Leadership lessons from Prime Minister Vajpayee

India lost its three time Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on 17th August 2018 at the age of 93 after a prolonged illness. The nation received the news with numbed silence. I have personally been a great admirer of this person. I do not have any political affiliations but the personality of this human being was magnetic to say the least and that made me a ardent fan. I was saddened by his death and decided to list ten learnings from this statesman, which any human being could try to imbibe in their daily life.

Inclusiveness was in his blood. He had expressed in thought and action through his speeches, poems and actions. I have not heard or met anyone who has known him complaining of his ignoring them. Even the common man felt he was accessible and was never felt excluded in any public actions or policies.

One of the most difficult tasks of a leader is to balance the team, especially when you have members with opposing ideologies to manage. He had the ability to manage diversity and foster inclusiveness through his fairness and equity. Such was his stature and credibility that his silence spoke more than his words.

Even after balancing a team, it is important for a leader to carry along every member of his team. He was a master of listening to all shades of opinion and still being decisive. He had the ability to carry along people with opposing views gracefully. This is difficult to practise especially in a diverse political spectrum when you are running a coalition government.

His ability to build consensus was par excellence. If we look back on the decision to go nuclear or win a war against an erring neighbour was built on political consensus. He was diplomatic but firm. He could place national interests above narrow political considerations and influence people of all political shades to support his views in the overall interest of India.

We hear stories of how he fell on the feet of a tribal woman entrepreneur, who gave employment to hundreds of needy women. His outreach on the Kashmir issue has no parallels in Indian history. He could extend a hand of friendship even to his rivals provided it was in national interest. Humility and humaneness was felt in his thoughts and actions.

He was one of India’s best known orators. He could make his critics laugh even while made a scathing attack on their stance. Such was his stature in parliament and outside that even the opposition listened to him in rapt attention when he spoke. I have repeatedly listened to his speeches to learn the art of differing without hurting others.

His sense of humour had to experienced to be believed. He was an inspirational poet. He could use words, gestures and even pauses to silence his critics. He could sway the sombre mood of any audience with his humour. Even in humour, he had the grace of being dignified.

A statesman is judged by his actions and not by his words. His ability to reach out and contribute to international issues without compromising on India’s interests raised his political stature. He did not give up on resolving international conflicts even when all his humanitarian gestures were snubbed. Such was his personality that even the government in power made him India’s leader in the United Nations although he was only the leader of the opposition.

India’s interest was the basis of all his decisions. He never entertained any action, which was against national interest. We hear instances wherein he even declined suggestions even from his cabinet colleagues if it was not in overall national interest. He was also willing to invite suggestions from political rivals on national issues.

One of his best qualities I would love to imbibe is his ability to criticise respectfully. I have heard many of his speeches in parliament – both as prime minister and as leader of the opposition, wherein he has been scathing in his criticism but without crossing the line of dignity. No politician could ever raise a finger against him for his language, delivery or content although they may not have agreed with his views on any subject.

I have attempted to illustrate a short list of ten qualities, which I admired in him. I am too small a person and have never met him so do not know much about him except from information in the public domain.

This is just my tribute to PM Vajpayee as a common man on the day when his body was cremated in New Delhi and the entire nation paid their last respects to him.

RIP

S Ramesh Shankar

16th August 2018

Dilemmas in Life

At every stage of life, we are faced with dilemmas, which are difficult to resolve. I faced one such dilemma in my life today. I was not sure what is the right answer. If I had said yes, I may have been fair to the person and if I said no, I may have been fair to the organization. So either way it may not be the right answer.

One is faced with such dilemmas in every stage of our life. It may start with our studies. Which course should I take and why ? Firstly, we are not sure and then if we seek counsel, we are further confused. We may get contradictory advise from different persons. . Everyone may have your best interest in mind but how do we say yes to one and no to another.

The next major dilemma one faces in life is that of choosing a job. While you qualify for something, you may end up with an offer of employment in some other field. While you want to choose one, your well wishers advise you for something else. Choosing one can please one and displease another.

Another common dilemma is the decision on marriage. Everyone has an opinion on when one should marry and with whom. If your parents are keen for you to marry and you are not ready, it may be a dilemma. On the other hand, if you are keen and your parents want you to wait for a while, you are still in the same situation. What do you do next ?

