Article: Giant legacies


Giant legacies

The true giants of thought leadership are the ones who provide shoulders on which succeeding generations can stand. Here are three ways in which such giants leave legacies in HR and living examples of each.
Giant legacies

Albert Einstein was born on 14 March 1079 in the town of Ulm in the Duchy of Swabia. A highly intelligent boy, he was apprenticed to the town clerk and finally became one himself. He died at the age of 76, having lived a fulfilling life, with no particular achievement to his name. 

The year of birth in the previous paragraph is not a typo and the absolutely relativity-free life of our Ersatz Einstein holds a lesson. An Einstein born before Newton and the other brilliant minds who preceded him may never have turned to science and, even if he did, E=mc2 would have remained far beyond his grasp. The reason is obvious. "Bernard of Chartres [who became Chancellor at the cathedral school of Chartres some forty years after our pretended Einstein’s birth] used to say that we are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants so that we are able to see more and further than they, not indeed by reason of the sharpness of our own vision or the height of our bodies, but because we are lifted up on high and raised aloft by the greatness of giants."1

Thought leadership in general demands we stand on the shoulders of innovators who have gone before. Thinking in HR is no exception. The essence of this debt was captured in the Hippocratic Oath this column had proposed for HR professionals: "I shall not forget the debt and respect I owe to those who have taught me and freely pass on the best of my learnings to those who work with me as well as through professional bodies, educational institutes or other means of dissemination." 2

This column describes the three main Legacies Of Giants (LOGs) that can be left by leaders, particularly in domains like HR that have a significant non-charismatic component within the leadership role. The first deals with fundamental shifts in thinking, pursuant to which the contours of that domain change permanently. This is the kind of redirection we associate with a Newton or an Einstein and, while HR is not amenable to such revolutions, we do have giants like Drucker, Deming, Hammer, Collins and Lawler who left the theory of organisations in a very different state from what it was before them. Next, we have the narrower but frequently more immediately impactful LOG paths created by personal irradiation. Most often these are uniquely influential mentors (at work or outside it), seniors or peers and, less frequently, even subordinates. Finally, there are the diffuse ripples through which we continually, if unknowingly, swim all the time. They come from what we read, are taught or pick up through professional interaction. In a sense, this LOG is analogous to gravity. Of the fundamental forces gravity might be the weakest but the number of ways it affects us and our behaviours is unimaginably great.

I shall illustrate each LOG by the examples of HR leaders it has been my privilege to know and from whom I have learned much. Of course, there are many other HR-masters who exemplify these LOGs too. Moreover, these are not the sole claims to fame of the exemplars I have picked. Quite apart from their many other prominent achievements, each of them has an enviable record in the other two LOGs. These were, however, the first names that sprang to my mind for each LOG and I hope you will agree with my pairing of person and prowess.

Revolutionary thinking

When Arun Maira was sent in the early ‘seventies to the giant and rapidly growing Telco (now Tata Motors) manufacturing plant in Pune, for heading most of its support services (including HR – though that wasn’t the nomenclature then), he was not quite thirty. That was rare in those days. What made it considerably rarer was the way he went about revolutionizing our thinking about people. Those were still days when Taylor was the thought 'Thalaivar' for managing manufacturing manpower (sorry, there were no women in factories then). Some of us considered ourselves very advanced for knowing the 3Ms (Mayo, Maslow and McGregor) but we were focused on the managerial portion of the employee pyramid. Arun applied the new Human Relations learnings to the large masses of workmen where it could have the largest impact. For instance, he took the opportunity of the three-year settlement to move away from the prevalent monetary incentive models that were easily susceptible to pressure and cheating. To the horror of traditionalists, payment for output was junked because it was subject to a series of supply and equipment-performance constraints, outside the control of operatives. In its place Arun designed rewards that tracked skill acquisition (both vertically and laterally), reinforcing the human desire to learn, besides meeting a crying need for our fast-growing operations. The concept doesn’t seem so revolutionary today, fifty years later, but it was then and may again become a rarity as aggregators and contractors move back to Taylorean piece rates. This was my first experience of Arun as a breakthrough thinker though succeeding years have seen even weightier thought leadership emerge from his prolific mind, much of it captured in the fifteen plus books he has authored. 

Thinking brilliant new concepts or applying those that have taken root in one field to another is necessary but not sufficient for creating a LOG. There are two other tests. 

If the concept, strategy or process proves its worth, it should be lasting. It need not become an unchangeable sacrament but further developments should emanate from it rather than demand a reversal of the flow. While we can sympathize with radical ideas (or greedy cats) that are brought to a dead end by 'malignant fate', we cannot honour them as LOGs. 3

Apart from durability over time, we have transmission across organisational boundaries which establishes the generalizability of the innovation. It was my good fortune to be in a position to design, launch and establish a Fast Track Programme in the first organisation where I held a corporate role.4  Much after I had moved on to another company, I was gratified to find that the process had not only been continued annually but had been 'sold' to other group companies as well.  

