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What They Don’t Teach You In...

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I connected with this book instantly, mainly for two reasons. First, I have always propagated the idea that leaders go around with a permanent ‘L' board, where they have consciously framed their system to intuitively learn from every experience. Second, one of the frameworks used in When The Penny Drops, authored by R. Gopalakrishnan is from the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), which has helped us at immensely as we continue striving towards our oxymoronic goal of building a nation of leaders.

This is an unusual management book. For one, this is not about those famous people and their remarkable journeys; it is about a few ordinary people. But the lessons that emerge from them are, in fact, extraordinary or as remarkable as the experiences of any of the greats. Second, this book is not about a specific management model that could be applied to organisations or even individuals. It revolves around a few stories and anecdotes. But these simple accounts produce a marvellous impact as they trigger reflections on events in our own lives. As former chief executive of  IT behemoth TCS, S. Ramadorai, comments: "This is the kind of book that holds a mirror up to us. It does so by inviting the reader into the lives of real people and real experiences."

This book is built on the foundation that from the beginning of human settlements, a majority of our learning has been through our own experiences and the stories of others, rather than through any formal training or classroom. In fact, even after humans have reached the top of the evolutionary curve, and even after we have developed some of the most advanced learning mechanisms, just under 3 per cent of leadership development occurs through formal ways. It has been empirically proven that our obsession with stories and movies have to do with this experiential learning syndrome — an experience told in a story format that could prove valuable to us through the ups and downs of our lives.

That said, mostly, we live our lives like zombies. We do not think or reflect on the experiences that we go through. Every day of our lives offers a million of them, but how many of us really take time to ponder over the larger lessons they offer? Ironically, most of us get to the reflection stage, when we are at the fag end of our journey — when this wisdom is least useful. Gopalakrishnan encourages you to reflect on yourself. Now, not later. The book helps you learn by identifying success mantras embedded in you and releasing lessons that might be trapped in you.

In fact, the book enables self-reflection even without making too huge claims about its objective. As Gopalakrishnan says, "Can this book substitute experience? Can it make manager prodigies who behave at 35 with the maturity of a 50-year-old? Certainly not. That is not the intent or the likely outcome. At best, it can advance by a few years the rate of learning of the practicing manager. With that limited goal, I offer this book to the reader."

At the same time, the book is not just a few stories woven together. It has several powerful lessons to offer. Using the framework of the Tata Management Training Centre and CCL, the author explores three worlds of the manager — the inner world, the world of relationships and the world of getting things done. He delves into the importance of emotional quotient to progress as well as intelligence to get ahead in your career. The book also talks about learning disabilities, or "bonsai traps", in the case of leaders and organisations, and how to overcome them.

Gopalakrishnan is, arguably, the most eligible person to write such a book, courtesy the wealth of experience he carries. He has been a professional manager for 43 years; 31 years in Unilever and 12 years in Tata — both corporations considered to be alma mater of management practice itself. He has been immensely successful in what he does. At Unilever, he was the chairman of the Arabian subsidiary and managing director of Brookebond Lipton India. He was the vice-chairman of Hindustan Lever at the time of his move to Tata Sons. In short, this book makes a good read for anyone who wants to learn and apply — anywhere, anyhow.

Author's Details
R. Gopalakrishnan
is the executive director of Tata Sons. He also serves on the boards of several other companies. He has lived and worked in India, the UK and Saudi Arabia. He worked at Hindustan Unilever for the first 31 years of his career. He studied physics at Calcutta University and engineering at IIT Kharagpur. The Case Of The Bonsai Manager (2007) was his first book.

Varghese runs leadership consultancy LeadCap and is the author of Open Source Leader: The Future Of Organizations And Leadership

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 27-12-2010)

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