Balconies of leadership

Brand-Building founder Ambi Parameswaran reviews R Gopalakrishnan's 'Doodles on Leadership' — a book that reasons why a leader's journey is not restricted to the boardroom

Published 5 years ago on Oct 18, 2019 4 minutes Read

The word ‘doodle’ has an interesting etymology. Wiki tells me that its origin may be traced to the German word, Dudeltopf or Dudeldop, meaning simpleton or noodle. The word doodle first appeared in early 17th century to mean a fool or simpleton. Over time, it got associated with drawings that are made when a person’s attention is otherwise occupied. They are simple drawings that may or may not have any concrete representation. We tend to associate ‘doodle’ and the word ‘scribble’ with young children.

When I got the book Doodles on Leadership from Outlook Business, I was half expecting to see doodles and scribbles that the author may have penned during the multiple board meetings he has attended during his long career. But lo and behold! The book does not contain any doodles by Mr R Gopalakrishnan. Instead, you are provided a whole lot of ideas and new thoughts on management and broader policy making.

Mr Gopalakrishnan is not just a best-selling author. His resume is power-packed with two long stints with the most respected groups in the country. While his previous books were more focused on the management lessons he has learnt working in two terrific organizations and working with visionary leaders, this one [Doodles on Leadership] is a little different. Don’t let the title fool you. Like I have said already, there are no frivolous doodles in the book for you to critique. This is not an adult colouring book either.

The first few chapters feature a terrain that Mr Gopalakrishnan has covered well in his other books. The first chapter is a rather interesting discussion [imagined, of course] among the leaders who guided the Tata Group for its first 100 odd years of existence. The conversation is enlightening and throws up several issues relating to recruitment, ethics, visionary thinking and so on. The second chapter delves into Mr Gopalakrishnan’s role as the custodian of the innovation spirit in the Tata Group — possibly the only group to have developed a group-wide focus on innovation. I was looking for some metric of the sort of Product Vitality Index [developed by 3M to measure what percentage of sales comes from products that are less than five years old], and I did discover the ‘Innometer’ that Tatas use to measure the innovativeness of individual companies.

The third chapter deals with the concept of ‘Trusteeship’; you will get to meet some interesting personalities including Swami Vivekananda in this chapter. The concept of Conscious Capitalism is now being touted in the West as a cure-all, Mr Gopalakrishnan points out that this is a concept that has been alive and well in India for long.

In the second half of the book, the author starts addressing some larger socio-economic issues. In the chapter titled provocatively as ‘The #ETu Movement’, he addresses the challenges of giving up control and anointing a successor. Most Indian companies are family controlled and Mr Gopalakrishnan has some worthy advice for a person taking over as a CEO of an Indian [family owned] company. The first advice says ‘don’t criticize the predecessor’; the second is about ‘setting the right expectations with the promoters’. I will let you discover the other three in the book.

The book then moves on to what I would call larger topics. The chapter on ‘Little India’ shows Mr Gopalakrishnan’s passion for the neglected India that lives in the villages — how can corporates and government unleash the power that is residing in ‘Little India’? I was surprised to read that West Bengal has some of the best land revenue collection records in the country [interestingly, they also have some of the best CCTV based traffic policing]. Mr Gopalakrishnan suggests that policies should drive towards collecting more land revenue, but letting ‘Little India’ decide and spend it at the local level.

Having worked in large corporates that sell their products through the length and breadth of the country, with factories located in remote regions, Mr Gopalakrishan brings a deep understanding of the challenges being faced by the unserved India. His exposure to agriculture products enables him to do a deep dive into the crisis being faced in agriculture in chapter seven. This chapter consists of 10 recommendations for policy makers. All of them make eminent sense but I really loved the idea of connecting the 20 million progressive farmers through a digitally led transformative road; along the lines of China’s ‘Taobao’.

The last three chapters deal with reforming the Indian justice system, building a stronger entrepreneurial orientation and the roles of the nation, society and business enterprise.

The book is a very easy read at less than 200 pages; and I suspect we will be reading a lot more from Mr Gopalakrishnan on some of the topics he has touched upon here. That said, the book raises many important issues and should be recommended reading for policy makers and business leaders — young and old. Given the pace of the book, you will be left with no time to do your own doodles on the margin.

Ambi Parameswaran
 is an independent brand strategist and the founder of brand-building.com; his last book ‘SPONGE – Leadership Lessons’ examined how we can become better leaders through the SPONGE Process of Learning.