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  • Published 29.06.07

Penguin, Rs 450

The title, The Case of the Bonsai Manager, at first blush, suggests a Perry Mason whodunit. The author quickly clarifies that it is, in fact, about how not to become like a stunted bonsai and grow to your full potential as a manager. But, on final analysis, it is a book about leadership, and a powerful one at that.

R. Gopalakrishnan deploys a wondrous array of examples and analogies not just from nature but also from science, business, mythology, culture, society, history, economics, politics, religion (the list is really quite impressive) and his personal experiences of forty years in the transformation of two of India’s greatest corporations— Hindustan Lever Limited and the Tata Group.

For example, in just one of the sixteen chapters, he begins with the Australian ecosystem then goes on to Dubai’s economy, the primitive societies of Shoshone in North America and the Kung San in the African Kalahari, Joseph Stiglitz and “resource-cursed” economies, Singapore’s approach to risk relative to the US, crowd management at the Kumbh Mela, a family visit to Disneyland, the introduction of TV into Bhutan, and Philippine professor Caesar Saloma’s experiments with panicky mice, with lessons from Samuel Johnson, C.K. Prahalad, Gandhi and John F. Kennedy sprinkled across for good measure! While the book is obviously much more than these examples, their abundance and sheer diversity not only show the amazing depth and breadth of the author’s experience and thinking, but also whet the reader’s appetite and make The Case of the Bonsai Manager a page-turner.

The author begins by making the case for why intuition must become a necessary complement to analyses in managerial decision-making. Though he falls shy of clearly stating it, he hints that intuition should, in fact, rule over analyses in making the big bets. Most of the book then deals with how to develop your intuition and grow to your fullest potential as a leader. This is where this book really comes into its own.

Tomes have been written about leadership. Rarely do these writings capture the essence of a leader’s personal transformation from being a (potentially bonsai) manager to a leader. R. Gopalakrishnan has unwittingly written a book that is really about his own personal journey on the road to leadership. His lessons are really signposts to others on their own personal journeys. And these lessons go well-beyond developing intuition. They are about self-awareness and taking charge of your own growth and development to achieve your fullest potential. They are about feedback and coaching and mentoring. They are about broadening one’s perspective and ability to understand different contexts rather than just being stuck in the experiences of the past. And, they are about powerful leadership traits like humility, the ability to listen, caring for others, and being a human being first before being a manager. All of this is said in a style that connects, since it is a personal recounting of experiences and thinking rather than an interpretation of someone else’s.

The Case of the Bonsai Manager is path-breaking and timely in terms of management-thought leadership emanating from India. As in other fields, insightful business books and management-thinking have been hitherto dominated by writers from the West. R. Gopalakrishnan has bucked this trend in writing about a difficult topic in a way that demonstrates high-quality thinking both in terms of ideas and in their delivery. At the risk of sounding jingoistic and parochial, as India establishes her claim to become one of the world’s leading economies, it is important for Indian business leaders and management academics (from India) to make impactful contributions to management-thinking, in addition to what they are doing as professionals.

This book demonstrates that there is a rich set of experiences and thinking arising out of India that the world can benefit from. It is also timely as our companies today need more leaders than ever before.