Review: Doodles on Leadership by R Gopalakrishnan
Doodles on Leadership by R Gopalakrishnan is an innovative contribution to Indian management literatureUpdated: Nov 22, 2019 20:04 IST
No, I haven’t checked this out with R Gopalakrishnan. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that earning a track record of nine titles in a dozen years from The Bonsai Manager (2007) to Doodles (2019) has cost many a lonely hour. Thus has the author ably honed his talent for expressing deep management experiences with a raconteur’s felicity.
Gopalakrishnan has excelled himself in his latest work. From concept to delivery, its wide sweep reflects his broad world view based on 31 years’ experience at Lever followed by 17 at Tata. Sure, he knows his onions. This book therefore is fact not fiction.
Analyzing his own career, Gopal postulates three “balconies of leadership moments and learnings.” Early on in her career, a manager’s experiences are “transactional.” On this first balcony she gets her teeth into problems and challenges, thinking up solutions and rallying a team to execute the latter. The second balcony is “corporate” as per the author’s definition. She engages with shareholders, business partners, employees and then with government and society at large. To deliver value, she inculcates vision. With the latter firmly in grasp and keeping it always in mind she learns to be tough enough to plan frontal assaults on competition to the extent of escalating the plan into one of “audacious attack.” It might well turn out to be ding-dong warfare of raid, counter attack, then rout.
Never mind. From an elevated perch on the third balcony the professional manager’s focus shifts to “monitoring, encouraging, supporting, even exploring deep philosophies of why the corporation exists.” It involves, says Gopal, grasping pulls, pressures and atmospherics of industrial reality. She learns the complex art of sharing with company elders the outcome of her personal exploration of higher orbits of strategy. It sounds rather bland and ho-hum but assuredly isn’t mostly because the third balcony engages the manager’s mind in matters larger than the company and its operations. These closely reflect the pursuit of national interest. The concept of her selfless participation in eclectic realms doesn’t sound pompous if one shares, as Gopal does, lessons in social leadership learnt by him personally at Tata.
This all-too-brief clip from his doodle on this subject illustrates its flavour: “Business people should, and do, engage with larger issues. It is among the roles business leaders can play in the wider society. It offers a chance to envision the world we think our children and grandchildren should inhabit. All views of the future will be considered naive upon the passage of time. That has not deterred philosophers, scientists and artists from imagining the future. Why should business people not do the same?”
Uniquely, this book stands tall by virtue of a daring gambit. Page 1 Chapter 1 gets going with an imaginary “candid conversation”between the first four House of Tata chairmen rightly described as “Torchbearers and Trailblazers” who ran shop one after the other from 1868 to 1991. They are founder Jamsetji Tata, son Dorabji, successor Nowroji Saklatwala followed by JRD Tata. This drawing room chat never happened. The text and context are drawn from the Tata Central Archives, Pune. Needless to say, it adds value.
While reading Doodles it seemed to me at first sight that perhaps Hindustan Lever’s participation in the movement to set a leadership example lags behind Tata somehow. Prakash Tandon, Lever’s first Indian chairman in the 1960s, billed by Google as “an extremely influential business leader in independent India and one of the pioneers of professional management”, is relegated to a single passing comment on page 76. There’s more. At rough count, Lever takes up 15 column lines in the copious Index against 40 by Tata. I asked the author about this. He explained: “Tandon retired nine months after I joined Hindustan Lever as a trainee. I could absorb his legacy through the institution rather than him. Later, I got to know him as a senior ‘friend’.” In other words, second hand leadership lessons don’t count. There is, and isn’t, merit in this logic -- let it pass.
In sum, Doodles stands out as an innovative contribution to the country’s management literature genre.