Leadership from Below

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Brian Kenny: Today, we'll hear from Professor Rohit Deshpande about his case entitled “Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership.” I’m Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call. Professor Deshpande is an expert in global branding and international marketing. He teaches both executives and MBA students here at Harvard Business School. Thanks for joining me today.

Rohit Deshpande: Pleasure to be here.

BK: So, may I ask you to please set up the case for us?

RD: Sure. The story goes back to the spring of 2009. I was in Mumbai, in Bombay interviewing people and during every one of those interviews somebody mentioned 26/11. And, of course, there it's the date and then the month. So, this referred to the 26th of November in the previous year, 2008, and their concern was that the terrorist attack that had occurred on that date at their hotel would forever mar the image of the brand, and, therefore, guests would not come back. Potential guests would not venture there. Keep in mind that this is right in the middle of the global financial crisis and so of all the sectors of business that are likely to be affected, hospitality, especially high-end hospitality, was probably hurt the most. This means their occupancy rates are down already and then this horrible thing happens. That was the context and I said, “You know, I'm doing a case on branding. I could put something in there about this terror attack but this is a much bigger story.” So, I asked permission from the head of the Tata group, Mr. Ratan Tata, to see whether I could come back and do a case about this very sensitive topic. In classic style, he said that was not his decision to make, I should check with the head of the hotel's group, and I did, and they said, “Yes, come back.”

BK: Can you take us back to that night and lay out the facts of what happened there?

RD: On November 26th, 2008 a group of ten terrorists broke up into teams of two and attacked four or five different sites—strategically chosen—one of which was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay, a 103-year-old national historic registered site, just a beautiful hotel located near the gateway of India where kings and queens had sailed in. That was their entry point. This was obviously chosen strategically. It was symbolic; not just a grand old hotel, but it symbolized India. What happened that particular night was two of these terrorists, joined by two others, shot their way through the hotel, planted bombs, exploded them, and then went looking for guests, particularly foreign guests. In the process a lot of people died. A lot more people were wounded. The siege there lasted three times as long as it lasted in any of the other locations, and what was really amazing and inspirational was that the staff of the hotel stayed on the job; 100% of the staff stayed on the job. The logical thing to do would have been to save your own life. Instead of that, they took guests out and came back in, and in the process many of them tragically lost their lives.

BK: You allude to a lot of things in the case. The videos are people who experienced it firsthand, talking about what happened that night. There are some remarkable stories.

RD: There were a number of really amazing stories and what was interesting about these stories is that they came from people who worked in very, very different positions. This is not only the senior people. This was not a—you know, I talk about this case study as being leadership from below. It was just remarkable.

BK: There were cooks and chefs who lined up in a human phalanx and took bullets for guests as they were getting out to safety?

RD: What happened was that the kitchen staff figured that they would shepherd the guests down the back kitchen galleys and out into the street behind the hotel. At some point, the terrorists found out about this and they came there and they took aim at the guests. The chefs lined up in front of the guests and took the bullets. Many of them died in the process. That was the largest count in a single area of the hotel.

BK: When you spoke to the senior leadership at the Taj, and Mr. Tata himself, how did they explain this?

RD: You know, this is very curious. As is customary in doing a case study, I asked different questions of the different interviewees, but there was one question I asked to everybody—one common question—and that is: what explains the behavior of the staff that night of 26/11? And you know, not a single person could explain that, including Mr. Tata. These were not people who were trained in security measures; these were housekeepers, banquet managers, there were telephone operators, and yet they almost instinctively did the same thing—they took care of the guests. And nobody could understand why they did that.

BK: As you're teaching this course to executives and MBA students, what lessons do you see emerging out of this, out of the discussions that play out in the classroom?

RD: I went into this looking at the brand. I was interested in understanding how you protect your flagship brand. I came out of this research learning about this amazing story about the strength of people, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. So, the story really is about what activates that spirit, what made this happen, and that's really where a lot of the discussion is focused—trying to understand if it’s something that's cultural, is it something that could only have happened in India, is it something that could only have happened at that particular location and that particular hotel? The conversations vary, depending on how much experience people have had with India to understand the culture, and with that hotel to understand what happens with customer or guest interactions.

