Sthitipragnya Dash

Three Commandments of Engaging People

Sthitipragnya Dash

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On July 25, 2015, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam breathed his last at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Shillong,  doing what he loved to do, sharing his experiences with students. While his life was an inspiration to most Indians, his death sent a wave of grief across the nation. Twitter was abuzz with millions paying their homage to him; tweets using #KalamSir poured in from all parts of the country. July 30, 2015, when he was laid to rest in Rameshwaram with full state honours, thousands turned out from all over the country to join his funeral procession. Outside the Mohideen Aandavar mosque, when the last namaaz (prayer) was being read, Hindus and Muslims prayed together. As his coffin was being taken out of the mosque, the neighbourhood reverberated with the chants of Allah hu Akbar (God is great) and Dr Kalam ki Jai (long live Dr Kalam).

Such was the uniting influence of Kalam who was as comfortable with the Quran as the Bhagvad Gita. Love for him transcended the barriers of religion, class, and language. Everywhere he went, people thronged to listen to him. His call for modernizing agriculture found resonance with the rural India.  His vision of a developed India by the year 2020 found strong support base in the urban and educated. His austerity and humble bearings endeared him to the masses. Unlike any other president before him, he was the people’s president. And even after vacating office in 2007, he continued to engage large number of people with his ideas like ‘what I can give’ movement.

How did that come to be? How was he able to engage so many people with his ideas?

Analysis of anecdotes about him, shared by people whose lives he touched, indicate that his method of engaging people comprised three golden rules – respect everyone as equals, help people to achieve more, and value relationships.

Respect Everyone as Equals

While all the three rules are important, this one has an additional appeal in a country like India where it is not exactly a ‘standard practice’ for authority figures to go out of their way to treat commoners as equals. But Kalam was different and what better way to communicate it, than through his actions. Once he was invited as the guest of honour to preside over a convocation ceremony, and a large throne-like chair was placed specially for him on the dais. In all humilty, Kalam refused to sit on the throne-like chair when all other dignitaries were sitting on ordinary chairs. Instead, he requested the university’s Vice-Chancellor (VC) to sit on it, but the VC wouldn’t dare. Eventually, a new chair was brought which was of the same size as the other chairs on the stage. Kalam later explained that in a university, it is the VC who is the authority figure and even the presence of the President of India doesn’t change this fact. It might sound trivial, but small gestures like these make great men.

Dr Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, former Chairman of ISRO, who worked with Kalam, also narrated a similar incident in the Huffington Post.  Kalam invited Kasturirangan to the Rashtrapati Bhavan over dinner. And once again he put aside the seating protocol to ask Kasturirangan to sit at the head of the table. Kalam told Kasturirangan that as his guest, he was the most important person there. It didn’t matter that it was the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the person requesting Kasturirangan was India’s first citizen.

1-dbvnewscom - CopyHarish Sankar, who was in class seven when he interacted with Kalam, wrote on a Quora thread, ‘I made a collage of all published articles and photographs of Abdul Kalam and sent it to Rashtapathi Bhavan, Delhi. Guess what? The then President of India, replied to this silly student with a signed post, saying he was happy with my humble effort and as a student, asked me to work towards making India better.’ This was not an isolated incident either; thousands have talked about how Kalam waited patiently at events so that they could click pictures with him, how he went out of his way to shake hands with them, and how he met children and young adults in his personal chamber at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The more people heard about such gestures, the more they loved Kalam. They felt a connection with Kalam because these gestures were not part of a well thought out strategy suggested by an image consultant. If you just try to be seen as respectful of other people without actually respecting them, it shows. Most leaders fail here. Kalam did not need to make those gestures; he did not have any elections to win. He was just being himself. Being respectful and treating everyone as his equal was ingrained in his personality.

Help Others to Achieve More

A leader’s success depends on how well he creates avenues for others, around him, to succeed. And Kalam always did so without any expectation of reciprocation. During his stint as the Director of the Defense Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL), he opened the defense laboratories for doctors who had ideas for using defense technology to help their patients. With his support, Dr L Naredranath, then Director of NIMS and Dr BN Prasad, an orthopedic surgeon at NIMS, developed affordable lightweight orthopedic calipers. These calipers, made from lightweight material possibly used in the Agni missile, were 4kg lighter than the traditional metallic calipers. Kalam also helped Dr B Soma Raju to come up with India’s first fully indigenised and affordable coronary stent. Introduced in the markets in 1994, it led to reduction in prices of imported coronary stents in India by more than 50 percent.

2 pic - CopyIn all of his roles, as a scientist, as an administrator and as the President, he always strived to motivate people, through his actions and his words. At an inter-college tech fest, where he was mingling with all the participants, he saw an empty space and enquired about it. On being told by a senior professor that that space was empty because the project of the group occupying that space had failed, he calmly requested if he can have a demo of the failed project. The demo was promptly arranged and the device did not work. Seeing that, Kalam asked the group why they thought the device did not function and they said because of an internal circuit failure. His next question was, what did they need to make it work, to which they replied – a silver foil and solder iron. Both of these were organized, the device worked, and Kalam won every heart at that tech fest.

In an old interview, Dr Kalam had said, “My message, especially to young people is to have courage to think differently, courage to invent, to travel the unexplored path, courage to discover the impossible and to conquer the problems and succeed. These are great qualities that they must work towards.” Also, at every opportunity, he met young men and women, helped them garner that courage, gave his feedback on their ideas, and followed up to check their progress. Which other president, on a power failure (thus making the use of a microphone impossible), would ignore security detail and go right in the middle of a horde of 400 students to deliver his keynote address? And that appealed to the young masses boundlessly. It only helped that he fitted the role of the traditional guru or the mentor very well.

Value Relationships

Kalam always enjoyed great relationships and camaraderie with the people he worked with. Most of Kalam’s colleagues have had great things to say about him because their relationships with Kalam were not insipid transactional ones. In today’s time, when colleagues are fast turning from friends to connections you can leverage, it has become a rarity. Legend has it, when a subordinate of Kalam, engrossed in work, forgot about taking his children to the carnival as promised, Kalam did it for him. Nambi Narayanan, a former ISRO scientist, and Kalam’s colleague wrote about another such instance in his recent Times of India article, ‘… when I was finding it difficult to get my six-year-old son into a decent English-medium school in France. I wanted to send him back to India. Kalam, visiting us in Vernon, offered to take my son back to India. He held the boy’s hand through the journey till he was safely deposited at my sister’s place.This is how relationships are built. Designations do not forge relationships, people do. And behind great work relationships, is always the camaraderie of the people involved.

3 - CopyKalam was as good at maintaining the relationships as he was forging them. He kept in touch with his colleagues at ISRO even after he joined DRDL; and even after he ascended to the highest office in India, he was in contact with them. He valued every relationship, however brief or seemingly insignificant. Take for instance when Kalam paid a visit to Kerala, after becoming the President, there was a gathering at the Raj Bhawan in his honour. Kalam, who was entitled to invite anyone as his presidential guests, to everyone’s surprise, invited a road side cobbler and a small hotel owner. From his days as a young scientist in Trivandrum, he not only remembered his interactions with the hotel owner and the cobbler, but also deemed it fit to invite them to an event where the most important people from Kerala were coming together to interact with him.

In Kalam’s journey, leaders can find an effective template to engage, inspire, and energise their people.

APJ Abdul Kalam Way


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