Thursday, June 19, 2008

i-TFTD #131: APJ Abdul Kalam - A Leader Should Know How to Manage Failure

i-TFTD #131: APJ Abdul Kalam - A Leader Should Know How to Manage Failure

Below are excerpts from a short interview of the former President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam at The site also has the video. The example about how a leader should handle failure and success has been circulating via e-mail in the past few weeks. I find Kalam's views, humility and simplicity inspiring.

APJ Abdul Kalam: A Leader Should Know How to Manage Failure
Published: April 03, 2008 in India Knowledge@Wharton

I K@W: Since our publication is called Knowledge@Wharton, could you tell us something about knowledge?

Kalam: I've written a four-line, poem-like thing called "Creativity." It goes like this: "Learning gives creativity. Creativity leads to thinking. Thinking provides knowledge. Knowledge makes you great." I have made at least a million children repeat these lines. I am very happy that Wharton has created Knowledge@Wharton; it's a beautiful idea.

I K@W: After studying aeronautics at the Madras Institute of Technology, you were one of India's top scientists at the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and then at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). You helped launch several successful missiles, which led to your getting the nickname, "Missile Man." What challenges were involved in getting this program going and leading it successfully?

Kalam: I worked for ISRO for about 20 years. My team and I worked to put India's first satellite into space. Then our team took up the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program. These were youthful teams that worked with me, and they have gone on to take up much larger projects. These in turn have led to great value addition in areas such as technology, infrastructure and, above all, human resources.

One of the important lessons I learned in the space and missile program was not just how to handle success but how to deal with failure. Wharton is in the management environment. I would like young people to understand how they should manage failure. In any project you take up, you will face problems. These problems should not become the captain of the project chief; the project chief should be the captain of the problems and defeat the problems.

I K@W: Could you give an example, from your own experience, of how leaders should manage failure?

Kalam: Let me tell you about my experience. In 1973 I became the project director of India's satellite launch vehicle program, commonly called the SLV-3. Our goal was to put India's "Rohini" satellite into orbit by 1980. I was given funds and human resources -- but was told clearly that by 1980 we had to launch the satellite into space. Thousands of people worked together in scientific and technical teams towards that goal.

By 1979 -- I think the month was August -- we thought we were ready. As the project director, I went to the control center for the launch. At four minutes before the satellite launch, the computer began to go through the checklist of items that needed to be checked. One minute later, the computer program put the launch on hold; the display showed that some control components were not in order. My experts -- I had four or five of them with me -- told me not to worry; they had done their calculations and there was enough reserve fuel. So I bypassed the computer, switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage, everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed. Instead of the satellite going into orbit, the whole rocket system plunged into the Bay of Bengal. It was a big failure.

That day, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, Prof. Satish Dhawan, had called a press conference. The launch was at 7:00 am, and the press conference -- where journalists from around the world were present -- was at 7:45 am at ISRO's satellite launch range in Sriharikota [in Andhra Pradesh in southern India]. Prof. Dhawan, the leader of the organization, conducted the press conference himself. He took responsibility for the failure -- he said that the team had worked very hard, but that it needed more technological support. He assured the media that in another year, the team would definitely succeed. Now, I was the project director, and it was my failure, but instead, he took responsibility for the failure as chairman of the organization.

The next year, in July 1980, we tried again to launch the satellite -- and this time we succeeded. The whole nation was jubilant. Again, there was a press conference. Prof. Dhawan called me aside and told me, "You conduct the press conference today."

I learned a very important lesson that day. When failure occurred, the leader of the organization owned that failure. When success came, he gave it to his team. The best management lesson I have learned did not come to me from reading a book; it came from that experience.

India Knowledge@Wharton: That is a great story; thank you for sharing it.

Kalam: Continuing further with the six traits, the fourth trait is that the leader should have the courage to make decisions. Fifth, the leader should have nobility in management. Every action of the leader should be transparent. And finally, the leader should work with integrity and succeed with integrity.

I K@W: One last question -- you are a gifted poet. Could you please recite some lines of your favorite poem?

Kalam: My favorite poem is "The Vision." I recited it in Parliament, and I will recite it for you.

I climbed and climbed
Where is the peak, my Lord?
I ploughed and ploughed,
Where is the knowledge treasure, my Lord?
I sailed and sailed,
Where is the island of peace, my Lord?
Almighty, bless my nation
With vision and sweat resulting into happiness.


    Total Comments: 10

    #7 What Kalam Taught Me
    By: Kalpathy Balan, KNPC
    Sent: 12:06 PM Thu May.01.2008 - KW

    It was sometime in early 1975. I was a young engineer in ISRO in the Sriharikota projects. I had occasion to meet Mr. Kalam then as he was the project director for SLV. I had gone along with a senior to meet him. It was a short meeting. I was young and brimming with confidence.

    At the end of the meeting Mr. Kalam suggested that I read up on some of the technical journals in aeronautics and space research. Many months after the meeting I had the opportunity to update my knowledge by reading the articles he had suggested and I found that my views were changing.

    Looking back, I feel that Mr. Kalam could have easily said to my face that I was wrong in my technical analysis and grasp of the problem. But he chose to guide me instead to learn by myself and arrive at the correct approach. This way he did not hurt my ego and taught me a lesson which I treasure. This was the first glimpse of his greatness that I saw.

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