BK: Is it unique to the Taj? I mean, is this the kind of [leadership] that you imagine could be replicated? I also wonder if this is something we would want employees to replicate if the situation presented itself again. Or should they—should people save themselves? What's their obligation to the customer?

RD: There are many lessons, I think, and certainly one of the lessons is the first issue, which is can this be generalized to other organizations; not so much has this happened, but could it happen? And then the second issue is—it's an ethical question—should an organization have these expectations of its employees? I think if you ask the people at the Taj, they would say no.

BK: You taught this case in India—in Mumbai—to, among others, the leadership of the Taj, many of the people who were there and experienced this. What was that like for you?

RD: It's a very unusual circumstance to have the opportunity to teach an audience that has members of the company or the organization, and particularly when it was something as filled with human emotion as something like this. It was a difficult teach and I had the same feeling when I was doing the interviews. You're walking hallowed ground here. There's the concern that you're—that the nature of the questions make people re-confront trauma, and so it's a very delicate thing, not only teaching it to people who had been there, but also teaching it at a Taj Mahal Hotel.

BK: How's the health of the Taj brand these days? In some ways, did this strengthen both the culture and the brand?

RD: It's interesting. I was back in Bombay the following Christmas for a family wedding and I was surprised when I walked in the lobby. There was a long line of people coming in from buses, tourist buses that had parked, double parked outside, and they were standing in line to sign a register that was a memorial book for the people that had lost their lives. This hotel, in a sense, had become a symbol of defiance against terrorism and a symbol of hope for the people there. The story has a positive ending, I think. The Taj is looked at differently after that terrible event, but there's a recognition that their staff are heroes.

BK: Last question. Are you surprised at how this case has been adopted by people around the world? This has become one of the more popular cases in the HBR collection of cases and I know you give a lot of interviews on this. What has surprised you about the way people have received the case?

RD: It resonates with people because it's inspirational. It talks about ordinary people becoming heroes at a very terrible moment. I think it touches people in a way, to understand the role of a company or a set of companies and what they stand for.

BK: Professor, thank you for joining us today.

RD: It's a pleasure. Thank you very much.

BK: The case, again, is “Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership.” You can find it in the Harvard Business School case collection at www.hbr.org. Thanks for listening.

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Brian Kenny: Today, we'll hear from Professor Rohit Deshpande about his case entitled “Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership.” I’m Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call. Professor Deshpande is an expert in global branding and international marketing. He teaches both executives and MBA students here at Harvard Business School. Thanks for joining me today.

Rohit Deshpande: Pleasure to be here.

BK: So, may I ask you to please set up the case for us?

RD: Sure. The story goes back to the spring of 2009. I was in Mumbai, in Bombay interviewing people and during every one of those interviews somebody mentioned 26/11. And, of course, there it's the date and then the month. So, this referred to the 26th of November in the previous year, 2008, and their concern was that the terrorist attack that had occurred on that date at their hotel would forever mar the image of the brand, and, therefore, guests would not come back. Potential guests would not venture there. Keep in mind that this is right in the middle of the global financial crisis and so of all the sectors of business that are likely to be affected, hospitality, especially high-end hospitality, was probably hurt the most. This means their occupancy rates are down already and then this horrible thing happens. That was the context and I said, “You know, I'm doing a case on branding. I could put something in there about this terror attack but this is a much bigger story.” So, I asked permission from the head of the Tata group, Mr. Ratan Tata, to see whether I could come back and do a case about this very sensitive topic. In classic style, he said that was not his decision to make, I should check with the head of the hotel's group, and I did, and they said, “Yes, come back.”

BK: Can you take us back to that night and lay out the facts of what happened there?

RD: On November 26th, 2008 a group of ten terrorists broke up into teams of two and attacked four or five different sites—strategically chosen—one of which was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay, a 103-year-old national historic registered site, just a beautiful hotel located near the gateway of India where kings and queens had sailed in. That was their entry point. This was obviously chosen strategically. It was symbolic; not just a grand old hotel, but it symbolized India. What happened that particular night was two of these terrorists, joined by two others, shot their way through the hotel, planted bombs, exploded them, and then went looking for guests, particularly foreign guests. In the process a lot of people died. A lot more people were wounded. The siege there lasted three times as long as it lasted in any of the other locations, and what was really amazing and inspirational was that the staff of the hotel stayed on the job; 100% of the staff stayed on the job. The logical thing to do would have been to save your own life. Instead of that, they took guests out and came back in, and in the process many of them tragically lost their lives.