School for seagulls

"… Jonathan Seagull was born to be an instructor, and his own way of demonstrating love was to give something of the truth that he had seen to a gull who asked only a chance to see truth for himself."5  Richard Bach could have been describing Vivek Patwardhan when he wrote those words. Vivek has given wings to many seagull leaders, both within HR and outside it. With characteristic modesty, he allocates the patent for much of his impact to his own mentor, K Rajagopalachari. In doing so, he demonstrates a cardinal LOG principle: giants themselves need other giants’ shoulders to stand on. Asian Paints has punched far above its weight-class as a seagull school (I detest the word 'factory' for anything to do with building leaders of thought or people) and Vivek, as its longtime CHRO, attributes its success to both process and interaction style. As part of the process, potential leaders were exposed to roles that demanded dealing with strong opposition. The Plant Manager’s job was, thus, an invariable port of call for budding line and HR leaders, with union leaders providing counter centres of influence. Interaction style was an even more critical, if less effable, part of LOG transmission. Counter-intuitively, this did not imply simple exhortation, story-telling or other traditional ways of serving ready-cooked, right answers or culture-markers. At its heart was the art of asking deep questions and forcing potential leaders to puzzle over imponderables to extract unique solutions in ambiguous and uncertain situations. Through these series of deep questionings and conversations, the fibre of self-assurance and commitment to do what was fair was woven into the budding leader’s character. Vivek himself, for instance, refused to proceed with a termination he was ordered to execute because he felt the justification was inadequate. Credit to Rajagopalachari and the company that neither Vivek’s rating in the short term nor his storied career suffered any negative consequences as a result. A far cry from the pressure to compromise I faced in a far larger organisation at least equally reputed for its ethical probity.6 

The omni-seasonal reference at the end of the previous paragraph provides some rational heft to distinguishing between actions we should encourage ourselves to take, those we can resort to only 'in extremis' and those we should avoid even at the cost of evaluation or tenure. Unfortunately, rational thought is precisely the commodity in shortest supply at times of duress and conflict when loyalties and principles pull in different directions. It is at such times that LOG learning proves its worth. "What would P have done in this situation?" providing a heuristic that can save many hours of agonizing indecision. 

Times change and LOGs given by gurus would soon go out-of-date if they specified precise destinations. To remain viable they provide only vectors of what matters, how to weigh sacrifices and when, if at all, to give up. Gurus, significantly, don’t just provide meta-directions. They are frequently also master-tacticians from whom 'chelas' learn to figure out who matters in making complex change happen, how to access such persons and build coalitions of interest holders.

Wider ripples

Arvind Agrawal, a proven doyen of Indian HR, and T V Rao, the academic legend who partnered with him, created a double-distilled elixir with notes of LOG and inspiration delightfully blended. Their partnering should remind us that giants frequently stand shoulder to shoulder with other giants while providing platforms on which we can clamber. Their heady offering was 'Leaders in the Making: The Crucibles of: The Crucibles of Change-Makers in HR'.7 Like any good double-distillate, the Agrawal-Rao product took years of maturation. First, they distilled the life-lesson-LOGs of thirty HR legends who, between them, covered a vast swathe of India’s HR landscape of the last half-century. Then, using their own experiences, theoretical acumen and teaching skills, they redistilled these essences in a package that was eminently readable, relatable and relevant.  

Writing is perhaps the most lasting way of spreading LOGs widely. Yet there are other ripple-spreaders too. Teaching is among the most potent of these and blessed are those who can convey their legacies systematically in classrooms to receptive minds. The best of them leave more lasting imprints than books or standalone speeches can. Sometimes, those who have been there and done that don’t have the writing or teaching skills and the patience to share their legacies with neophytes. For them, participating in the deliberations and extended activities of professional bodies and industry associations provide alternative means of leaving lasting LOGs. Not so surprisingly, both T V Rao and Arvind Agrawal have been much-admired teachers as well as active builders of professional bodies for HR practitioners.


Not everyone can or should even try to leave a legacy. After all, if everyone made movies, who would watch them? The vast majority of us can have perfectly fulfilling and admirable careers using the legacies left by shining predecessors, without leaving our own.

