Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The first responsibility of the leader is to define what can be.
The last is to say thank you.
In between the two, the leader must become a servant and debtor.

- Max DePree

Being a leader is not about making yourself more powerful.
It's about making people around you more powerful.

- Betty Linton

If you tell people the destination, but not how to get there,
you'll be amazed at the results.

- George Patton

Sunday, September 21, 2008


I was returning from leave, and was travelling by train in an AC 2 Tier compartment from Delhi to Coimbatore. Fortunately during this nearly 2 day journey, I had the company of an army Colonel from the Corps of EME. We got talking during the journey and the topic turned to leadership at one point. The other gentleman narrated a first hand account of what he considered to be good leadership. This gentleman, let's call him 'A', was commanding an EME workshop in the Siliguri region and the Corps Commander in that region was General Gill. This is what he had to say about Gen. Gill and his leadership, in brief......

One day a jawan was marched up to 'A' by the JCO (a middle manager), who mentioned that this driver had just had an accident with the Corps Commander's jeep in the hilly region North of Siliguri. This put 'A' in a very tight spot - firstly an accident, and that too with the Corps Commander. 'A' said that he did not know how to react to this news, and what further course of action to follow, when suddenly the phone rang. 'A' picked it up and there was General Gill on the other side. Gen. Gill told 'A' that one of A's drivers had had an accident with his jeep and that Gen. Gill had already admonished him and that the Commanding Officer need not take any further action, as it was just a genuine error on the part of the driver who was new to the hill driving. This call relieved 'A' of the need to take any further action.

What had happened was that while taking a turn in the hills, this driver had taken a slightly wide turn around a blind corner and had hit the General's jeep coming from the opposite direction. The General had called this driver and told him to drive carefully in the hills, specially around blind corners, and then let him go with a warning to drive carefully and by the rules, especially in the hills. This driver came back and gave this information to his JCO, who marched him up to the CO. Hitting the General's vehicle is not one of the normal things to do in the army. It is considered serious by every one around.

The General was known in the army circles as one of the finest leaders. After this incident, he took the time to think through of what the sequence of events would be when this jawan reported this incident to his superiors. He realised that the driver would be marched up to his Commanding Officer (CO), and the CO would have no option but to investigate the matter, and thereafter punish the driver. He realised that his intervention could save the driver, and the unit a lot of unnecessary trouble by just one phone call. He felt that this was not a violation, but a genuine error on the part of the driver. In addition, he felt that the driver would never forget the vital lesson that he had learnt about hill driving through this incident. The General then made this phone call to the CO.

The General could have forgotten about the whole episode after the event or could have delegated this task of informing this incident to the unit concerned through his subordinate staff. He neither delegated nor forgot about the incident because he felt that it was important to prevent a genuine learning error from being punished. Also, his call stopped the unit from wasting time on unnecessary initiation and conduct of disciplinary proceedings and put everyone involved at ease.

Good leadership looks at the macro picture, and permits genuine errors by turning them into learning opportunities, because good leaders believe that 'to err is human' and that genuine errors are the best teachers. Good leadership does not punish genuine errors and also takes the time to ensure that these are not punished anywhere in their organisations.

People are the finest assets of any good leader and a good leader values each and every person in the organisation, irrespective of level - from the lowest to the highest. These traits of a leader help organisations develop a strong culture and bonding - morale in the defence forces.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


A young fighter pilot, a jilted lover, committed suicide by diving his MIG-21 into the ground, so they said. A Court of Inquiry is in progress to find out the cause of the accident. One of my squadron officer's, S, is called by the court for a statement. S gives his statement and on being questioned tells the court that their questioning would drive him to do the same as the other young officer.

I am called by my boss and told "If I were in your position, I would stop S from flying". Was that a hint?

I stop S's flying with immediate effect, realising that S must be under stress after such a mishap. Life continues, and so does the court.

A few days later I have S walk into my office, he gives me a smart salute and with a very stern look on his face asks me, "When do I start flying?" I look him in the eye from behind my desk, and unthinkingly without batting an eyelid, respond, "The day I see a smile on your face, S". S bursts into a broad smile, like a young kid who has been given his toy back after a punishment.

