Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Leadership of Elephants

How to Help an Elephant make a U Turn
GK Jayaram
Maven Books (A Rupa Imprint), 2015

pp.263. Price 500

One more book on leadership; one more model that tells us that times are changing –we live in a VUCAI (volatality, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and interdependence) world and how we 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 in the 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 conversation, peppered with comments that digress; he cracks poor jokes; admonishes himself, and then moves on into the class room. It is not only irritating, but also digressive from the arguments. And this style is not even consistent through the book. If it were so it should not have had any trace of diagrams, arrow marks, boxes; it is a conversation. These do appear, as the conversation moves from the sidelines over a cup of tea to a more 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 done by the author, with specific questions and brief answers. The leaders giving sound bites possibly do not know the context in which their quote would be used, and are just responding to the questions as they encounter them. Therefore, these leaders make embarrassing guest appearances in 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 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). “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” (p.2).

Jayaram argues that there is something called a transcendent leader – a leader who would connect to the 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 organizations (p.xiv).

The transcendent leadership model is conceptualized as a 3+5 model. There are three layers of foundation - integrity/character, intensity/courage and intelligence + intuition = imagination (p.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. Jayaram picks up 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 roll out 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 the transcendent leadership could be modelled in a real life.

While there are interesting questions that Jayaram deals with in his book – the usual questions of whether leaders are born or can be trained, the question on whether integrity could be taught or it is a value innate to people etc., 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” (p.215). While this section does talk about organizational credos, and codes of conduct, which brings up organizational 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” (p.215).

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

The book comes with some heavy endorsements, but as we have seen in the recent past, the heavier the endorsement, the more suspect books are turning out to be. I only wish that 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.

© M S Sriram |

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