Faith and Leadership

April 20, 2020
HBS Dean Nitin Nohria
HBS Dean Nitin Nohria

As dean of Harvard Business School (HBS), Nitin Nohria leads an organization dedicated to educating leaders who make a difference in the world. As a scholar who’s spent over 30 years on the HBS faculty, he studies human motivation, corporate transformation and accountability, and sustainable economic and human performance. Yet one of the most powerful experiences Nohria’s ever had—both personally and professionally—came while co-teaching a course that focused on religion.

“We called it ‘Faith and Leadership in a Fragmented World,’” Nohria says. “I taught it with [Harvard Divinity School and FAS Professor] Diana Eck, [Harvard Kennedy School Professor] Marshall Ganz, and [President and Director of Harvard Hillel] Bernard Steinberg. We had in the class people from every religious tradition, as well as atheists. The goal was to try to have a conversation about religion that navigates not only the tensions and divisions it sometimes presents, but also the opportunities to overcome them. It was an extraordinary course. I can't tell you how much I learned from teaching it.”

Nitin Nohria’s passion for religious literacy, his understanding of its importance for leaders in all fields, and his commitment to ethical leadership has made him one of Harvard Divinity School’s great friends. For his support—and for championing the inclusiveness that lies at the center of HDS’s mission—Nohria has been recognized by the School’s Alumni/Alumnae Council as a 2020 Peter J. Gomes, STB ’68 Honoree.

“I have always believed that business can be a powerful force for good in society, so it is a wonderful honor to be included with those who have done so much to make the world a better place,” Nohria says, “I am very fond of the Divinity School and I am truly touched that I was considered.”

Religion has been a powerful influence on Nohria’s life and work. Growing up in India, his parents, faithful Hindus, instilled in him the value of “working to fulfill your duty towards others” in accordance with their religious understanding of dharma and karma. His grandfather taught him the power of generosity. And his whole family understood the dignity that comes from hard work.

“To me, religion is a way to inculcate in people a set of values by which they should live their lives,” he says. “Although I don’t describe myself as religious, I have tried over time to cultivate a set of personal values that I live my life by.”

“True north” is what Nohria calls these core values. He says that the curriculum and culture at HBS is designed to help every student find their own—and then bring it to the organizations they manage.

“Leaders who have a ‘true north’ enable people in their companies to feel that their work has meaning,” Nohria says. “It’s not just because of the goods and services that they create, but because they can do it in a way that enriches their soul and their own sense of being.”

Leaders of truly great businesses, Nohria adds, also have a deep appreciation of—and sensitivity to—the cultures in which they operate. They need to understand that their real business is serving human needs that, in many ways, flow from religious values and beliefs. For this reason, HBS puts a lot of focus on what Nohria calls “contextual intelligence.”

“Contextual intelligence means that you must deeply understand the environment in which you operate,” he explains. “That can be the culture of the company or sector or, equally important, the society in which you function.”

To build understanding of culture and how it affects business, all MBA students are required at the end of their first year at HBS to spend time in a country that is unfamiliar to them. Nohria notes that in Islamic countries, for instance, business leaders can’t be effective if they don't understand the ways in which Sharia law imposes restrictions on finance. A lack of that kind of understanding is one reason why Western banks and multinationals have been relatively unsuccessful in nations where Islam is the dominant tradition.

“It's not like banking is not possible in these markets,” he says. “You just have to do it in a way that is respectful and consistent with the values, the norms, and the religious practices that people who believe in Islam wish to have when they interact with a bank. And it's worth remembering that more than a billion people in the world have Islam as a faith. These are very populous countries, with lots of economic opportunities.”

Nohria sees opportunities for collaboration between HBS and HDS too and says that each school has something to learn from the other. Divinity School students looking to make a world of difference can learn from faculty and peers at HBS how to build purposeful organizations that enable them to do so. At the same time, Business School students looking to make a difference in the world can get help at HDS with locating their “true north” and with gaining a deeper understanding of the way that religion influences nearly every aspect of the societies in which they operate.

“It is fascinating to see how business will trip itself if it doesn't understand how the culture of a people—and the context in any country—is deeply informed by religious practices,” Nohria observes. “If you embrace that, you understand that it doesn't mean you can’t do business. In fact, you can probably do business better yet.”

-Paul Massari