I call the flight commander and ask him to put S on the flying programme for the next day. I was aware of the enormous risk I was taking, specially after the big, and not so subtle hint, given to me by my boss. Next day, I cross my toes and my fingers and wait for S to go to the aircraft. He goes up in the sky..... and comes back safely, and signs 'DCO' (Duty Carried Out) in the authorisation book. I now find time to uncross my fingers and toes.

God has been with me. My faith and trust in S has not been unfounded. I loved S for confronting me with his 'right to fly', but I loved him even more for living upto the trust that I had placed in him. I had risked my career on this one move. Leadership never comes without risk.

Uncharted territory is always risky, and it is the leader's duty to tread on it, even though he has nothing to gain from it personally, but a lot to gain for his follower and the organisation which he serves. Leadership, they say, is not for the weak hearted.

Friday, September 5, 2008


The pre-requisite to become a good leader is to be a good follower. This is a fact that confuses many people. However, this is absolutely true. How and why? A good leader always 'walks the talk'. I am sure no one has any doubts on this aspect. In case this is true then the only way that the leader can walk the talk would be by following all the rules that he lays down, because if he does not do so nobody else will take the rules seriously. So, he has to be a good follower. This realisation came to me when I was put in a leadership postion. I realised that I had to follow all the rules that I had laid down, whereas my subordinates could break some of the rules that they did not like/ agree with. I was thus the greatest follower of my own leadership. My leadership position also gave me an insight into the functioning of this universe.
I had always wondered as to why there was suffering in the world when God could eradicate it. Why did God not do it? On one occasion I was confronted with a similar problem. One of my subordinates whom I liked had gone against the orders and I was required to take action against him. My inner self did not want to take any action but my outer self wanted that action should be initiated against him, otherwise it would send a very wrong message to everyone else around. So, with a heavy heart I did the needful. I did not feel nice about it but had to do the right thing. God is probably in a similar position. He is just watching us do our part and we get the fruits of our karma. God does not intervene because even He is bound by his own rules. Once in a while, in exceptional circumstances, He grants His Grace. These are very rare occasions and only deserving cases can expect this - like the President can pardon a death sentence, but does so only in very rare cases. Even God is a great follower of his own rules and so should we, if we aspire to be good leaders.


What are the qualities of a good leader?

Leadership is always in a particular context. You could be placed in a leadership position in business, in military, in politics, or in an emergency situation. Every situation will demand a different set of qualities in a leader, in preference to another set. However, certain qualities are pretty much the same across the board, I believe.

Regarding the question - I believe the most important quality that a leader must have is 'Vision' - a vision that can encompass all those that follow, and more. The vision should be able to touch people's inner cravings and these cravings are, I believe, much larger than just one self. Gandhiji could inspire millions of people to give up violence and give themselves to lathi charges by the police, without retaliating. Humans crave for freedom and he could sense that yearning of people's souls and could provide leadership to reach this goal of freedom, and finally Indian independence. The next quality is the ‘ability to inspire’ by translating that vision – translation into something more practical for the followers. A translation of how the stated vision would help the followers satisfy that inner craving. Remember the ‘I have a dream……..’ speech by Martin Luther King. Barack Obama is today living that dream in U.S. politics. That was the inspirational context of Martin Luther King’s speech. He was also inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. Next quality is the ability to 'lead by example', which implies self belief, honesty and integrity. Finally, of course the leader has to have lots of empathy – a quality that helps the leader get to know the inner feelings and struggles of each of his followers.

Are people born as good leaders, or can good leaders be bred?

I do believe that there are some gifted, born leaders. However, there are an even larger number of people who transcend their own limitations and become really good leaders. To be a good leader, you first need to be a good follower. It is very important for a follower to find someone who can touch his soul, and then follow this person with a great amount of trust. When you can do this, you are right on track to becoming a good leader. Leadership qualities will be evident to you when you follow a good leader. And if you are a good follower, you will automatically imbibe the right qualities and internalize them. This is a process which takes time, the duration varying with how closely and truthfully you follow the leader. Good leaders are born but they become great by working towards meeting the aspirations of others. In NDA, we had a motto of ‘Service before Self’. Any officer who has lived up to this motto has always done himself, his service, and his followers proud, every time. As a leader, you need to put yourself last, and the dichotomy is, if you are a really good leader your followers will never let you be last.