As a business strategist and writer, R. Gopalakrishnan has devoted his work to studying ethics, leadership, and human capital. He began his 31-year-long career at Unilever’s massive, idealistic India business, and then became a board director at the even more massive and idealistic Tata Group, where he was head of Tata brand and strategy for almost 18 years. Along the way, Gopal (as he prefers to be called) developed the idea at the heart of his new book, Doodles on Leadership: Experiences Within and Beyond Tata. He says that business professionals, as they proceed through their career, rise through three levels of leadership: transactional, where they deliver functional results; corporate, where they coordinate functions; and holistic, where they engage fully, on behalf of the business, in addressing broadbased, long-range issues.
Recently, Gopal sat down with strategy+business to talk about his view of holistic leadership. To him, the goal of a leader should not just be to achieve results. It should be to create and shape an influential institution: a business as significant to its community as Tata has always been.
S+B: Your book’s core idea — that great leadership is “holistic,” which means it tackles difficult problems with strategic intent — suggests that executives in India and elsewhere have a huge potential for influencing society’s development.
GOPAL: Yes. Transactional leaders are concerned about technical issues. How are you going to manage functions like finance and marketing? At the corporate level, managers have to put all the pieces of an enterprise together when there are conflicts and tensions.
Then we get to the holistic level. The holistic leader asks, “How does my company fit into the society and the community, and with government?” In a project I’m involved with at Mumbai’s S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), we are studying the question: What is the holistic leader’s role? We believe he or she is the shaper of an institution that is an integral player in society.
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