Leading the World with Creative Expertise
An exemplar of excellence and success in her field, distinguished by achievements with transcending influence and impact.
Inspired by her father, a career diplomat and later president of India, and her mother who was Burmese, Chitra Narayanan was bound for a global career. Numbered among her many roles are a mother, journalist, editor and publisher, Foreign Service Officer and Ambassador of India to six countries. Chitra now shares her leadership and cultural expertise as an independent consultant to high-level corporations and think tanks around the world. She believes that excellence, creativity and strategy, above all else, are paramount to success.
Your mother was Burmese and your father Indian. At a time when such a marriage was rare, particularly in the Indian culture, how was that perceived?
It was very difficult for my mother. My father was in the Foreign Service, and they were the first internationally mixed couple of their generation, station and culture. It was a great romance. My father had to get permission from Prime Minister Nehru. Because they broke with the tradition and were the first couple to marry outside of their nationality, my mother adapted. She was amazing. She took the Indian nationality and changed her name from Tint Tint to Usha, which means, “dawn.” For her, it was a new beginning. At home, there was obviously no problem. My regret is that I did not know either Burmese or my father’s language, Malayalam. They were so correct that English became the home language. That was my mother tongue. She merged seemingly effortlessly into Indian life. As fate would have it, their first posting was Japan. She had been in Burma during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War, and she had suffered. She also lost a brother, but she just took that in her stride. I was born in Tokyo. Japan was a happy memory. I marvel at her remarkable ability to adapt and make adjustments.
Her ability to forgive?
Exactly. I appreciate that only recently, after she’s gone. I never really understood what she was able to do. As a child, growing up in the family, you are not as aware of these things. Recently, I have come to understand how truly remarkable she must have been to accomplish that and always have friends from Japan.
Was it love at first sight between them?
Yes. Yes. As a postgraduate student, she studied social work in India and was then teaching in Rangoon University. My father’s first posting was to Rangoon,
and she invited him to give a talk. He went back to India and negotiated permission to marry. Then, she came.
Did witnessing your parent’s love affair, so strident and authentic, affect your perspective on what you wanted for your partner in life?
It’s exactly that. I presumed everything was like the environment in which I was raised. My parents brought me up to believe that men and women were equal. There was no prejudice in our family. It was a bit of a shock when I found that I was ill-prepared for other aspects in relationships. I presumed everybody was as thoughtful as my father and mother were of each other. My home life and their love for each other perhaps spoiled me. It didn’t affect my expectations, but I guess one simulates values. They were such a team throughout their lives in his diplomatic career and later his political career. Everybody thought of them always as Usha and K.R. They were always a team. The diplomatic corps at first and then politics for your parents.
Your father later became President of India. How old were you when the political juncture began?
Well, I was 26. The year my father retired from the diplomatic service he was serving as Ambassador to China. I joined the Foreign Service that year and was already in my career as a young diplomat when he joined politics.
And your father was the first person from India to enter China as a diplomat?
He was the first Ambassador after 17 years of having broken off relations between the countries, in ‘76. This was before I joined the Foreign Service. I visited them and was able to see China in transition, what is referred to as the “Gang of Four” time. It was very exciting. One of the advantages of being a diplomatic offspring is the ability to witness history in the making, to be able to see. These moments in time are truly exciting because they were stationed primarily in Peking.
When you visited your parents in Peking, was it an overly stressful time for him in light of how tentative everything was?
We thought of it as exciting because it was during the Chinese-Vietnamese War. I had grown up as a child in Hanoi with my parents. I was trying to be a journalist, so when I wanted to travel by train during the war from Peking to Hanoi to write a story, they said go for it. We were a very adventurous and unorthodox family.
Where were you educated?
