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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dr. Abdul J Kalam: A Role Model for Leaders of Research Establishments

What a glorious exit! He loved mentoring youngsters, in its pursuit could even walk for miles and miles… spend hours and hours with them …  teaching, sharing his experiences with some of the India’s greatest scientists like Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Dr. Satish Dhawan… and happily transmit what he learnt from them to the upcoming youth … just to impress on them how to locate their own strengths and use it to turn out innovative products that would do good for the country … and ultimately while delivering one such talk to the students of IIM Shillong in the evening of 27th July, Dr Kalam slumped down like, to borrow his own quote from a lecture in Cambridge University: “a flower that generously gives all its fragrance and honey… freely out of its love and falls quietly”,  perhaps of being tired of his mission or his heart tired of pumping blood to his mission or of sudden cardiac arrest, and bid adieu to his buddies….and his mission in India.  

The nation knows that it was Dr. Kalam (that is how he loved to be called) who gave India its satellite launch vehicles (SLV-3), its integrated guided missiles (Agni, Prithvi), besides making India a nuclear weapon state by playing a crucial role in the Pokhran-II nuclear tests. And what an amazing journey! It all started from a very humble origin in Rameswaram from where he carved his own destiny either to become an iconic scientist, often dubbed by the media as the ‘Missile Man’ or to become the President of India, again labeled by the media as the ‘People’s President’.

Then the obvious question is: what was the secret behind his amazing accomplishments? As a scientist, yes, we know how he steered himself to greater heights. First thing first: In the early 1970s he had been picked up by Dr. Dhawan, Chairman, ISRO to work as the project director of SLV with the sole mission of coming up with a launch vehicle to put Rohini satellite in the space. Now, it is worth recalling here what Dhawan said, “We believe in your capacity, we believe in your team-building capacity and above all the knowledge required you can assemble and integrate …”

In 1979, ISRO did launch the test flight of SLV-III, but it was a big failure. Taking the responsibility for the failure of the mission, Dr. Kalam had asked to be relieved from the mission, which of course was turned down. Then, a couple of days after that failure, he started meeting the project team in groups and encouraged them saying, “we have much to learn from the failure”. He invited every member to come forward to discuss what they had learnt from the failure, assuring  that nothing of that would go into official files. Secondly, he also warned that if discussions veered round to blaming other groups, the meeting would be called off. Importantly, when many suggestions were made for reconstituting the teams, he simply said no and that would happen only when he was removed from his position as the Director. And this simple faith of the Director in his team ultimately enabled him to come up with a new vehicle and launch it successfully within a year, i.e., in July 1980.

As a scientist he knew where his heart was: While working in ISRO on SLV-3 project, he
harbored a strong desire to convert the SLV-3 into a missile. To quote him from his book, “I carried out an analysis of the application of SLV-3 and its variants with Sivathanu Pillai, and compared the existing launch vehicles of the world for missile applications. We established that the SLV-3 solid rocket systems would meet the national requirements of payload delivery vehicles for short and intermediary ranges (4000 km). We contended that the development of one additional solid booster of 1.8 m diameter with 36 tonnes of propellant along with SLV-3 subsystems would meet the ICBM requirement (above 5500 km for a 1000 kg pay load).”  But Dr. Dhawan was not interested in pursuing it, for such a diversion might affect the international cooperation that ISRO had with many countries. But Dr. Kalam was not a man to give it up that easily. So he sent a handwritten letter to Dr. Dhawan saying, “My heart is on missiles and I want to go.” Knowing this, Dr. Arunachalam , Chairman, AEC, pulling up strings in Delhi, got Dr. Kalam to DRDO and the rest is history.

From such experiences of Dr. Kalam that he often shared across platforms, we can infer certain dictums that could perhaps make the leader’s role successful in managing scientific institutes:
  • Own the failure
  • Pass on the success to the team
  • Trust the team
  • Encourage failure but ask team members as to what they learnt out of it
  • Never allow cross-blaming for failures in the team
  • Give space to team members to express
  • Listen to their presentations
  • Acknowledge the good in it
  • Challenge their wit
  • Work and nudge them to work
  • Mentor the team
  • Know where your interests are
  • Have courage to take decisions
  • Be noble in your management of people
  • Be transparent

No doubt these dictums appear pretty simple, but bear with me, they are very difficult to practice unless one is willing to burn like the Sun—like Dr. Kalam did—to become a successful leader.  Nonetheless, that is the only way the research establishments in the country could pay their respect to that humble leader, Dr. Kalam. 

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