After reading, Doodles on Leadership: Experiences Within and Beyond Tata , by R Gopalakrishnan (Gopal), I feel that the title is a misnomer. Looking at the title, many potential readers may not pick up the book thinking that this is yet another book on leadership experiences of an Indian corporate leader. In the process, many may miss out on the opportunity to understand several unique views and perspectives on the diversity that our country encompasses.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, which is, effectively, a collection of reflections and perspectives that Gopal has gained through his corporate stewardship of around five decades in two stellar organisations in India — Hindustan Unilever and the Tata Group. While Gopal says that these are reflections from his “Balcony of Holistic Leadership” (the first time I have heard such a term!), I feel that the book is full of the perspectives of a keen observer who was fortunate enough to traverse the length and breadth of India for close to 50 years.
The 10 chapters in the book takes one through seemingly disjointed subjects, ranging from an imaginary conversation between the founding fathers of the Tata enterprise, how innovation is critical in organisational renewal, trusteeship in organisation and individual experiences, liberalisation in India, challenges of “little India”, state of agriculture in India, severe challenges an individual faces with the judicial systems of our country and the rich history and diversity of India.
Wealth of information
I was fascinated with his perspectives and observations on what he calls his “Encounters with Colloidal India”. The five examples he provides “to illustrate that diversity and harmony is all around us Indians” are: Hussaini Brahmins, who observe Hindu festivals, worship Shiva and also observe Muharram; Siddis of Karnataka who spoke Kannada, but looked like East Africans and originally came from the Bantu tribes of Africa; the Parsis who came from Persia but are now an integral part of Indian society; Saurashtrian Tamils with their own distinct traditions; the Gadi Bero Tamils in Bengal who speak Bengali but follow customs of Tamil Brahmins.
The book as such is a smorgasbord. Depending on the interest of the reader, one could get very detailed information on a topic the author has covered in a particular chapter. One example is the chapter on innovation. As the Chairman of the Tata Group Innovation Forum for close to a decade, he had such rich experience with how innovation as a process should be approached in organisations. There is a wealth of information and many practical suggestions on how innovation can be practised across business functions. Another example is the chapter on succession planning and predecessor planning (again a term I heard for the first time!). Valuable lessons shared from his experiences as well as from other organisations.
While he takes the reader through the many different events that impacted how business and commerce was done in India during his journey, his main message in the book seems to be captured in the following lines in the final chapter of the book: “My view that business can be a force for good in society springs from my experiences in these two companies. It goes to demonstrate the obvious — that good business can be conducted by good people with good results and for the national good. That is the bottomline”. Elsewhere, he also says “I would hope, that in the course of time, it will make people believe that business can be humane and need not be an inhuman pursuit of greed.”
It is not often that you come across a person of Gopal’s calibre and experience, who is willing to share one’s experiences for the benefit of others. I feel significantly enriched by reading this book and would recommend to all those interested in learning from a seasoned corporate executive the nuances of how business can be humane and for the national good.
The reviewer is an entrepreneur and co-founder, Proklean Technologies