Leadership glue

Tapan Misra

The author, Tapan Misra, is a distinguished scientist with India’s Department of Space. He has earlier headed the Space Application Centre. He is seen with NASA Administrator, acclaimed astronaut and former Space Shuttle Commander, Charles Bolden, who visited SAC in 2013 to specifically visit the lab where RISAT could be built at such an economical cost under the leadership of Tapan Misra

I am attracted to analyse failures in every sphere of our endeavours. Success inspires, but failure teaches you something which cannot be taught in any other way. People remember more of failures than successes, due to queer nature of human perception. One failure is enough to ruin a reputation earned through a string of successes. Quintessentially, success boils down to nothing but successful prevention of failure.

In space technology, we study failures deeply. We respect and analyze all failures with equal zest. We never like to classify failures as crucial or non crucial, innocuous or dangerous, minor or big ones. These definitions are context and circumstance specific. A switch failure at home can bring darkness to your house. But failure of same switch in a lifesaving equipment on a critical patient may snuff out the life. Basic aim of our profession is to learn from failures and prevent their recurrence, without worrying about the degree of problems the failure may bring about.

I have been privy to watching and participating in trailblazing successes, seeing an institution to reach zenith. Unfortunately I also had the misfortune to experience failures of hardware, software and systems, as well as institutions. You may say from small failures to colossal ones.

One common learning is that failure has less to do with hardware or software involved, it has more to do with engineer(s) and scientist(s) behind it. Somebody, somewhere in the chain, did not understand the requirements and/or relate the design and function of a subsystem to the requirements and goals.

When big systems, projects or institutions fail, it is the leadership which fails. I had the privilege to watch leadership dynamics from the advantage of ring side view from front row. In every sphere of activity, the buck stops here on the table of the leadership. Success or failure of a big project or institution is writ large, the day we choose leaders. Finally It boils down to care and due dilligence, needed for selection of the leader, whether for an activity or for an institution.

On securing the top position in World University Ranking, according to the results of the 2016-2017 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, Vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, Louise Richardson, described the practice of securing the number one spot as “really quite simple”. It’s all about recruiting the best scholars, she said adding “any university is only as good as the academics it can attract” – while quoting the Oxford University Vice Chancellor to validate the point made by distinguished scientist Tapan Misra, we at Newsroom24x7 are also of the strong view that a nation can stay ahead in the highly competitive world only by laying maximum stress on human resource development across the board by turning the portals of education into centres of excellence not just by naming them but by recruiting the best faculty and staff. The same goes for public institutions endowed with people’s trust, mandate and resources to empower and help the country go beyond the final frontiers. There is no room for leadership deficit in such places. If that happens, all must know where the buck should stop.

Choosing leaders is very tricky. In fact, too much emphasis is given how well a square peg will fit a round hole. Instead, in my view, we should look for the leadership glue which will fill the gaps and bond the leader with the activity or institution. Certain leadership attributes are common, irrespective of the task the leader is destined for.

The primary attributes of a competent leader are : ethical, conscientious and principled. I see a clear sign of decline of an institution when such very attributes are given a go bye. Many people think that these qualities are needed when financial transactions are involved. I say, these qualities are needed for every type of humam transactions. These qualities serve as bed rock of human interaction, trust in information sharing. They go even as far as how truthfully you present data and results, how we recognise contributions of colleagues and prioritize their contributions. Ethical environment helps the institution in facing existential crisis and choosing a right path for coming out of any crisis, which may befall once in a while. When things go wrong, moral strength helps leader to face the flak, instead of passing the buck around.

Grasping power is a crucial giveaways of a successful leader. A capable leader grasps the basic issues, cutting trough labyrinth of useless info, whether technical, procedural or people oriented, without much meandering. Leader need not necessarily be capable of solving an issue outright. But he should assess and extend requisite support to his colleagues, enabling them to address the issues themselves.

Man is known by the company he keeps. Class of any leader can be easily discerned by the quality of his colleagues and what type of people he promotes. Usually, a mediocre leader promotes mediocrity and injects lot of negativity in the working environment. Whereas a capable leader not only promotes excellence, merit and competence but also exhibits healthy respects for these qualities in public. When such a leader leaves, he leaves behind not just competent colleagues but also a very healthy work environment.

Humane nature and empathy are hallmarks of a competent leader. In fact the human qualities can coexist with disciplinarian personality, needed to run the activity. An effective leader believes that his colleagues are assets of organization and he is entrusted with these assets, not only for safe keeping but creating more assets by building on them.

Person of proven contributions, brings respectability and visionary approach to the leadership. If the proven contribution is path breaking or building something new, it should be most welcome.

When you build something new, you need to negotiate many obstacles. They may range from risking your career itself, in case the attempt fails. They need to circumvent institutional or systemic inertia, tend to stymie any new attempt. After all, institutions are inclined towards low risk path of continuing status quo. Getting resources and convincing colleagues to become cotravellers for a new initiative, is a big if and it needs tremendous negotiation and convincing skills. In effect, people with a penchant for taking a new initiative and making them successful, are capable of charting a new future of institution and build them future ready.

Leaders with these qualities, inspire their colleagues not only from a position of strength, but also from the position of respect. Leader not only leads, but threads people involved in the activity: psychologically, emotionally and technically. In essence, leaders inspire, they never manage.

When these attributes are missing, leadership degenerates into shenanigans, public spectacle, theatrics, gorilla chest thumping, victimhood portrayal and sympathy seeking. Needless to say, many failed programmes and institutions are left on the wayside too. Look around, we have examples galore.

Click, download “Political Mirage” and read page 142 to 144. It throws light on the importance of picking the right leader

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