As a child, all over. It would be London or Australia . . . I was homeschooled in Hanoi and in boarding school in the Himalayas in India. As a young child, when they went to Hanoi, I was very unhappy. The day before returning, I just told my parents I couldn’t do it. I was what, eight? Seven? My father said, “Okay, we will homeschool you. Cancel the ticket.” For one and a half years I was homeschooled in Hanoi. We went back to New Delhi, and from that time on, I studied in India. At first I studied in New Delhi and then went back to the same boarding school in the mountains. I completed my undergraduate work in political science at Delhi University and postgraduate at Delhi University, international relations specializing in Chinese politics. So, my education was, by and large, in India.
Did any mentor make a significant impact or difference to you?
I never really could say I had a mentor. My father and mother always had interesting people coming into our home. I was brought up that there was no such thing as go to your room. We always were in the room listening to wonderful people with the most interesting minds, talking and expressing their views. I guess that was the biggest influence in my life. I was able to listen to their views, their values and their convictions. I think that’s more valuable than a mentorship. I cannot think of a better education than the one I had.
What was the longest place that you lived under the age of 30?
It would be New Delhi.
Outside of that?
In our business, the post lasts three years. So, it was Rome, Nairobi and then Washington, D.C. as Counsellor for political military affairs. That was very nice. My little daughter was there as well. That was interesting because it was dealing both with the State Department and the Pentagon. The experience was actually very educative and perhaps one of the most interesting locations of my career.
Because I learned Washington. D.C. is another planet, where policy is made which influences the world. And, I believe that defense is very much a crucial part of it. I was able to understand and associate with it. I made friends. I enjoyed that.
You were married for almost twenty years and have a daughter. Any desire to remarry?
I am open to that, especially sharing life. It has been 20 years since I was divorced. I have to say one constant, as a single mother, was work, various family issues, my elderly parents and bringing up my daughter. I am open to remarrying now because now I am ready to share.
Tell me about your daughter.
I have to say she is the greatest achievement of my life. Her name is Chandrika, which means moonlight. She is the joy of both her parents’ lives. The moment she was born, when I held her, was the happiest moment of my life. And what she has achieved! She is a really interesting person. Now at age 30, she lives in Dublin. She’s fiercely independent and has grown up to be highly talented. She works in a theater company as their marketing executive. She’s a performing poet and, above all, a very compassionate human being. She was raised by my parents and has a very special closeness to her grandparents. I admire and respect her very much as an individual.
From journalism to the diplomatic corps, how did your career pivot?
My first job was with the Press Institute of India. I worked with a highly respected journalist Chanchal Sarkar who headed it. He did television, and he also had this “journal” which I wanted to be part of. I was doing other things in the Press Institute but could not write for the journal. I left and worked in the Nehru Memorial Fund and Library, which did Jawaharlal Nehru’s work. Three women, we were friends, decided to start a journal called The Book Review. It was inspired by the New York Review of Books and was the first English-speaking journal in India dedicated to books. I was the founder-editor and co-publisher. It is running today, though I am not with it anymore. It was an interesting experience because I had to go around on a little motorbike with my helmet in my hand and persuade publishers to buy advertisements to support it. I asked first if they would give us books for free and then publish advertisements. It did very well. We made a profit in the first year. But after three years, I realized I wanted to do something else. We have a civil service exam in India, which is held for all India; candidates who pass are selected for the Foreign Service, the administrative service etc. I sat for this exam and resigned from my job in the Nehru Memorial and went off to join my parents in Peking. I wanted to join the Far Eastern Economic Review because, at that time, it was the most important one. I was very interested in the unification of Vietnam. I travelled to Hong Kong, and I walked in and said, “I would like to work.” They said, “Give us a story, and we will consider you.” I went to Peking, then by train to Hanoi. It was during the Chinese-Vietnamese War. When I flew back to Peking to write my story, there was this telegram that appointed me to the Indian Foreign Service. I got on the first plane, and that was my fourth job which became my career for the next 36 years. I went into the Foreign Service with no illusions, so unlike many of my colleagues, I went in with a very different mindset. I knew the glamour was superficial; it was a tough career path, and it was very exacting. I was in for the long haul, while at the same time, since I had another career under my belt, I knew I could leave anytime. I think that’s why I enjoyed my career.
