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Remembering Ravi J. Matthai
Sasi B. Misra
"I would like to recount a few stories of my association with RJM, through his own words and actions. I shall attempt to decode their underlying meanings to 'know RJM again'."
Sasi B. Misra was in the Organizational Behaviour Area of IIMA from 1969 to 2004. He has a Ph.D. (1969) in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a former Vice Chancellor of Berhampur University, Orissa, and former Institute Professor, Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India (EDI), Gandhinagar. For further information visit [https://archives.iima.ac.in/faculty/Sasi-B-Misra.html]. In this article he reflects on his association with Professor Ravi J. Matthai, director of IIMA (1965-72).
Much has been said and written about Ravi J. Matthai's (RJM) inexhaustible passion, intense commitment and tireless efforts to make IIMA a vital world-class institution, something that would even have probably astonished RJM himself. I believe he became a widely acknowledged and lauded institution builder without being aware of it. In this note I would like to recount a few stories of my association with RJM, through his own words and actions. I shall attempt to decode their underlying meanings to 'know RJM again'.
Such was RJM's clear and precise communication meant to persuade gently without a trace of coercion. In retrospect, this also reflected Ravi's eclectic approach to higher education and his democratic spirit. As an aside, I should mention that as I started teaching at the institute, I resisted the case method for a brief period of time. Soon enough, not only did I start using cases in courses I taught, but I also wrote several cases which are still in use at the institute. I am still unsure about how I would have reacted had I been forced to comply with the case method of teaching.
We can learn about the effectiveness of Ravi's communication, in terms of substance and style, from his participation in a simulated case study. My friend and colleague Shreekant Sambrani and I had prepared a simulated case ('Pratap Mehta', by Sasi Misra and Shreekant Sambrani, available in the Case Unit of IIMA). Pratap Mehta, a graduate of the Class of 1974 at IIMA receives an offer of executive level appointment from Indian Paints Limited (IP). Mehta, accepting IP's appointment offer, writes to Mr. Keki L. Varnishwalla, MD, IP. Though it is a formal letter, Mehta slips into informality at will. Mehta's letter, to say the least, is patronising, superior in tone, projecting an undisguised attitude of self-importance. Shreekant and I requested a few former chief executives including Ravi to respond to Mehta's letter by playing the role of Mr. Varnishwalla. Whereas the others just responded through two and three line letters withdrawing IP's job offer to Pratap Mehta, RJM chose to write to Mehta at considerable length. I quote a few lines from his letter to Mehta.
"I have received your provisional bill... I am not raising any questions about this." (Mehta had included tips and porterage in the bill.) "From the general trend of your letter, I wondered whether you would accept a word of advice from a person considerably older and more experienced than you. I am sure that at your age, I was perhaps a little insensitive to the reactions which my remarks, in writing or in conversation could create. My initial reaction to your letter was one of apprehension. Having flattered me at the outset you proceeded to ask about our plans of development even before you had joined us... You also virtually asked for confidential reports on my senior colleagues which could be regarded as, to say the least, a trifle indelicate... I am sure you did not intend to appear presumptuous... I am making the assumption that the inappropriateness of your letter is inadvertent." "I am writing at some length since I do feel a sense of responsibility towards a young person like you, who has evinced interest in joining us, but the fact is you are not yet indispensable... I hope you will take my remarks in the helpful spirit in which they are intended."This letter is not only a marvellous specimen of Ravi's keen understanding of another person but of his command over language and his mastery of positive and proactive communication.
I now move on to narrate a few apparently innocuous incidents that provided me with glimpses of RJM's personality and core values. I once met Ravi to discuss a matter related to the development of a new course. During our discussion, I remember commenting on a colleague as a 'charlatan'. Ravi shut me up by reacting sharply, "Sasi, my mother told me that everyone is God's child." The matter ended then and there. I realised that my remark had been utterly immature and loose tongued. Ravi would not allow comment on colleagues behind their backs. I believe the real intention behind Ravi's intriguing remark was to reinforce norms of discretion among faculty and to demonstrate leadership distance itself from personal feuds among colleagues.
Another incident. During the 1960s and early 70s, the institute used to conduct MDPs in star hotels in different cities (KLMDC had not yet been built). My first opportunity to teach in the MDP was at the Clarks Shiraz, Agra. One evening Ravi invited a few faculty members including myself to dinner in his suite. After dinner, he asked for the bill. Instead of charging the dinner to the programme account, he paid for it by writing out a cheque from his personal account. Such was Ravi's standard of probity. But here was another message: Do as I do, not do as I say.
Last but not least, I mention applying for a fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation with a request to Ravi to write a letter of reference for me. He readily agreed, adding, "Hope I don't cross any institutional wires." Such was Ravi's adherence to role clarity and norms of transparency.
I end this note by paraphrasing what Thomas Jefferson said when he followed Benjamin Franklin into the post of American Ambassador to France. "Many have succeeded Ravi J. Matthai as Director IIMA. No one could replace him."
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