There lived a habitual thief in a village. Villagers were exasperated with his nuisance. So the villagers decided to punish him. They chopped off his nose as punishment.
The thief could not show his face to anybody. He relinquished the village and went in hiding in a forest. Slowly his hair grew to be unkempt tresses. He hit upon the idea of faking himself as an ascetic and started doing meditation and reciting prayers.
Slowly his name got spread as an ascetic with nose chopped off. People started flocking to him. Some even offered to become his disciples. He initiated the disciples to his sect by chopping off their noses. Over the time, an entire religious sect got established where all members had their noses chopped off.
I read this story by Swami Vivekananda in my childhood. We used to lough aloud by imagining the appearances of the sect members. But the profound implications of this story, I realised much later.
I have closely observed the dynamics of growth of mediocres in a team or in an organisation. Many times misadvertently or by bad choice or deliberately to have a control of the team, a mediocre character is reposed with the responsibility of a team leader, bypassing many deserving and meritorious contenders.
While meritorious employees prove themselves with excellence, mediocres get strength from numbers of equally qualified colleagues. They quickly start ganging up with other mediocre colleagues to corner the meritorious ones. The meritorious colleagues, find themselves asphyxiated gradually in the environment of mediocrity. Then the survival instinct overpowers the meritorious members. They realise that if they start mimicking the other mediocres in the team, they will get acceptance and importance from the leader. This infection of mediocrity spreads fast. Very soon, the whole team turns out to act like a bunch of mediocres. Just like the sect, all of whose members have their nose chopped off.
It is no guarantee that the team will be a high performing one just because the team members are selected with care and with merit in mind. It is most important that due care is given in the choice of the leader. More often than not, it is the leader, not members, of the team who turn it into a bunch of mediocres. There is no dearth of examples where our industries and institutions end upturning from productive to mediocre ones simply because of faulty choice of leadership.More often than not, mediocrity seeps from top, not from bottom as conventional wisdom suggests.
Tapan Misra is a globally acclaimed distinguished scientist. He has headed the Space Application Centre and also served as Advisor in Department of Space. His contribution to ISRO and India’s Space Programme is immense.
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.
We have a situation where a top post was degraded and instead of a senior officer at the Additional Secretary level holding fort as Financial Advisor in DoS and ISRO, an officer at the Joint Secretary level was posted there. It is learnt that even the present Joint Secretary and FA, Anoop Shrivastava, an Indian Defence Accounts Service officer, has sought and got premature repatriation as he was unable to work with the present ISRO leadership.
ISRO has been in news and in sharp focus in recent months, especially due to the failure of Lander Vikram to softland on the lunar surface on 7 September this year.
If ISRO had succeeded in achieving this goal, India would have become the fourth country to make a soft landing on the Moon’s surface.
Notwithstanding the end result, what is most unfortunate is that ISRO has become a target of criticism and ridicule more due to the ISRO chairman’s controversial remarks and the public stance of ISRO on the fate of Lander Vikram.
ISRO was quick in going public and telling the world that there was a hard landing, the Lander had been located and efforts were on to rebuild contact with it
There was total gloom at the ISRO control facility in the early hours of 7 September, when in the presence of the Prime Minister, people glued to their TV sets had watched with bated breath how the Lander trajectory graphically represented on a big screen suddenly went tangent from its linear course and came to a halt moments before the scheduled touchdown. Few hours down the line (8 September), K Sivan, the ISRO Chairman had said that the Vikram lander was located by Chandrayaan-2 and efforts were being made to restore contact.
After some gap of time, it was revealed by NASA, on the basis of the “findings of a Chennai based techy”, that the Moon Lander had crashed and broken up into pieces. This was followed up by ISRO telling the world that there was nothing new in what NASA was highlighting since they had much earlier located the Lander. Question that remains to be answered by ISRO is where ‘s the proof for what they have been claiming. Why no photographs or a video of the Lander’s undocking from the Lunar Orbiter have been made public till now.
Only an objective probe will find answers to the questions regarding Chandrayaan-2 and what led to the Lander’s failure.
There are also many lapses that should make the citizens of India, who fund ISRO’s working, sit up straight. In April 2018 there was an innocuous notice published on the ISRO/Department of Space Website. The notice referred to an application dated 1 July 2016 filed by one Jupiter Satellite India Limited for securing an Indian orbital slot at 104 degrees East longitude to provide Ka-band services for broadband beams covering the Indian mainland and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The notice was put out by CAISS, the Committee for Administration of the Indian Satellite System. To the uninitiated, the notice made no sense but on delving deep, Newsroom24x7came to the obvious conclusion that it was the making of another Antrix-Devas.
Responding to a specific query in 2018, ISRO had replied that it had only the post of Secretary while other Apex scale posts were approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet “as and when required”. The organization ducked the question conveniently as to whether the posts are sanctioned or not. Usually up to the level of Joint Secretary, the power to create posts vests in the Finance Minister. Above that it is the Union Cabinet that decides. In the Merit Promotion scheme practiced by Department of Space, and Department of Atomic Energy, there is a cap at the level of Director or at the Jt Secretary level. But beyond that, successive Chairmen have created and operated posts with impunity. In fact in every proposal sent by the Department of Space to the DoPT in this regard, on the basis of peer review done by secretary Atomic Energy and Chairman ISRO, the first line has always conveyed the lie that the Department of Space has “two sanctioned Posts in the Apex Scale”. Its at the whims of these top functionaries that the apex scale is awarded to a scientist they wish to see as the next ISRO chairman and in the process, often due to personal biases the meritorious are left out.