You served as Ambassador to six countries. Which do you consider the crème de la crème?
Ambassador to Switzerland, (which is also accredited to Liechtenstein, and the Holy See—The Vatican). I have to say, still today, the Holy See was the one that excited me the most.
Because it was pure politics. The Vatican has the best diplomatic service in the world, and we deal with the “State Department” of the Vatican. Individuals are highly intellectually stimulating because many are sharp, Jesuit-trained minds. It was truly a pleasure. The Italian that I learned on my first posting in Rome I could finally use in my last posting, which gave me an “in.” It helped in my interaction with the Segretario di Stato and my friends. We used to have such open conversations about all the things that one would consider forbidden, but they had their view, and I was able to present my view, and we became good friends. The whole politics of the Holy See is fascinating. I was privileged with both Pope Benedict, who I admire and revered very much with great affection, and Pope Francis at the end.
Can you take us through the order of the posts you held as Ambassador?
My first Ambassadorship was to Stockholm, Sweden. At the same time, I was Ambassador to Latvia. Again, this was very exciting because it was a newly independent country that was just about to join the EU. After Sweden, I served in Turkey which was very special for us because my father had been there as Ambassador 30 years before. It actually was our second home. To go back to the same residence and be with many old friends was wonderful. Of course, the new government had just joined, and my father’s friends were the former Presidents, but it was lovely. My daughter studied there, and it was also very special to her. It was a unique and remarkable experience. In fact, my parent’s last visit was to Turkey. They came for a conference. Just to give you an indication how it was a second home, I said, “Daddy, I’m going to have a little party for you with your friends.” He said, “Okay. Here’s a list.” We had 400 people at the reception. They remembered my parents because he had also been on a state visit as President. It was fantastic. So, very special. Emotionally, that was the most special posting that I remember.
And then from Turkey?
From Turkey, I came directly to Switzerland, which was the last posting in my career. Switzerland is fascinating, an interesting and very complex country with very interesting people.
In the diplomatic corps, you are privy to confidential information that gives you a very different worldview. You are not a cynical woman. How did you maintain your grace knowing and seeing what you have experienced and witnessed?
That is a complicated question. It has a simple answer for me. I believe, sadly, that human beings are, just below the skin, very violent. We can see that today all over the world. I had hoped we were evolving into taking the road of peace or trying to promote and maintain peace, but it’s not happening. You realize, in policymaking, the actual method of violence. Strategy is very much part of military defense strategy, which is the basis of all diplomacy. It used to be the fact that, in order to avoid war, you used diplomacy as a tool. I think it’s happening the other way. I guess eventually my take is that I have to accept the fact that human beings are what they are. You can’t change them. If they are set on this path of violence, and you see it more and more, you can only influence or suggest, but, sadly, we cannot change. The great minds that have come into the world like Mahatma Gandhi understood this. Mahatma Gandhi was an extremely practical man. He fought violence of the British Rule by a method that has become universal: Civil Disobedience. I don’t see how it can happen in today’s world. I would ask you a question. Who do you think today is a great statesman or world leader, statesperson? Who would you name? Who was there? I cannot name anyone. I ask this question of people I meet who have a deep conscience.
Do you think that women are more prone to a belief or quest for peace than men? This idea of why is there so much violence? Why is there so much discourse?
You mean women question it more?
No, I think women and men are equally violent but for different reasons and varying degrees. Many men, if you look at it, who advocate for violence, are supported by women. No, I believe that this capacity for violence is gender neutral.
Voltaire said that mankind is not mean by nature, and you’re saying that you do believe that they are?
Not mean, but violent.
And the reason is?
Actually, you know I asked that of so many people. I said why is it so? Take a group of people who are perfectly rational and put them in a situation like a protest or a mob, and then you just need to instigate them, and they turn completely different. They will turn upon each other or an enemy; something they would not do individually. Why is that? That is what I mean that, under the skin, given circumstances, it’s an exception to find somebody who will say, “Hold back. This is not you. There is another way.” This is why people who are leaders in the worst kind of violence can do what they do.