Matters take an uglier turn when individuals choose to leave legacies but make their springboards the shoulders of tyrannical rather than benevolent giants. What’s the difference? Benevolent giants encourage freedom. Tyrannical ones enforce dogma. Those who choose to be dogsbodies for bullies, cannot hope to become LOG-lions.8  

Equally condemnable are the individuals who gain legitimacy by purporting to follow a giant’s LOGs while subverting those very principles. They count on the lack of direct knowledge others may have had of the true legacy-creator or on their short memories. Their devious tendency to suck the substance of a LOG and distort it, has been well described by Kipling:

It is His Disciple

(Ere Those Bones are dust)

Who shall change the Charter,

Who shall split the Trust —  

Amplify distinctions,

Rationalize the Claim;

Preaching that the Master

Would have done the same. 9

LOG directions in HR

It may be useful to conclude with a lay of the legacy-land of HR even if the sawing technique I use to divide HR’s lineage LOGs appears Procrustean at first glance. Ever since people have applied their minds to the nature of work in modern industry, two contrasting poles have emerged. The zeitgeist of thinking about people at work has tended to fluctuate between these. 

First off the block was the Scientific Management movement and the Trade Unions’ reaction to it. Unions, of course, long preceded Scientific Management but they remained the sole recourse of employees subjected to ruthless demands and the regimentation of a single best way of carrying out their tasks.10 The Theory X assumptions underlying this phase are that individuals are normally averse to work and must be threatened or incentivized do put in effort.11  The pressure to increase output and the countervailing resistance from unions led to repeated confrontations, conflicts and conflagrations. Despite its shortcomings, as a legacy, this thinking never fully vanished and has revived, particularly in managing the precariat. 

Partly in reactions to the X-rated opening show, came the more humane approach that we have referred to as 3M in a previous section (because three of its leading lights were Mayo, Maslow and McGregor). Their Theory Y premise was that people liked meaningful work which exercised their skills and helped realise their potential. Thinkers like W Edwards Deming also left a legacy that changed the manufacturing world forever.12  The Japanese borrowed "… the quality control methods of Deming and Juran – and, as is sometimes overlooked, management by objectives and other ideas from Drucker – and grafted them onto indigenous management methods to create a system which, for a time, amazed the world with its efficiency and effectiveness."13  This legacy continues too though, unfortunately, mainly tucked away between the covers of textbooks in HR. 

In the hard world of business 3M has been virtually squeezed out by a reversion to its predecessor, though now guised under the 'Shareholder is Supreme' brand. Gordon Gecko is the godfather of this rebirth and it has yielded huge pain/gain differentials, culminating in unheard of owner-like rewards at the apex, accompanied by precarity and ruthless emplocide for many lower down the pecking order.14  

Will management thought stop at this state of canine cannibalism? I am hopeful any such claim will be as misplaced a precursor to egg-on-face embarrassment as the predicted end of history.15  I am equally hopeful that we shall move back to the kinder thinking heralded by 3M, albeit to a more advanced version of it. I have elsewhere described the Y2D legacy the generation occupying positions of HR power should aspire to leave.16  That, however, is a hope and not a prediction. All I know is that with legacy-leavers like Maira, Patwardhan, Agrawal, Rao and the many who have climbed their shoulders, our future LOGs should be in safe hands. 


  1. John of Salisbury, (Trans J B Hall), Metalogicon, Brepols, 2013.
  2. Visty Banaji, A Hippocratic Oath for HR, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 497-502, AuthorsUpfront, 2023. 
  3. Thomas Gray, Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, The Poems of Thomas Gray, Forgotten Books, 2018,
  4. Visty Banaji, Fast Track to organisational Transformation, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 38-44, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  5. Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull: A Story, Turnstone Press, 1972.
  6. Visty Banaji, A Man (of HR) for All Seasons, People Matters, 10 May 2024, (
  7. Arvind Agrawal and T V Rao, Leaders in the Making: The Crucibles of: The Crucibles of Change-Makers in HR, Penguin Random House India, 2022.
  8. Visty Banaji, The Dogs of (Office) War, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 371-377, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  9. Rudyard Kipling, The Disciple, from Limits and Renewals, Miniature Masterpieces, 2019.
  10. Visty Banaji, Twinkle, Twinkle, Leadership Star, Can You Unlearn What You Are?, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 433-440, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  11. Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise, Annotated Edition, McGraw Hill Education, 2006.
  12. James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos, Machine That Changed The World, Simon & Schuster Ltd, 2007.
  13. Morgen Witzel, A History of Management Thought, Routledge, 2011.
  14. Visty Banaji, Countering the merchants of emplocide, People Matters, 10 February 2023, (
  15. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin Books, 2020.
  16. Visty Banaji, A Company Of People, By People and For People, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 534-541, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
Read full story

Topics: Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Solutions, Strategic HR, #HRCommunity

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?

Your opinion matters: Tell us how we're doing this quarter!

Selected Score :