Giving a go-bye to quality assurance, to increase launch frequency appears to be the main reason why Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) GSAT-6A mission ended in failure. According to ISRO insiders, the duration of pre-shipment checks was being cut short only to increase launch frequency as every chairman was after glory. ISRO is collectively guilty and the top man more so.
Two days after India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-F08) launched GSAT-6A Satellite into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO) on 29 March 2018, the authorities confirmed they had lost contact with the powerful communications satellite designed to improve communication for Defence forces.
The successful launching of a series of satellites in India’s ambitious navigation satellites system (NavIC) by ISRO notwithstanding, those running and administering India’s space programme owe an explanation to the nation and they will have to tell the people of this country why there has been so much delay in making the desi GPS a reality.
Between 2009 and 2019 India has spent over Rs. 4000 crore on a series of navigation satellites (NavIC). One failed and a replacement had a launch failure. These satellites have a short life span. The much touted desi GPS has nothing on the ground – neither in terms of civil or military applications and use. The crux of the problem is that ISRO went full steam ahead and started launching the satellites in the Indian navigation system in quick succession, without bothering to ensure the chipsets required for ground support also developed simultaneously to roll out the services that could be availed on mobile handsets just like the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) and Russia’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) are fully operational GNSSs, with China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) and the European Union’s Galileo. This is more merely a lapse but has led to criminal waste of public money. Those responsible will have to be identified and held accountable.
The Chairman ISRO is also Secretary Department of Space. The main objective of DoS is to harness space technology for national development, while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration. Its Mission is to Design and develop launch vehicles and related technologies for providing access to space; design and develop satellites and related technologies for earth observation, communication, navigation, meteorology and space science; run the Indian National Satellite (INSAT) programme for meeting telecommunication, television broadcasting and developmental applications; spearhead the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite (IRS) programme for management of natural resources and monitoring of environment using space based imagery; provide Space based Applications for Societal development; and carry forward Research and Development in space science and planetary exploration.
The lofty goals notwithstanding, we have a situation where a top post was degraded and instead of a senior officer at the Additional Secretary level holding fort as Financial Advisor in DoS and ISRO, an officer at the Joint Secretary level was posted there. It is learnt that even the present Joint Secretary and FA (27 November 2017 onward), Anoop Srivastava, an Indian Defence Accounts Service officer, has sought and got premature repatriation as he was unable to work with the present ISRO leadership.
Postscript: There is simmering discontent in ISRO. The Prime Minister must intervene to stem the rot and prevent a world class organisation from declining.
Several years ago, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, MC (3 April 1914 – 27 June 2008), who was the chief of the Army Staff of the Indian Army during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, while speaking at St Xavier’s College had spoken at length about shortage of leadership in the country.
Today India’s Minister of State for Defence, Subhash Bhamre told Parliament that there was a shortage of 7298 officers in the Indian Army, 1606 officers in the Indian Navy and 192 officers in the Indian Air Force.
The Minister told the House that the Government was continuously making efforts to reduce the shortage of officers in the armed forces. He said that there has been sustained image projection through career fairs, exhibitions and publicity campaign to create awareness among the youth on the advantages of taking up a challenging and satisfying career. The Government has also taken various steps to make armed forces’ jobs attractive including improvement in promotion prospects in the Armed Forces.
If one closely follows the content and the gist of what Field Marshal Manekshaw had stated while hitting the nail on the head on the leadership issue, it would be amply clear that the Government has no clue about what is really required when it comes to building leadership qualities among the youth so that a large number of them with “reasonable common sense and decency”, if they come forward to join the armed forces as officers there would be no dearth of leadership in uniform.
Speaking at St Xaviers, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw had said: “For a long time, I have been watching the scene in India very carefully. Where ever I go, whenever I pick a newspaper, I find there are shortages. There is a shortage of fuel, there is a shortage of food, there is a shortage of foreign exchange, there is shortage of housing, shortage of schools, colleges, everywhere. And everybody talks about these shortages But the one shortage, which is responsible for all these shortages is generally glossed over, which is the shortage of leadership.
….dont misunderdstand me. and gentlemen of the press, please don’t misquote me, which you are always capable of doing and which you continue doing. When I talk of shortage of leadership, I do not mean just political leadership. I mean leadership in every walk of life – whether it is political, administrative, in educational institutions, in our sports organisations, in our industry, amongst labour, amongst the law and order contingents – there is shortage of leadership. I do not know whether leaders are born or leaders are made. There is a school of thought that says leaders are born.
…we have a population of 780 million people and we procreate at the rate of one Australia every year and yet there is shortage of leadership.
So if those of you who think that leaders are born and contribute to that theory, may I suggest you throw away all planned parenthood and really let yourselves go.
If leaders are not born, can leaders be made? It is my view that give me a man with reasonable common sense and decency, you can make a leader out of him.
What are the attributes of leadership?
There are many attributes. The cardinal attribute for leadership is professional knowledge and professional competence. Now you will agree with me that you cannot be born with professional knowledge, even if you are the child of a Minister, the son of a Member of Parliament or the progeny of a Field Marshal. Professional knowledge has to be acquired the hard way. It is a constant study. Professors, Engineers, architects, lawyers, solicitors, doctors, they all stody their profession continuously. they all contribute to magazines, to news prints to all sorts of things but we in India, as soon as we reach positions of power – whether its ministerial, secretarial, armed forces, or anywhere else, we think we are the repository of all knowledge….”
The details of strength of Officers in the three Armed Forces (excluding medical and dental), force-wise are as under:-