Situations like genocide?
Yes. Similar, like when you read about the medieval days. It is a blood lust that comes out.
And what is the cause of that? Poverty? Visual stimulation from technology/TV?
Not poverty alone. You see it everywhere. You see it in highly affluent societies. The visual plays a role because we dehumanize and become immune to really despicable violence.
What is the antidote?
That is difficult. I really think it is leadership. Real leadership. I feel this is lacking and does not exist at the moment.
Who do I look to? Who do I look to on a global scale?
Difficult to answer, so isn’t that tragic? Twenty years ago you would not have this problem. But now?
Why? What has changed?
I don’t know. This is where I feel politics has changed. I strongly believe there is a crisis in the functioning of democracy. Not in democracy, but in the functioning of democracy. Politicians tend to do anything for a vote, so the moral compass has become obscured. It’s not working anymore because the goal has changed. It is why I say the functioning of democracy. In the case of parliamentary democracy, members of parliament (which is the one that I’m familiar with) will do almost anything to get elected, or they would not do anything to not get elected. That is when you realize that so many things are in play. Ask yourself, “What is wrong with this situation?” People who have a vote, and I come from a country where the vote is so important, have no more tolerance for politicians who are not doing their jobs.
Where do you consider home?
This is a big question, and my daughter always complains about this. When I was a child, home was where my parents were because we were on the move every three years. Obviously, my heart will always be in New Delhi because that’s where I was brought up, but my parents are no more. I don’t have family in Delhi, but many of my friends are there, so Delhi would be home. But professionally, you can live everywhere. At this certain moment, temporarily, I’m in Zürich, but I could be anywhere. We’re a very small family now. My younger sister lives in the Hague, and my daughter is in Dublin. So, it’s convenient being here because we are in close proximity.
Presently, you own a multifaceted consultancy. Can you rank the importance of strategy, diplomacy and advisor?
Strategy easily is ranked the highest because it is an aspect of every profession. We all use it in our work, but I would add the word “creative” to strategy. Strategy is there. It’s in books. But creative strategy is what you bring to the table. It is what you believe, what you bring and mix together, what you present or what you would like to achieve for every aspect of business or of life. Diplomacy, I would say, is very important. Again, it’s not just important in work, not just as a career, but also in every aspect of professional dealings and especially in family. I think we underrate that. There, too, I think my mantra in all facets of my career was “creative” diplomacy. I created curriculum/courses for creative diplomacy at the Geneva Center for Security Policy where I am an associate fellow because the director put me on the spot. After I left my last job, he said, “What did you do differently in your career, or what was unique about what you did?” I said, “Creative diplomacy.” I used it everywhere. He said, “Okay, do a course for us, and put it in a formula.” That was a challenge. It was basically using all different disciplines in relationship to how a person thinks. It is actually how to train your mind in decision making as a musician, conductor, in sports, architecture etcetera. Because how you make split decisions when you’re under pressure is important to understand. It is exactly what I practiced as a diplomat, and I realized that it was a useful tool for everybody. Now is the time to share what I have learned.
Clients also retain your services as an advisor, the third component of the trifecta?
I am a strategic advisor because it takes into account both sides of the picture. I work with think tanks, corporations and boards because they want a different perspective. It doesn’t have to be a formal presentation either because Q&A’s can be very impactful. I give my views, and then they ask me anything. If I know, I know. If I don’t know, I don’t know. Having this peculiar global perspective brings a different viewpoint, particularly in light of having been a child in Hanoi and Australia and living in Southeast Asia, China, Europe and India. One learns certain things. I also do a lot of public speaking on political risks in Southeast Asia, China and Turkey.
What is your specialization?
