"Doodles on Leadership" | Balconies Of leadership
The author argues that the widening engagement with society at large is most satisfying for business leaders, and emphasises the role that business leaders can play in matters concerning the nation and society; writes Vissa Venkata Sundar
The book, Doodles on Leadership is filled with rich reflections on various themes revolving around the author’s career and corporate journey. The book celebrates the corporation’s role in nation-building. The author has spent a considerable number of years in Tata and Unilever in senior positions and considers the institution’s role as “great” and “ethical”. He says, “My view that business can be a force for good in society springs from my experience in these two companies. It goes to demonstrate the obvious – that good business can be conducted by good people and with good results and or the national good. Business and entrepreneurship can do what governments and infrastructure cannot. He further adds business and trade alone can create wealth, growth and jobs. I feel optimistic that this distinctive role for business in the national economy will be supported by society in emerging India. Business management is a great career for young people – for at least the next fifty years! As it so happens, the India business comes with a great tradition of practice. The book, in a nutshell, revolves around these themes.
As one can see the book glorifies the role of corporates. It is fair to an extent but given the spate of incidents in the recent past, several corporates have been found wanting on these very parameters. We see industrialists cheat banks, default on payments, sack hundreds of employees when things go awry. The trust factor even today is very low as far as corporates are concerned much due to their conduct and making. India is a country where corporate profligacy is funded by public sector banks and when things sour it is the hapless common public that loses its savings and deposits. Undoubtedly, for many, businesses today are not so saintly, and it is reduced to mere commerce without humane aspect, barring few rare exceptions. To brush away the realities in such broad strokes may be a tad wishful thinking.
More than the moral argument offered in the book, it makes an interesting read because you get a peep into the transformational journey of the Tata’s and Unilever at a time when India shifted gears from a socialist economy towards liberalisation. It was a phase of dramatic changes for many domestic companies to embrace intense international competition, innovate and thrive.
The author terms what he calls, “the balconies of leadership”. Holistic leadership is a luxury that may not be available to many leaders in these times, where the time for self-reflection is scarce when you are entirely preoccupied with chasing quarterly numbers and added to it when narcissism takes over once you reach the “balcony” of your career.
With the track record of many past CEOs being reopened and re-evaluated, the rot in the corporate culture is visible through the leaders that emerge out of its ranks. Readers can attest out of their own corporate world experiences that leaders at the end of the day are as fallible as any other in the rank and file. The cracks in their personality and moral rectitude or lack of it appear more glaringly to the world sooner than later. Sometimes, in large organisations, people have seen leaders more as a violation of the principles than its upholders. It is not entirely unusual to see such an example in today’s current corporate environment.
The author showers glowing tributes and praise to the organisation he worked in his long span of a career. There are interesting chapters in the book that gives the reader insights into the operating environment and how cultural shifts were engineered at an organisational level. One such topic is building a culture of innovation. The chapter delves into how the organisation went organising its people, process to bring about a remarkable shift in favour of innovation and competitiveness. Another chapter that makes an interesting read is on succession planning and touches upon aspects related to the delicate relationship between predecessor and successor. The dilemmas are presented in practical terms and make for a good read.
Barring minor inconsistencies in the initial introduction pages where chapter numbers are spelled out in some and numbered in other paras, the book makes for a good read especially for management professional to understand the circumstances in which large corporates of India navigated themselves during one of the most transformative journeys the country undertook with liberalisation and to get an insider view through the eyes of one of the experienced hands at the helm of the things. From a reader’s point of view, it would have been handy had the publisher provided the title of the chapter on the relevant pages for ease of tracking, instead of carrying the author’s name across all 190 pages of the book.
You will find some good insights in the chapter “Making Little-India’ Shine” on how to spur entrepreneurial growth in small-town India. The book makes an emphatic argument in favour of reviving agriculture and the need to transform it. The author’s extensive corporate experience drips from every page and the assertions made are both practical and doable. The youth of the country today are disillusioned with corporate careers. They find them as deeply unsatisfying, empty and adding no meaning or value. The tenth chapter deals with this topic and extols the virtues of taking up a business career with some passionate assertions. In the prevailing circumstances, corporate India needs to address the crisis of trust, credibility and also the lack of generosity they exhibit when it comes to charity as compared to other leaders in wealthy industrial nations. This is where corporate India has to reflect upon albite not from the balcony but with a view from the ground. The next big challenge is how to regain the lost trust, respect in corporate leaders and the enterprises as socially, ecologically and humanly responsible entities.
Do read this book to find distilled and practical wisdom from someone who helmed the transformational journey at two of the biggest corporations in the country and for some sharp insights into the interlinking role of building nation, society and business enterprise.