Ravi Chaudhry is a thorough gentleman. He is brave and well-meaning. His heart goes out to the deprived and he wants to improve their lot in the world by changing it. So did the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha.
In Quest for Exceptional Leadership Mr Chaudhry seeks to change the world by transforming business leaders. Leadership follows the description Keynes gave for economics: “An easy subject, at which few excel.” Mr Chaudhry’s book, unfortunately, is unlikely to improve the odds.
As a provider of strategic advisory services to CEOs, Mr Chaudhry has spent a lifetime observing corporate chieftains at close quarters and the picture he paints is not pretty. “A majority of corporate CEOs tend to sacrifice their own company’s long-term value to meet short-term targets”; “… in politics or in business … it is chic to resort to unethical practices”; “… nominated heads of large enterprises … are willing to ruthlessly thwart any attempts that could dilute their clout or control. They think they have an immutable entitlement to reshuffle reality and bend or twist anyone or anything that comes in their way”.
While much of this may ring true, beyond a point Mr Chaudhry starts sounding like a modern-day Jeremiah who sees conspiracy and doom everywhere. “In any government anywhere in the world today, the economic agenda … is invariably dominated by large corporations that prevail upon the state to do their bidding.” His view of history, built from reading tracts like When Corporations Rule the World and Corporation Nation: How Corporations Are Taking Over Our Lives can also be similarly angled. For instance, he writes: “The birth of the United States was itself the result of a rebellion against corporations, which had been deployed as instruments of abusive power by British kings.” Similarly, his five-phase depiction of the evolution of Human Enterprise – starting with Strong Fish eating Weak Fish (from the beginning of recorded history till the 17th century) and culminating with Realistic Fish eating Unrealistic Fish (beginning now) – is amusing but hardly credible. What he calls Leadership Lessons from History are actually his summaries on the leadership principles contained in the works of Ptahhotep, Patanjali, Lao-Tzu, Plato, Kautilya and Machiavelli. His inference that Plato was a champion of democracy and his excoriation of Machiavelli force one to question the depth of Mr Chaudhry’s study of those thinkers on his list who are not Indian.
Like any self-respecting prophet, Mr Chaudhry also holds out heavenly hopes if his prescriptions are followed. To make his picture of paradise appear different from other panacea-peddlers, he concocts an unending series of acronyms and re-brands existing bandwagons before boarding them. For instance, according to him, CSR needs to be turbo-charged to aim for ISR (Individual Social Responsibility), Triple Bottom Line must be extended to become Triple Top Line, NGOs should elevate themselves into IPCs (Institutions to Promote Consciousness), MBAs must aim to be MBCs (Masters in Business with Conscience) and even the prosaic 360-view must expand to the 720-view favoured by the geometrically challenged. Unlike the prophets of old, who made plutocratic entry into paradise problematic, Mr Chaudhry adopts the pragmatic Indian approach which gives rich donors privileged access to darshan. His “firm conviction” about having a two-tier society, which freezes the division between today’s “haves” and “have-nots”, appears in the Epilogue: “The planet has enough resources to enable today’s rich … to continue to maintain their current lifestyles … and all the rest to live decent, happy lives with enough to eat and a roof over their head ….” Aspiring Antilla builders can breathe easy if the revolution is led by Mr Chaudhry.
The path to Exceptional Leadership charted by Mr Chaudhry demands three physical traits (intelligence, energy and professional will), three mind traits (realistic visionary, transactional skill and perseverance) and, at the apex, three traits of the heart (wholeness, compassion and transparency). Mr Chaudhry doesn’t pause too long over the physical and mind traits. His heart is in the traits of the heart and he devotes a chapter each to all three. These chapters contain some of the most turgid and repetitious parts of the book where it is difficult to spot the text for the quotes. It is obvious that Mr Chaudhry is an ardent devotee of Swami Chinmayananda, a great admirer of the Dalai Lama and an insatiable devourer of books written by Ervin László, Sogyal Rinpoche and their ilk. Readers who don’t share these tastes might find these chapters heavy going.
As far as learning about exceptional leadership from this book is concerned, one is inclined to agree with the shepherd from Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist who Mr Chaudhry quotes as saying: “I usually learn more from my sheep than from my books.” But if we lay aside the “impossible dream” of converting most CEOs into exceptional leaders, there are numerous factoids and references in Quest for Exceptional Leadership that are both instructive and worth exploring further. In this regard, the industriously compiled notes section is as useful as the text of the book itself. They are both indicative of the earnestness of Mr Chaudhry’s quest for creating a better corporate world. Don Quixote didn’t manage to change the world but the world would be poorer if people like him didn’t try.
The reviewer is CEO, Banner Global Consulting
QUEST FOR EXCEPTIONAL LEADERSHIP
Mirage to Reality
Sage Publications 2011
286 pages; Rs 375