When Satya Nadella was named CEO of Microsoft earlier this year, I received an excited phone call from my parents.
“Did you hear the news? And he’s not just an Indian. He’s from Hyderabad,” my mother squawked, referring to the city in South India where she and my father are from.
Every time an Indian appears in a prominent position on the global stage, my parents join their fellow Indians in muffled cheers of pride and solidarity. Boasting does not come naturally to most Indians, who prefer others to recognize and advertise their merits. Yet when global society rewards one of their own by placing him in a position of power and prestige, many Indians’ modest veneer disintegrates into brazen self-satisfaction.
Over the years, the occasions for pride have multiplied as more Indians have assumed leadership positions in major multinational corporations. The CEOs of PepsiCo, MasterCard, Deutsche Bank, and Adobe Systems are all Indians. While the success of these Indians might frighten members of the far right, who worry that immigrants are poised to take over the world, many members of the business and academic communities celebrate Indians’ corporate ascent. Recent studies have found that Indian executives exhibit more humility as leaders and are more future-oriented than their Western counterparts. Perhaps capital in the 21st century is an Indian’s game.
Nadella strikes the corporate world as a kind of Gandhi figure. Tall and trim with buzzed hair and dark-rimmed glasses, he exudes a corporate brand of asceticism. His lean runner’s body harbors no extra fat. His speech is measured and Spartan. His disciplined form matches his disciplined attitude. In his first public interview as CEO, he stated: “The first thing I want to do and focus on is ruthlessly remove any obstacles that allow us to innovate.”
His self-proclaimed “competitive zeal” came through last week, when he announced by e-mail that Microsoft would shave off 18,000 jobs as a way to “become more agile and move faster” in the new economy. The e-mail did not acknowledge the human toll of the massive layoffs—the largest layoffs in company history. Thousands of Microsoft employees opened their inboxes and read words like “evolve” and “flattening” and “productive” and “outcomes,” words that tell them very little about how they are going to pay their mortgages or put their kids through college. The mechanistic language of the e-mail was not disingenuous. It captured Nadella’s austere and technocratic vision for a corporation facing the realities of the 21st-century market, where competition is fiercer and profits are scarcer. The only way a corporation can survive is to hire bosses who have the capacity to treat human beings as mere obstacles on the path to “innovation.” And for this task, Microsoft replaced a white man with an Indian.
The Indian society in which Nadella grew up may be particularly good at producing the technocratic mentality that 21st-century capitalism requires. With more than one billion people crammed in a space one-third the size of the United States, India is a sea of humanity. A quarter of the population lives under the global poverty line of $1.25 per day, and crushing poverty is an inescapable sight for all segments of the population. Even as a member of the Indian upper class, Nadella, who attended the elite Hyderabad Public School, would not have been able to avoid the maimed and malnourished bodies that crawl along the streets of every Indian town and city. (I tried to reach Nadella to get his thoughts on how his Indian upbringing might affect his new role at Microsoft, but a Microsoft representative told me he is not giving interviews at this time.) Sadly, it seems the successful Indians, those who climb to or are already at the top of this miserable heap, are those who can look to the future and ignore the forlorn faces and wretched cries they have to wade through daily. What Indians like Nadella bring to corporate boardrooms around the world is a gift for seeing a future that leaves behind large swaths of the population.
But Nadella does not represent the only or even predominant way Indians have responded to widespread poverty in their midst. Buddha and Gandhi are two notable examples of Indians who have sought to fashion a society that foregrounds the needs of the poor. And here in our own city, we see a counter to Nadella’s cold calculations. While Nadella is leading Microsoft to a leaner, more mobile future, another Indian immigrant is developing a different model of leadership, where workers play a crucial role in defining the future. Last year, voters elected Indian immigrant and economics professor Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council. Sawant grew up in Mumbai, and when I interviewed her last fall, I learned that poverty in India played a formative role in her political awakening. She told me she was “not able to stomach… the ocean of poverty” that surrounded her. Rather than looking dead ahead to a future of technological innovation that disenfranchises workers and makes the poor poorer, Sawant decided to do the very opposite: dedicate her life to empowering them. The devastating poverty that plagues India made her more sensitive than insensitive. She is just as driven as Nadella, but her drive is rooted in another and more humane way Indians might respond to the mass misery around them.
Most Indians are not as proud of Sawant as they are of Nadella. Her election was a quieter affair than Nadella’s appointment as CEO, and my parents did not call me to report her victory. But if last week’s e-mail is a sign of things to come from Nadella’s office, I think we should start championing a different form of leadership, leadership that acknowledges human lives and human needs rather than the sterile demands of the global market.