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Vas Narasimhan’s leadership epiphany occurred a little over a decade ago, as he contended with circumstances uncannily similar to today’s coronavirus crisis.

In 2009 Dr Narasimhan, now chief executive of Novartis, was running the drugmaker’s North American vaccines division when swine flu struck the region and he was charged with leading efforts to develop a treatment.

Eagerly expounding a management approach that seems equal parts Eastern philosophy and management primer, he describes how his moment of enlightenment came about.

By chance, he picked up Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink and had a shaft of insight: leadership “was much more about how do I inspire incredible performance rather than direct incredible performance?”

He rushed to put the new approach into practice. “Mostly because I didn’t feel like I had a choice. We were on what seemed like impossibly tight timelines — I learnt that I could no longer be on top of every detail or take every key decision,” he recalls.

“Up until then, I had very much taken a traditional approach to leadership — be really smart, give your people orders, set objectives, key performance indicators.”

Clad in jeans and trainers, and operating from an open plan office, Dr Narasimhan exudes a cerebral intensity despite the lack of obvious CEO pomp.

Expanding on his vision for the company, he describes using artificial intelligence to improve operations across the business. This is part of a broader ambition to turn Novartis from a conventional pharma business into a “data science company”, a principal focus since he was appointed, aged just 41, to lead the group where he has worked for more than 15 years.

So, too, has been his determination to slim down what he believes was an over-diversified company, by shedding in short order parts of the business that were not specifically related to its core aim of producing innovative medicines. But, as a self-described “student of leadership”, underlying all his plans is a conviction that “more than anything else, culture drives performance”.

The son and grandson of scientists — his father was a chemist, his mother a nuclear engineer — he had been raised to understand that with privilege comes obligation. “My grandparents [and] my parents came from very modest beginnings in India, some of the first people in their families to go to high school and college.”

Grounded in eastern philosophy while he was growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he had absorbed from the Chinese text Tao Te Ching the notion of “servant leadership”, the idea that “leaders inspire and remove obstacles and that, in some ways, the greatest leaders eventually become invisible in the sense that the people do the work on their own”.

After becoming CEO in February 2018, he had free rein to put his management ideas into practice. Influenced by a book by business leaders Lars Kolind and Jacob Botter, which seemed to him a contemporary reworking of “servant leadership”, he borrowed its title to launch the “unBoss” initiative at Novartis.

To some of his older employees this must have sounded like jargon from the pages of an MBA textbook. Did he encounter internal resistance?

“A lot. I think the first six to nine months were just spent trying to explain ‘what did it mean?’ for leaders who had led a different way in the company for a long time.”

The approach is yielding tangible results, he says. Staff on the manufacturing floor at one of its sites have taken the lead in overhauling processes to drive productivity, while “self-directed” digital teams are mimicking the speed and reactiveness of the tech industry as they develop digital applications.

Arguably his own most public and intense leadership calvary occurred last summer when Novartis had to tell the US Food and Drug Administration that its subsidiary AveXis, a gene therapy company, had manipulated data during early stage testing of a treatment for spinal muscular atrophy.

The medicine, Zolgensma, which appeared to cure the young children treated, was already controversial because of a $2.1m price tag that had made it the most expensive medicine ever produced. Suspected wrongdoing had been identified internally in March, but Novartis told the FDA only in June after it had conducted its own investigation.

Damaging for any CEO, the discovery threatened particular harm for Dr Narasimhan who had made much of “trust” as a guiding principle for Novartis after taking the helm.

Did he worry that he had undermined his own brand as a strongly ethical leader?

“I certainly worried that we had such great momentum in the whole of [our] transformation strategies, and would this be something that, even in a small way, derailed that?” he recalls.

Among the most damaging accusations was that the company had delayed informing the FDA in part, at least, to avoid jeopardising regulatory approval for Zolgensma. This, he says emphatically, is “not true”. (The approval was unaffected by the data issue.)

However, he seems now to accept that he underestimated how the episode would play out in the court of public opinion at a time of widespread hostility towards the pharma industry.

Would he handle things differently if a similar situation arose? “I think we did everything the right way and we did everything according to the rules and the regulations. But seeing how the events transpired in terms of how it was viewed in the public domain, I think you would at least have to consider a different approach,” he concedes.

He adds: “One of the lessons I’ve learned is that in this role you have to almost take a 360 [degree] view of situations . . . I think in our industry, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt, which certainly I’ve learned . . . even as a public health physician who really just does this to try to find medicines and get them to patients all around the world.”

Three questions for Vas Narasimhan

Who is your leadership hero?

My grandmother. She came from a small village in India and only received a primary-school education, but with her compassion kindness, and ability to listen, she raised an amazing family of 11 children and touched lives all around the world. She even had obituaries written about her in six cities. She taught me the impact we leave is through the people we inspire.

If you were not a CEO, what would you be?

A physician-scientist searching for better medicines for the world. I would also still be a dad and husband — the most important titles I hold.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

People are not motivated by carrots and sticks. They are motivated by purpose, autonomy and the opportunity to improve themselves.

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