Are Human Resources leaders the new future CEOs?

By Subash CV, Founder of Regal Unlimited & The “Get Coached” Podcast.

Can I ever be a CXO? A leader? What should I do to become one?

This doubt is inadvertently the longest-standing companion of ambitious HR leaders. However industrious or capable they might be, they always seem to be having this doubt nagging them. No one’s guess; the people around them have it too.

But do you think this thought troubled Mrs. Leena Nair, the newly appointed CEO of Chanel, pronounced shuh.nel, the top French luxury fashion house founded in 1910 that focuses on women’s ready-to-wear clothes, luxury goods, and accessories? Even as the corporate world celebrates the elevation of Leena Nair, she joins the exclusive club of Indian women leaders joining the community of high-profile leaders heading global brands.

A sneak peek into her professional life brings out a long list of surprises. Leena was an HR leader in Unilever and is now moving into a business leadership role. She has no prior experience in fashion or luxury goods since none of Unilever’s goods is in the ‘luxury’ category. She was the first Asian female, the youngest ever CHRO of Unilever and a Unilever Leadership Executive role member. A step back, she was a brilliant student, a gold medalist in MBA; nothing of the “college-dropout” to glory tales. She spent 30 long years in one company, which visibly did not go against her as she stepped out for a CEO role in another.

What wowed the world was her purpose, “… to ignite the human spark; to build a better business and a better world more human.”

Ah! The word human. Did it come from her HR roots?

The biggest crisis the world faces today is the transformational leadership gap, the need to look at people as people and not mere resources, as tools to complete tasks on time. Every problem around us, be it climate change, poverty, unemployment, the pandemic, all of it goes right back to one thing: a lack of committed transformational leadership.

Gangapriya Chakraverti, Managing Director, Ford India, in conversation with Subash CV on the “Get Coached” podcast

Leadership has become synonymous with myopic plans, agency, and vested interests, spreading its vicious tentacles into all areas of society, including business, corporate and not-for-profit. They seem to be replicating the wrong short-term gain-based transactional leadership model-for instance, our political leaders. The wise words of Simon Senek go thus: Politicians plan for the next elections; Political leaders prepare for the next generation. How many of our politicians can be considered devoted transformational leaders looking to uplift people who voted for them in blind faith?

Well, leadership was, is and will always be transformational. If it isn’t, it isn’t leadership.

Research says that HR leaders tend to have higher levels of tolerance and empathy in addition to their enterprising and gregarious nature. This makes a perfect combination to be a good leader, the kind we need today. Strategy and process arrangements can be made by anyone who has been in the industry and has adequate domain knowledge but that touch of humanity, let’s call it, a gift. This is what is making heads turn towards Leena Nair today.

Her Indian roots that exemplify unity, community living, an all-inclusive approach to everything in life, right from eating together as a family, studying and growing together in school and celebrating festivals as a society, will be her sources of inspiration, as goes the Vedic dictum, “Sahanavavatu, Sahanaubhunaktu, Sahaveeryam Karavavahai”, translating roughly to let us grow in strength together. This all-inclusive approach is the first step to transformational leadership, and to be honest, this is precisely what the western world admires Indians for.

Skim through a few more pages, and there are more similar stories. Ms Sudha Murthy (and she has been indeed an inspiration for me) just ‘logged out’ from the Infosys Foundation. Nykaa Falguni Nayar’s passion has been a ‘beauty’, and well, when it comes to Indra Nooyi, ‘Yeh Dil maange more. We are proud of several other women who are not in the limelight yet silently contribute substantially to their business and deftly balance their personal and professional lives.

Nature or Nurture?

Are such leaders born, or can these qualities be developed? Well, the good news is, these abilities can be developed with dedicated practice and perseverance.

L-E-A-D-E-R: The world needs more real leaders — leaders who are (being) and demonstrate (doing) Love quotient, empathy, a bias for Action, are Disciplined/driven for Excellence and are Results-oriented. Holding onto love quotient and empathy, along with other elements of leadership, the need of the hour is to lead from the heart and not from the head. Not to the direction from the ego-based head or the cognitive mind, but the affection from the heart. Honestly, easier said than done.

The world desperately yearns for “unconditional positive regard” (Carl Rogers). Why only unconditional positive regard? Couldn’t it extend to something more, something expansive and universal? That something is unconditional love — pure and spiritual. Unconditional love mediates ‘being’ at the confluence of Intelligence, emotions and the spiritual quotients. This is when humanity desperately needs holistic, transformational leadership that finds genesis in unconditional love.

Can we create such leaders? Leaders who live and love — unconditionally. What would it take to develop leaders who operate at #IQ2EQ2SQ? One who prioritizes the planet, people, profit in that order?

Is the leadership evolving?

Change is the only constant, they say. Like everything in this world, leadership too will have its course of evolution. Humans evolve, and so does human thought. It always helps to stay with the shift in this consciousness. While we are aware of the generational shifts, baby-boomer to gen Z, are we aligning our leadership with the change? Food for thought.

Who better knows this shift in human thought than HR leaders. Leadership is a choice, like everything else in life. People are back in focus, and HR leaders’ choices will most likely align with this shift. On the other hand, HR leaders will have to upskill, learn to look at the different elements of business, including operations, sales and marketing, while not losing their humane side. The sky is the limit for the HR leaders who are ready to make that effort. Leena Nair is one of the first. Refresh your news feed; more on the way.

Subash CV is the founder of Regal Unlimited, also the host of the Get Coached podcast — one of the world’s leading podcasts on leadership and coaching. Subash has 25 years of experience in corporate and business world, leading and mentoring. He has worked in different parts of India, and Middle East, in business leadership roles. As a leader, business owner and mentor coach, he has consistently created coach-centric workplaces MBA (1990), he completed leadership program at INSEAD (ILPSE 2012–2013). He is a Master Certified Coach (ICF) and a certified mentor coach (MCCP) He works with corporate leaders, self-employed professionals, entrepreneurs & others, One-to-One & teams. His clientele includes leading organizations and/or employees of Accenture, TCS, Times Group, Tata Motors, Himalaya Wellness, St. Gobain, Interphase, Armstrong, National Commercial Bank, Al Rajhi Bank, etc. He is a Facilitator, UNCTAD-Empretec. To know more about Subash CV, visit his LinkedIn profile here.

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Originally published at on December 28, 2021.



Leadership Coach, ICF Mentor Coach, Healer. Former Banker. Dog lover. Aspiring author. Used to be an aspiring singer.

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