Yet another common dilemma is a decision to change jobs. You may have considered all options and possibilities but you may end up more confused than before. While your spouse has a view, your parents have the opposite view and your kids have a third opinion. It is not easy to come out of such a web.

Honestly, I do not have a magic pill to resolve dilemmas in life. But, as I reflect I realise one good way to resolve them is to have authentic conversations with all concerned and share the reasons for your choice honestly and either convince them or convince yourself to change a decision.

This may be easier said than done. It may be easier to convince oneself than to convince others. You have to try it to believe it. In my view, convincing oneself to change a decision is as difficult as to convince others. But, this is one way to ensure that you are listening to everyone and taking the best decision in the circumstances you are in.

As in the photo above, you may be reflecting what to do without knowing how to do it in any situation .

Another interesting thing is that all decisions are contextual. Hence whatever you decide is the best in the circumstances you took it in. If it works out, it is great, if it does not, one should not regret it. One could not have taken a better decision at that point of time in your life.

Life is full of dilemmas and hence it is better to face it head on rather than duck.

Try it.


S Ramesh Shankar

Everyone has a bad day…


I was watching a reality music show on television for kids.  In my view, the best participant did not do well that day.  I felt it was ok.  After all, everyone has a bad day and so did this young boy.  It was a good lesson to learn.  Even the best have a bad day.  The only difference between the best and the rest is that they learn and bounce back fast.  We as normal mortals take our time to spring back to normal.

If we look back, it is true in every walk of life.  The best in the class may not top the class every single time and may slip once in a while.  The best in a game of soccer may not score every single time they play the game.  The best batsman in cricket may not score a century every time she or he walks into a match.  So, it is in life.  We may not have the best of time, all the time.  This does not mean, we do not give our best and put our best foot forward all the time.

The best sportsman always put in their best effort.  They are not rattled even if they don’t win a game or score a goal in a match.  They are willing to realise their mistakes and learn from them.  On the other hand, many of us tend to give up even before the game is over.  It is like the spectators in a match.  If their favourite team does badly in the first half, many of them leave the ground even before the match is over.  On the other hand, the players do not give up till the last whistle is blown.

I have seen in real life that champions never give up.  Whether it is in academics, sports or even at work, the best never rest.  They may fail once in a while.  After all, they are also human like all of us.  But their resilience is worth emulating.  They spring back many a time even before the match is over.  That is why many a time it is said in sports that form may be temporary but class is permanent.

Let us try to understand this from the prism of work.  The best performers may fail in a project.  But they are keen to learn from their mistakes and then excel in their very next project.  Many of us tend to get depressed and down and out after we fail in an assignment.  It takes courage to accept defeat and learn from it.  It is better to learn gracefully from defeat than to jump in arrogance after a victory.

It is interesting to note that failures teach you better lessons than success.  It is up to us to look back and reflect on our failures with an intent to learn from it.  We want to bury the past and race towards the future.  The lessons of the past may help us lay the foundation for the future.  It is up to us to learn from it and assimilate them in our life. If we do not learn from our past mistakes, the future errors may be graver and harder to correct.

Life gives us enough chances to err and learn.  It is up to us to realise that it is fine to fail once a while and learn from it.  In today’s competitive world, many of us including our parents, family and friends find it difficult to encourage us to experiment and fail.  The best leaders give you the space to try out new things.  They are not worrried about failure as they realise that these are the stepping stones to success.

As in the photo above, the best sculptors possibly fail a few times before they produce a thing of beauty for all of us to admire.

Let us look back to move forward.

S Ramesh Shankar

Seasons of life


In most parts of the world we have summer, monsoon and winter around the year. Each part of the year signifies something for us. Let us start with summer.  The heat of the summer reminds us of the power of the sun. It helps us gain enough of vitamin D for the rest of the year and also ensures that nature takes care of the excess of water everywhere. It is a also a season of holidays for kids in some parts of the world and time for family vacations.

Then we eagerly await the onset of the monsoon. We get allergic to the heat of the sun and end up with allergies and heat rashes. We pray for early onset of the monsoon and await the forecast of the meteorologist. As the first rains arrive, the smell of the wet mud makes us feel nostalgic and we look forward to a good monsoon. However, cities get paralysed with floods and choking of drains and traffic jams. We then wait for the monsoon to be over and await the winter months.