I found in the Q&A session, inevitably the audience would focus on cultural sensitivities while conducting business or during negotiations. We all know that in any interaction, it can just take one inadvertent gesture or word of unintentional offense that can bring a deal crashing. Something seemingly effortless, an embracing word or gesture, can make the deal a complete success. I decided this would be my specialization because I realize there is a niche. The world has become really quite small business wise. Everybody interacts, and all companies have internationals. I found, in my experience, Company A (usually a Swiss company) deals with Company B in that country. They don’t know anything outside of that business interaction. They go in and conduct business for two days. They do the deal. They return home. They know very little, if anything, about the country or the people. I don’t lecture the client, I provide assistance on what should they avoid doing. What should they be a little careful about? I realize helpful information about cultural sensitivities is something that people want to hear, and I am able to share.
What is success?
Contentment, or that you can look in the mirror (maybe not every morning), but occasionally, and say, “I tried my best.” Combining little bits of success. When something goes right, you come home and say, “Yes, I did it. I got it.” I think that is success. Is excellence a part of success? It is the bottom line.
Talk about excellence. What is the common ground of excellence?
It is a belief in doing the very best creatively and seeing a Chitra as Ambassador of India to the Holy See (Vatican), receiving the Swiss Guard of Honor, on the way to meeting the Pope, 2013. Opposite: Chitra in Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) with her daughter Chandrika (right) and her best friend Melissa, New Delhi, 2019. product, (which is almost flawless), whether it is a concept, whether it’s a design, whether it’s a piece of art. It’s exciting that the human mind and the brain can produce something. I think that is excellence. Excellence is a moving target, but it is very exciting that the human being can produce that.
What undergirds success?
Excellence, creativity and strategy.
When you take on a client, what is your process for crafting a strategy?
First, you must know the client, know the business, know the intended outcome, know the countries that they deal with and the unique personalities. When you do business, you need to understand how to not offend. So, if the client is receptive, there will be a different strategy than if the client is tough to work with in business dealings or interactions. If a client is open-minded, it can work. But, if the personality has a fixed notion and cannot be influenced, in the back of your mind, you know that there is only so far you can go. Strategy, I guess. It’s being very practical.
What did it take for you to get here? Your struggles and overcoming?
That is really the crux of all of us in our journeys, right? We all have a story. How do you handle it? So many things. People use the word “hiccups.” I think that’s a bit patronizing. These are earthshaking times in everybody’s life. So, what do you do with it? Apart from various personal things, I had two occasions to be on the abyss of life and death here in Switzerland. I’m here because of the most amazing medical team. I am grateful to Switzerland. The first one, in 2010, I was diagnosed with a pancreatic tumor, which is pretty final in many ways. I had a brilliant surgeon, Professor Kaspar Z’graggen, one of the three best in the world. I owe my life to him. I was blessed that, fortunately, it was not malignant. But the experience changes your whole perspective. It is very serious, as you know. Apart from that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. Cancer is difficult, especially when you live alone.
Obviously, my family, my friends and my doctors were there with me. But when these things happen, first, you realize life is sweet. I always realized life is sweet. I have to say I always enjoyed life. But this experience gave me a little added something that made it more precious. Positively, I was very blessed because my family and friends gave me the strength to endure. I realized, apart from that, my parents were no more. I’m glad they didn’t have to go through that with me. But they were with me, in a way. I realized, also when something hits you, it hits you here (gestures to her heart). What can you do? I guess my way of dealing with hardship is to take it and turn it around. You say to yourself, “I can handle this. I can handle it,” and I did.
Is overcoming and even survival based on attitude?
Totally. Totally. Apart from the fact that attitude is the best accessory for fashion, it is. You have to wear the clothes. The clothes can’t wear you. But yes, attitude . . . and it’s the mind.
Think of all of your life experiences, and tell me what one piece of advice you would give this 18-year-old woman from your infinite wisdom that she can carry with her for the rest of her life.
Ah. Self-belief. Do not be diffident. Enjoy every moment. You have to take the joy in everything. And just know that, whatever age you are, life is a learning experience. Always be curious.