With a quick, embarrassed glance at Leo Tolstoy, let me say “All leaders are alike, but truly great leaders are different in their own ways.” The study of leadership, and literature on this subject, has repeatedly demonstrated that there are few parameters one can force-fit great leaders into. This book is a genuinely imaginative addition to that body of research, while also offering quick-to-grasp lessons for those who are looking for applications rather than research.

The manner in which Prof TV Rao and Dr Arvind Agrawal have pulled off this difficult act is really by playing to their strengths; allowing the ‘chosen few’ to speak for themselves in the main, while they bring together the common threads of those experiences to weave a rich tapestry of theory. There may be many faults to be found in their choice of people to represent HR leaders.

Not enough ladies, for one. Just two of the 30 individuals profiled in this work are female. But before you get on about that, pause for a moment. No one is more vexed about it than the authors, but they held on to the study parameters they had set out for themselves rather than add someone to just make up the numbers.

The whole idea of ‘Human Resources’ as a field of practice distinct from Personnel Management is in its fifth decade in India. Both Prof Rao and Dr Agrawal have been instrumental in shaping it the way it has grown over that time. They have drawn on their personal connections much more than applying sampling techniques to a large group of HR leaders in arriving at the short list of 30. The fact that this list excludes many highly accomplished HR leaders who are also very good friends of the two authors (I am not going to name anyone!) is reason enough to understand they have not set out to please people. Fifty could have been a nice number; five decades, 50 people. That they chose to not fall for that temptation is another reason to be confident that the 30 have made it into the list for what they represent, rather than just for who they are.

Walk your own road

Having settled for picking 30 top of the hundreds of HR professionals they must have known, the authors pushed themselves to more unfamiliar terrain in trying to get a united, or at least a unifying, theory of what will help the readers become leaders in their own right. Once again, it is to their credit that they built on what they heard and discovered about their subjects, rather than pushing all of them into fabricated frameworks of HR leadership. In that way, you would be disappointed, for this does not give you “7 competencies you need to lead in HR” kind of list; it gives you multiple perspectives that you will have to think about and discover your own list of 7. Or 4! You recognise you have to choose your own shoes to walk your own road at your own pace.

The long arc of personal narratives – the 30 leaders spoken about in the book have each at least 25 years’ experience – emphasises the importance of nurturing in human development. The importance of “N-Acco”, (the “Need for Accomplishment”, to coin a term) is evident in the kinds of experiences these leaders have had in their teens and twenties. These experiences were varied and I daresay would appear trivial, mundane and pointless to young professionals today.

Being able to sing every week to residents of an old-age home, or filling up information cards for every worker in a factory are certainly not tasks that sound exciting to a HR professional in any era. It is individuals who were able to carry out such chores with a strong internal need to do it in the best way they could, and squeeze out both learning and joy from those chores who have gone on to fill the pages of this book.

Need for achievement

This N-Acco appears to have been foundational in fulfilling their “N-Ach”, the Need for Achievement, at a later stage in their lives. Take heart from these anecdotes, you young HR pros, they can indeed show you steps to your greatness! And others – parents, academicians, managers – this book gives you a lot of lessons about working with people, which is what every leader ultimately ends up having to do!

All the 30 leaders profiled in this work are accessible on social media. But through their interviews to Prof Rao and Dr Agrawal, they have revealed so much more about themselves than any series of 280-character posts can offer you. So here is what I recommend to the young HR pros: read one of the leaders profiled here every day. The next day, ask yourself, “What would ___ have done?” as you go through your tasks at work. In 31 days, you will find yourself having a wide repertoire of responses that will launch you on your own path to leadership stardom!

And yes, I am going to follow my advice, as well!

R Shantaram is the co-founder of Kelsa Solutions. He has been in the field of HR for over 30 years and has served as the Honorary President of the Chennai Chapter of the National HRD Network

Check out the book on Amazon

About the book

Title: Leaders in the Making: The Crucibles of Change-Makers in HR

Authors: Arvind Agrawal & TV Rao

Publisher: Penguin Business

Price: ₹559

Pages: 480

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