Winter is mild or strong depending on which part of the world you live in. Either way, the temperatures are pleasant till it starts freezing and the Sun disappears forever. Then we get depressed and feel the absence of the Sun and the warmth. We also have cold waves in different parts of the world and people dying due to very low temperatures and inadequate protection from the chill.

Our life is no different. We have summer, rains and winter in our life too. When we are studying it looks like the long summer with a lot of heat of exams and evaluations. We look forward for a break and it ends sooner than it begins and we have another long academic session. A series of examinations, evaluations and tests is always testing us during this period.

Our youth is like the rains. While it is romantic and full of energy, it does pose us a lot of challenges. We need to get into a job or career and then decide to marry and settle in life. In all these, we face a lot of storms and traffic jams in the form of not getting a desired job or missing a promotion. Then not being able to marry a girl or boy of our choice and then eagerly waiting for a kid. By the time all this is done, the rains of life are over and we tend to lead to adulthood and the winter of our life begins.

As we set into late adulthood and have peaked in our career, we tend to become philosophical. It is like the winter of our life. Our health is impacted in some ways and we feel depressed when our family and friends do not have enough time for us.  No wonder we call it the winter blues.

When summer fades away and the clouds arrive on the horizon, it is the onset of the monsoon.  Life is also like that many a time. While the rains are romantic part of life, it could get flooded with challenges and we have to learn to face it and become a winner.

Thus the cycle of life is of summer, rains and winter. If we decide to enjoy every stage of our life, it is fun. After all, all of us go through it and it is the way life is.
Let us learn to enjoy all seasons of life.

S Ramesh Shankar

Comparisons


All our joy and sorrow in life is due to comparisons. We tend to look at others to feel happy or sad. Why does this happen ? I do not know but it is most often a reality in our lives. We tend to compare ourselves with our siblings as a kid and then our classmates in school and college. Then may be our colleagues at work.

I used to live in a city, where people bought a car or a house bigger than what their neighbour had rather than what they needed. This was because the societal norms in that city was to live by comparison. Imagine you buying something in life not because you need it but because your neighbour has it.

How do comparisons affect us ? It makes us less tolerant and also tends to create a complex within us. We either think we are superior or inferior to others. This leads to negative behaviour, which in turn impacts our relationships with others.

What do we do ? How can we live without comparing ourselves with others ? Yes it is possible. We could compare ourselves with people having more troubles than we have. We can compare ourselves with people who are less fortunate than us and this will make us grateful to God. We can compare ourselves with people who are better than us in behaviour and relationships and learn from them.

However, in reality we do not do that. We tend to compare with those who have more than us. This leads to jealousy and in turn leads to undesirable behaviour and actions. Thus leading to both physical and psychological illnesses, which definitely can be avoided.

Another positive way to compare is to do it with oneself. How was I when started my career ? How am I today ? How was I when I was a child and how am I today ? All these comparisons will make us feel better and more grateful to life and God.

We can learn from the sportspersons from individual sports. They prefer to compete with themselves than with others. This is healthy and absolute. It energises them to do better and excel every single time without losing any energy. They remain positive in life and are always focussed on what they want to achieve.

As in the photo above, two artisans do not compare their pieces (boats) of  art, as they create it.  Each is a masterpiece in itself.   They always try  to do better than what they have created previously.  This is the lesson we need to learn in life.

Even the most successful people in all walks of life tend to excel by bettering what they have done before. They are not feeling bad of others around them, who have done better than them. They learn from the best but always set high standards for themselves in absolute rather than relative terms.

Let us learn to live life on our own turf from today.

S Ramesh Shankar

Process – means or end ?


Is a process a means to an end or an end in itself ?  In my view, it should be only be the means to an end and not an end in itself.  However, in many organizations today, processes seem to become an end by itself.  I was recently on a field visit to another country.  The CFO was trying to explain to me as to how they have migrated for all their banking needs including employee salary accounts from a multinational bank to a local bank.  When asked for the reasons, he explained as to how it took more than ten days even to open a salary account in the multinational bank as compared to the local bank, which could do the same in one day.

This incident reminded me as to how we have become slaves of organisational processes.  This is more prevalent in multinational organizations rather than local ones. One of the reasons many multinational organizations are losing their competitive advantage in many markets is that they seem to be wedded to processes more than the results expected out of them.