BK: You allude to a lot of things in the case. The videos are people who experienced it firsthand, talking about what happened that night. There are some remarkable stories.

RD: There were a number of really amazing stories and what was interesting about these stories is that they came from people who worked in very, very different positions. This is not only the senior people. This was not a—you know, I talk about this case study as being leadership from below. It was just remarkable.

BK: There were cooks and chefs who lined up in a human phalanx and took bullets for guests as they were getting out to safety?

RD: What happened was that the kitchen staff figured that they would shepherd the guests down the back kitchen galleys and out into the street behind the hotel. At some point, the terrorists found out about this and they came there and they took aim at the guests. The chefs lined up in front of the guests and took the bullets. Many of them died in the process. That was the largest count in a single area of the hotel.

BK: When you spoke to the senior leadership at the Taj, and Mr. Tata himself, how did they explain this?

RD: You know, this is very curious. As is customary in doing a case study, I asked different questions of the different interviewees, but there was one question I asked to everybody—one common question—and that is: what explains the behavior of the staff that night of 26/11? And you know, not a single person could explain that, including Mr. Tata. These were not people who were trained in security measures; these were housekeepers, banquet managers, there were telephone operators, and yet they almost instinctively did the same thing—they took care of the guests. And nobody could understand why they did that.

BK: As you're teaching this course to executives and MBA students, what lessons do you see emerging out of this, out of the discussions that play out in the classroom?

RD: I went into this looking at the brand. I was interested in understanding how you protect your flagship brand. I came out of this research learning about this amazing story about the strength of people, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. So, the story really is about what activates that spirit, what made this happen, and that's really where a lot of the discussion is focused—trying to understand if it’s something that's cultural, is it something that could only have happened in India, is it something that could only have happened at that particular location and that particular hotel? The conversations vary, depending on how much experience people have had with India to understand the culture, and with that hotel to understand what happens with customer or guest interactions.

BK: Is it unique to the Taj? I mean, is this the kind of [leadership] that you imagine could be replicated? I also wonder if this is something we would want employees to replicate if the situation presented itself again. Or should they—should people save themselves? What's their obligation to the customer?

RD: There are many lessons, I think, and certainly one of the lessons is the first issue, which is can this be generalized to other organizations; not so much has this happened, but could it happen? And then the second issue is—it's an ethical question—should an organization have these expectations of its employees? I think if you ask the people at the Taj, they would say no.

BK: You taught this case in India—in Mumbai—to, among others, the leadership of the Taj, many of the people who were there and experienced this. What was that like for you?

RD: It's a very unusual circumstance to have the opportunity to teach an audience that has members of the company or the organization, and particularly when it was something as filled with human emotion as something like this. It was a difficult teach and I had the same feeling when I was doing the interviews. You're walking hallowed ground here. There's the concern that you're—that the nature of the questions make people re-confront trauma, and so it's a very delicate thing, not only teaching it to people who had been there, but also teaching it at a Taj Mahal Hotel.

BK: How's the health of the Taj brand these days? In some ways, did this strengthen both the culture and the brand?

RD: It's interesting. I was back in Bombay the following Christmas for a family wedding and I was surprised when I walked in the lobby. There was a long line of people coming in from buses, tourist buses that had parked, double parked outside, and they were standing in line to sign a register that was a memorial book for the people that had lost their lives. This hotel, in a sense, had become a symbol of defiance against terrorism and a symbol of hope for the people there. The story has a positive ending, I think. The Taj is looked at differently after that terrible event, but there's a recognition that their staff are heroes.

BK: Last question. Are you surprised at how this case has been adopted by people around the world? This has become one of the more popular cases in the HBR collection of cases and I know you give a lot of interviews on this. What has surprised you about the way people have received the case?

RD: It resonates with people because it's inspirational. It talks about ordinary people becoming heroes at a very terrible moment. I think it touches people in a way, to understand the role of a company or a set of companies and what they stand for.

BK: Professor, thank you for joining us today.

RD: It's a pleasure. Thank you very much.

BK: The case, again, is “Terror at the Taj Bombay: Customer-Centric Leadership.” You can find it in the Harvard Business School case collection at www.hbr.org. Thanks for listening.

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