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APJ Abdul Kalam: Humility in Leadership

Calling my mother in Amritsar from Washington DC yesterday, I received sad news: India’s former president, APJ Abdul Kalam, had collapsed while giving a talk to students at IIM Shillong, and passed away soon after.

My thoughts immediately went back to when I heard him speak at Georgetown University in 2010. After a long weekend and a few nights working to send off a client deliverable in the early afternoon, I told my boss I was heading out. My body cried out for rest, but my heart knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Dr. Kalam was speaking at the McDonough School of Business as part of its Distinguished Leaders Series.

And I was not mistaken. Now, five years later, it’s true that the details are hazy. (Though somewhere in my apartment are copious handwritten notes of what he said.) But what I recall clearly—because it came through every pore of this immensely smart, accomplished, successful man—was humility. That’s not a value we typically associate with leadership or success. Except perhaps Robert Greenleaf’s concept of Servant Leadership which, unfortunately, is not something one sees in practice much in either the East or the West.

There he was, not preened and polished, just himself, with his long white hair curling at his neck and forehead. Looking more grandfatherly than presidential, especially when he smiled. He spoke about four aspects of leadership, and gave examples of each from people he had encountered and learned from, in his unique self-effacing, humorous style.

I remember Dr. Kalam’s account of a mission at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) when the team he was part of first tried to launch a satellite, and failed. He described how his boss calmly stepped into the sea of cameras and microphones and took responsibility for the failure. Later, the team tried again, and succeeded. This time, his boss announced that the team was responsible for the successful launch. This, said Dr. Kalam, was a critical quality of leadership: sharing credit for success, taking responsibility for failure. And he modeled this behavior even in his talk: though he had plenty of instances to describe his own leadership, he chose instead to share stories of people he admired—his teacher in school, his boss.

In a world where it is becoming more and more acceptable for successful and powerful people to be nasty and rude, APJ Abdul Kalam is an ideal of leadership I hold on to.

This was a leader: brilliant yet humble. A rarity who lived simply but dreamed big. An inspiring visionary with a sense of humor. A lifelong learner who generously shared what he had learnt. One among many stories of his approachability is that he gave out his email address to students after talks… and then actually replied to their questions. No wonder that the United Nations declared his birthday, October 15, as World Students Day, in 2010.

He wore many hats—scientist, president, writer, poet, head of India’s missile program—but wanted to be remembered as a teacher. Another leadership lesson few leaders understand well—that a critical part of their job is to develop and empower their subordinates and teach others to lead.

He was called “The People’s President” because he saw that leadership is about people, about inspiring and connecting with others. And he did so with no motives of personal gain. His integrity and authenticity shone through.

While Dr. Kalam’s life can serve as a model to anyone, the best tribute my compatriots and I can pay him is to incorporate the principles we so admired in him into our own lives. In how we interact with others, how we inspire and support, how we lead, and how we dream. And in doing so, we can take our country to the heights he envisioned.

Kalam ko mera salaam! (I salute you, Kalam!)

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