It is time to question all our processes and ask ourselves as to whether we need them.   We need to examine whether each process meets an end or only delays an action to achieve a goal.  Many processes may have evolved over time due to various historic reasons.  The origin of some of them may have been linked to ensure better compliance or correct some serious violations in the past.

I have two interesting learning experiences to simplify processes.  The first was when I went to a school in Bangalore to seek admission for my son in XI standard.  The school refused to give admission forms. I was disappointed.  They told me that there was no need to fill up an admission form before admission.  I thought it was a polite way to decline admission for my son in the school.  However, they said that it was enough to give a copy of the final mark sheet.  They would short list based on his marks and then put up the selected list of students on the notice board.  We could then fill the admission form after that.  It actually happened that way and it was a simplified admission process.  This not only reduced the cost for parents but eliminated thousands of students to fill up forms and pay for them even though the majority of them would never get admission in that school.

The second instance was when I wanted to buy a small speaker to listen to music in my office.  I made a purchase requisition and even after two months, the speaker could not be procured.  When I enquired they said that they could not identify a vendor since most of them were not agreeable to our payment terms.  However, when I raised this issue with the head of supply chain in my organisation, we decided that it was a silly process to follow for an item of so less value.  Hence, after this incident, we decided that we will allow all employees to procure items less than Rs. 25000 ( $400) directly using their credit cards and claim the same through a reimbursement process.  Sometimes, the cost of the process could be more than the cost of the item to be procured. 

It is like having a process to procure these mud pots(as in the photo above) to be more expensive than the cost of the pots itself.

Both these incidents taught me that it is possible for us to challenge every process in any organisation and simplify it.  We simply have to ask whether a process is a means to an end or an end by itself.  Further, we need to examine if it serves any useful purpose.  Otherwise, we just need to question it and eliminate it.

Let us start today.

S Ramesh Shankar

Maturity versus Immaturity


One of my young colleagues asked me where does maturity end and immaturity begin ?  It is difficult to answer.  He was shocked at his interactions with one of his key stakeholders.  While it started off very maturely and informally, it ended with a bad taste in the mouth and a sense of immaturity. So, the question is ” where does immaturity begin and maturity end or vice versa ?” 

When you interact with someone senior, you assume that the person will be more mature than you.  Maturity is relative.  It has to be experienced to be believed.  Age and experience does not necessarily guarantee maturity in anyone.  I have met a lot of young students and aspiring professionals, who have displayed exceptional maturity.  On the other hand, I have met senior professionals, who are yet to mature.

So, how does one deal with immaturity ?  In my view, maturity is a state of mind.  It has to evolve for a person.  Some of us gain maturity early while others take more time.  It is our ability to adapt to different kinds of persons and their relative level of maturity that makes us successful.  We may sometimes take light hearted humour as informal.  Then it may lead to informal interactions and then when one fine day informality is misunderstood by the other person, it hurts us and is termed as immaturity.

Does it mean that we should avoid informal interactions ?  I would not say so.  I always believe in creating a work environment, where informality prevails.  We should not only be physically accessible to our team members and colleagues but also mentally and emotionally at all times.  However, we need to learn where to draw the line.  It is easier said than done.  One needs to learn by experience where informality ends and formality begins.  It is a very thin line and we are bound to err many a time.

So this colleague asked me –  “How to deal with the immaturity of his key stakeholder?”. One needs to gauge the behaviour of others and learn to draw the line.  The line is not dependant on age, experience or seniority.  It is based on relative maturity.  One learns to draw the line by experience and most times by facing the consequences.  It is painful at times but one learns by facing it in real life.

I have seen this phenomenon at work and even in personal life.  It happens in the family and society as well.  We find unpredictable and irrational behaviour by very senior people.  It is difficult for youngsters to deal with them.  On the other hand, we find very mature and competent young people who wear maturity on their shoulders even before they gain enough experience.

I had a lot of questions from these young colleagues (as in the photo above) during a recent team building workshop on a boat in Bangladesh.

My learning in life is to moderate yourself than attempt to moderate the other person.  It is not easy for us to mould the behaviour of others.  It is easier to adapt our behaviour to suit the style of the other person.  As I said earlier, failure may be the stepping stone to success in many situations but there is nothing wrong with that too.  After all every sportsperson wins after losing many games.  Further, no sportsperson gives up after losing, even though the road to victory may be long and ardous.

Lets us begin the change today.

S Ramesh Shankar