Leading from the Back – Kalaam’s Leadership Experience

“The idea is that leadership at its most fundamental is about moving people in a certain direction—usually through changing the direction of their thinking and their actions. And the way to do that is not necessarily by charging out front and saying, “Follow me,” but by empowering or pushing others to move forward ahead of you. It is through empowering others that we impart our own leadership or ideas. It is valuable in every arena of life.” – From the book ‘Mandela’s way’ by Richard Stengel

Leadership is about empowering others to move forward. How often do leaders embrace this in the real world? Are failures not often used as an opportunity to highlight the lack in others and success an opportunity to highlight the abundance in oneself?

When reading the above quote I was reminded of an incident that Abdul Kalaam refers to when he talks about how he learnt to handle failures.

In 1973 Kalaam was given the responsibility to put India’s ‘Rohini’ satellite into orbit by 1980. The launch date was August 1979. Journalists from all over the world were present at ISRO’s satellite launch range to record this great event. The air was pregnant with anticipation. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. But suddenly, four minutes before the launch, the computers started to send out warnings recommending that the launch should be aborted. The team was puzzled. Kalaam conferred with his experts who reassured him that there was no reason for concern. Kalaam made the fateful decision to bypass the computer and proceed with the launch. In the first stage, everything worked fine. But shortly after, the satellite plunged into the Bay of Bengal.

Kalaam had no time to deal with his own feelings; he had the difficult job to face the unforgiving press. Just as he was bracing himself for this ordeal, Prof. Satish Dhawan, Kalaam’s boss told Kalaam that he will conduct 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.

Kalaam was moved by two things – Dhawan’s willingness to take responsibility for the failure and also the immense trust that he had in Kalaam.

The next year, in July 1980, the satellite was successfully launched. The whole nation was jubilant. Again, there was a press conference. This time Prof. Dhawan asked Kalaam to conduct the press conference – Dhawan wanted Kalaam to be visible at the time of success.

Kalaam states that this was the most important management lesson that he has learned in his life – “How to lead from the back.”

What a life changing event in the life of a young man who went on to be one of the most impactful leaders that India has seen!

The leadership training programs conducted by MMM Training Solutions focuses on enhancing self-awareness and personal transformation. Great leaders have to be great human beings first!

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