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The leadership of elephants

M S Sriram 

HOW TO HELP AN ELEPHANT MAKE A U TURN
G K Jayaram
Maven (a Rupa imprint)

263 pages, Rs 500

One more book on leadership; one more model that tells us that times are changing - we live in a world of VUCAI (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and interdependence) and should instantly change; one more book that proposes a new framework of leadership; one more book that talks down to the reader; one more book that has all the "feel good" factors of leadership - systems thinking, inclusiveness and how leadership comes from within.

So what is different about this book? To start with, the narrative style. The author decides that he would have a conversation with the reader and, therefore, has a one-way interaction, peppered with comments that digress; he cracks poor jokes, admonishes himself and then moves on into the classroom. It is not only irritating, but also detracts from the arguments. And this conversational style is not even consistent through the book. If that were the case, it should not have had any trace of diagrams, arrows, boxes that are more conducive to a formal classroom and a whiteboard with a marker. In between, there is the digression of other voices of business leaders pontificating on a specific question under the "leaderspeak" head. These are interviews by the author, with specific questions and brief answers. The leaders concerned possibly do not know the context in which their quote will be used and are merely responding to the questions as they encounter them. Therefore, these leaders make embarrassing guest appearances in G K Jayaram's leadership class. All in all, the book is a mishmash of styles good enough to put the reader off.

Beyond these distractions, what does Mr Jayaram convey? The essence is this - we are living in a time of a revolution of rising expectations (RORE). Western societies have gone beyond RORE to a spiral of reduced expectations (SORE). Therefore, there "is a need to rejuvenate these societies and provide them with a sense of constructive purpose. Hope needs rebirth; and for that we need great leaders" (page 2).

Mr Jayaram argues that there is something called a transcendent leader - a leader who can connect to followers but also engage deeply with the immediate surroundings and the larger world to evolve vision, values and strategies. He argues that transformational leadership is a part of this. However, it is the transcendent leaders that create transformational change in the organisations (page xiv).

The transcendent leadership model is conceptualised as a "3+5" model. There are three layers of foundation - integrity/character, intensity/courage and intelligence + intuition = imagination (page 42). Standing on these foundational elements are five pillars of execution - self-awareness, empathy, interpersonal wisdom, our world (community wisdom), Transcendence (global wisdom). This is the mantap on which the rest of the arguments in the book are built. Mr Jayaram picks quotes from the leaders, examples to illustrate his point from both his personal experience and the global knowledge and fits them well into his argument. Following this, there is a step-by-step rollout plan for transformation, with more models identifying the pitfalls and speed breakers on the way and how the leaders can carry people along. He ends the book by providing a model on how transcendent leadership could be modelled in real life.

Although there are interesting questions that Mr Jayaram deals with in his book - the usual ones of whether leaders are born or can be trained, the question on whether integrity could be taught or is a value innate to people and so on - the answers to these are lost in the stylistic quagmire. For instance, on the issue of integrity he says, "… companies have leadership development academies where they 'teach' the code of conduct, but just as religions can vouchsafe and corporations concur, I am sure no one has yet invented a sure-fire way of inculcating integrity in every leader" (page 215). While this section does talk about organisational credos, and codes of conduct, which brings up organisational values that might dictate personal action, he throws it all away with this flippant conclusion: "From personal observation (I have no proof to adduce), I would like to conclude that integrity can be 'taught' 49 percent of the time, and the rest has to be learnt" (page 215).

Another irritating feature of the book is the number of acronyms used - RORE, SORE, VISTAR, YOCO, etc - without providing a referral list.

The book comes with some heavy endorsements, but as we have seen in the recent past, the heavier the endorsement, the more suspect the are turning out to be. I only wish that Mr Jayaram's book was a bit underwritten, more serious and looked at the reader as a thinking-reflecting individual than an argumentative Indian. He has converted something serious and profound into a chai pe charcha. It might be possible to have such a charcha with the author in person, but to use an inanimate book as a medium for a charcha is irritating and ill-advised.



The reviewer is with the Centre for Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore in Bengaluru
mssriram@gmail.com

First Published: Wed, June 10 2015. 21:25 IST
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