have a role model or people who helped them become the person they are today and he learned from his cricket coach as well as the school he went to.

  2. I believe that having it is great to teach kids about a healthy balance of competion. As well as having them teach classes in order to try and have the develop some leadership skills. Since it allows the students to be put outside of their comfort zone, and be able to lead classes. Which will help them in the future when it comes to working. Whether it be business or not it will help the students in their future career.

  3. I really appreciate this article, it’s helpful and makes me think about some leadership skills i’ll need in the future not only for becoming an Entrepreneur but also for life in general.

  4. This article is an awesome abstract of what is essential to be a leader. I’d like to focus first on the empathy part: it’s necessary not just to make the leader a good person that contributes to society but also to improve his communicative abilities; after all, it helps to read and trully comprehend people. Also, I can’t ignore the citation about “progressive leadership style”, which carries ideais that I really agree with and use in the projects I lead: to coordinate someone or a goup you can’t put yourself above them, you have to be together with them, you have to show the way and not just tell it, you have to comprehend and guide them, showing the steps they should take until they’re able to walk by themselves.
    Also, it’s totally meaningful whe he says about the line between confidence and what would be arrogance. I still remember when an incredible man told me “When preparing, be humble; when proving you’re prepared, be (slightly) arrogant”. We, in order to grow, have to aways recognize, above all, your ignorance. Even the wisest person knows almost nothing when his knowledge is compared with all that exists in this world. A leader has to have clear in his mind that he still has much to learn, that his “perfect” plans have fails somewhere, and maybe he just can’t see them due to his lack of experience (even if his very experienced)…
    One more thing that’s important to mention is about the high school “Hyderabad”, that teaches it’s students more than math and languages: teaches them how to improve themselves, encourages them to try to solve the world problems, make them realize that each of them can make the difference! These are essential lessons that, unfortunately, many schools just pass by…
    One last thing: this article was inspirational. I already lead projects in order to improve my society and starting some new more. I’ll make a good use of the informations presented here and will make sure that this ideals gather more and more people!

  5. According to one of the Forbes articles, innovations lead to a long-term success of a company. Especially in this fast-changing world, if a company can understand the issues that the society is experiencing, then they can produce innovations that can fulfill the needs of the customers, thus will succeed. However, if a corporation does not sympathize with the hardships that the society is facing, then their innovations are unhelpful and undesired. Innovation leads to new ideas or alternative solutions that promote efficiency (such as eco-friendliness or time-efficiency) and produce benefits to a society. Therefore, as the article says, leaders’ empathy with the society is very crucial to the introduction of innovations.
    Then, when are these marvelous innovations introduced? According to another Forbes article, often these innovations are introduced as a result of a long period of collaborative work among many people. Then, what kind of working atmosphere is required to produce the best collaboration? Based on a research on collaboration, a group with members who all had similar goals or motivations that led them to pursue their careers (or join a team) had a strong collaboration. I think it is a team leader’s role to seek for the team members who can cooperate well with other team members. Therefore, I believe that other than empathy or appreciation of failure, the leader should also have an insight on seeing applicant’s motivation for joining the project or the team. Personally, I think that by building a tighter team, the team can move in the same direction effectively and develop an efficient and helpful innovation, which would lead a company to a long-term success.
    On top of these points, I was so fascinated by the fact that Hyderabad Public School has a department of progressive learning, which prepares its students to be global leaders. This class would not only keep up the students with updated and important global issues and give a chance to develop students’ own voice and perspective on such global issues through debating with classmates but also would introduce students to the needs of the global community. By knowing global trends and global needs, the students can learn to innovate a system that can benefit lots of consumers.

    • Hi Chae Yeon. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I too was really intrigued by Hyderabad’s department of progressive learning. Your final points about knowing global trends and global needs are especially powerful. Technology has connected the world, and just as we are doing right now, enabled us to learn from and respond to influential people and issues well beyond our communities. We must become global citizens as we think of innovative ways to improve our planet.

  6. Nadella’s interview has a timeless underlying message: many people find their true passions in unexpected ways. CEOs aren’t comprised entirely of intellectuals who flourished in school or pinned down their affinities early on. An “aha” moment can be a sufficient catalyst in rethinking one’s future prospects. It should be organic and self-established, rather than arising from external pressures. In light of such a realization, the Sinclair computer was enough for Nadella to find his real place in technology. Even though Nadella failed the entrance exam to the technological institute, his ignited passion was unswerving. His parents’ support and acknowledgment that his strengths lay outside grades also helped sustain his curiosity.

    On another hand, I particularly admire Nadella’s patience and empathy in raising his son Zain who had cerebral palsy. He adjusted his mindset by looking at the situation as a new opportunity to learn rather than as a burden engraved into his life. This example is characteristic of successful leaders: they are fearless and embrace setbacks as a chance for them to grow. And indeed, Nadella was proactive in finding ways to improve both his son’s wellness and the world around him. Zain is the greatest propellor of his future contributions as a prolific CEO of Microsoft in areas of accessibility. His son allows him to think of the world from more perspectives of the less able; a direct example in his life feels much more tangible than one that is outside the family.

    Looking at Microsoft, I also appreciate Nadella’s desire to turn the technology giant into a “learn-it-all” company. An air of hubris often overtakes companies at the top of their industry when in fact, most markets in our country still remain competitive. A “learn-it-all” company would help keep consumer interests balanced with corporate ones. This could provide us with a better impression of this company as being humble and open-minded. They aren’t there to showcase all that they’ve accomplished and to do whatever they want; they are there to streamline innovation for the rest of us.

  7. I let out a deep sigh of relief; it’d taken weeks to research and write but it was finally complete–our 57-page compendium of leadership theory developed for a mentorship program connecting inner-city Philadelphia high schoolers with business leaders. The collaboration between college students, high schoolers, and adults represented the most diverse group of people I had ever worked with. While given little initial guidance felt jarring at first, I learned valuable leadership lessons and built lessons around them.

    First, leadership is not a binary concept. As I researched competing theories from world-famous psychologists, I realized there were no universal formulas for leadership; different individuals, teams, and projects may require wildly different leadership styles. By identifying six different leadership styles optimized for unique scenarios and personalities. Daniel Goleman popularized the notion of task and team-specific leadership. Even if leadership theory is diverse, common themes emerged as I built the curriculum.

    The emotional intelligence thread, woven into the Hyderabad Public School’s “department of progressive learning” is crucial. By teasing out empathy early in a student’s style, they can further deepen their capacity for this as they mature and face greater challenges. This mindset is further augmented by wrestling with global issues. Students endow the teacher’s lectures with individual meaning when applied to the intersectionality of problems that impact a single issue, such as foreign aid. If seen through one lens alone–fiscal austerity–economists miss the human suffering beneath their findings. While authoring the program’s curriculum I followed this same impetus: connecting real-world leaders to specific theories.
    I imagined how I might reach a 10th grader obsessed with high fashion and culture. How could I inspire her to find her own inner leader and create her own content or lead others to work with her? Anna Wintour, Vogue Editor-in-Chief and fashion maven, and her journey to success are far more relatable to a young girl enamored by fashion than an in-depth analysis of Cognitive Resource Theory.

    Skand Bali’s work reminds us all of the importance of an accessible, strong foundation for leadership. By choosing from diverse leadership approaches, students can choose the theory or technique that fits their personal journey. Whether driven by serving others, implementing a culture of continuous improvement, or inspiring one’s followers to trust your Great Leap Forward, accessible leadership education ensures every teen has the potential to be a leader.

    As the program rolls out next summer, I’m anticipating meeting the students who will work with my program and teach me even more lessons about leadership.

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