R. Devarajan

It is relatively easy to identify and recognise good leaders, while it is difficult to define what constitutes good leadership. In this context the book under review, published by All India Management Association (AIMA), is a significant contribution to the literature. It is “a compilation of short personal narratives by iconic business leaders of their leadership beliefs and experiences…this book is an account of leadership experiences in the real world.”

Experience

Nine outstanding leaders have spelt out their perceptions of what is good leadership. The professional experience of each one of them per se is a lesson in leadership. Three of them viz., M.V. Subbiah, Adi Godrej, and Kumar Mangalam Birla were born into entrepreneurial families and succeeded to the corporate throne in due course of time.

Subbiah has been hailed as the ruthless turnaround expert in the family. A typical example was his first day as CEO at the EID-Parry office, which had been acquired by the group. While one elevator was kept empty and waiting for him, 37 employees were in the queue for using the other elevator – a sample of the colonial legacy of the British management. The system was scrapped the same afternoon.

Adi Godrej says, “My mother was my first and best mentor.” He is a firm believer in teamwork: “It takes two to tango.” Another paradigm close to his heart is that “The key lies in thinking about the future backwards, not the present forward.”

Kumar Mangalam Birla talks about five turning points in “our journey of transformation” — the first being the passing away of his father – “I was only 28…filling in the shoes of a legendary icon was a tough task…while learning is a continuous, life-long process, during major turning points, the intensity and force of learning takes a quantum leap.”

Among the others, N.R. Narayanamurthy is an iconic institution-builder. Along with six other like-minded founding fathers he established Infosys in 1981. “Take your work seriously, but do not take yourself too seriously”

Deepak Parekh is identified with the creation and growth of HDFC, which he did step by step. According to Parekh, “Leadership is all about moving ahead with two basic instruments — the compass and the clock. One which confirms the direction you are moving in and the other tells you how fast you will get there.”

Chanda Kochhar has emerged as an exemplary career woman, working her way up in ICICI, starting as a management trainee and rising up to the apex level. Her message is simple: “Leadership is best learnt experientially…by taking on challenges and seeking out opportunities.”

Raghav Bahl, despite his father advising him to join the IAS (like himself), decided to find a future in the fourth estate, where he has, now, become a media mogul. He says: “I believe that for organisations to grow, they must let people perform. When you give them space, they develop a sense of ownership.”

Tarun Das has spent all his life in creating federal associations of the chambers of commerce and industry in the country. His creed and faith are that failures are the stepping stones for success. Raghunath Mashelkar is an internationally acclaimed scientist. For over 11 years, he presided over — integrating and consolidating — the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the apex body controlling 40 laboratories. “I kept on making a conscious effort to awaken the scientist in an entrepreneur, and an entrepreneur in a scientist.”