Leadership lessons from Prime Minister Vajpayee

India lost its three time Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on 16th 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

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

Whom should I blame ?

The monsoon is here and it is pouring cats and dogs. The roads are choked. The traffic is crawling. Trains have been interrupted and there is water logging everywhere. Everyone is badly impacted. Whom do I blame ? We want to blame the state government in power ? We want to blame the city local body ? We want to blame the central government and so on.

The local body, state and central government have to take responsibility for the state of roads and monsoon preparedness in general. There is no doubt about it in my mind. But, how about blaming myself for this state of affairs, at least partially ?

While it is fashionable for everyone especially the elite to blame the state and everyone else, we refuse to look within us. I was reflecting on this question today morning and thought about the following :

Why does my milkman, who is 75 years old not complain of rain and deliver milk without fail at 530 am every day ?

Why does my newspaper boy deliver my newspaper at 7 am every day even in this heavy rain ?

Why do my maid and driver not bunk their work and report regularly every day ?

All the above people come from the lower strata of society but do not shirk their responsibility by blaming the environment or the state while discharging their duties. Why do I want to blame everyone around me except myself ? What can I contribute to prevent this in the future. I have ten ideas to share and I commit I will personally try to follow the same.

A. Prevent the use of plastic and disposal of waste over drains in office and at home near my neighbourhood

B. Segregate waste into organic and inorganic and ensure safe disposal.

C. Ensure rain water harvesting is done sincerely in my community

D. Ensure storm water drains are clear and cleaned before the monsoon in my community and at my workplace

E. Report manholes and water logging to the municipal authorities in time

F. Ensure that everyone around us uses dustbins in public places

G. Carry cotton bags for all types of shopping

H. Recycle everything possible at home and at work

I. Dispose of e waste appropriately in designated places

J. Take responsibility for my community and my workplace for all of the above.

If you agree, like my post and say yes. Your ideas can add to mine too and will useful to all of us.

Enjoy the rains and let us inculcate a habit of “I can” contribute to changing the environment rather than blaming and cribbing at all times.

S Ramesh Shankar

10th July 2018

Patience Unlimited

I have always been in awe of my father for his unlimited patience.  I have wondered as to how did he have so much of limitless patience.  In my entire life time, I have seen him losing his cool only twice and here I am who loses his cool atleast twice a year.  I also need to give some credit to myself as I have graduated from losing patience twice a day to twice a month and nowadays it is only twice a year.

It has been a journey of life long learning.  In this blog, I would like to reflect on how I learnt patience from my father.  The first thing I have observed in my father is his ability to mind his own business at all times.  I have never seen him interfere in the life of others and this may have enabled him to keep his cool under all circumstances.  We tend to lose our patience when we get involved.  Impatience is in a way reacting to a situation, which we cannot accept.  There is no need to react if you do not get impacted by others’ incidents.  In all our family matters, I have never seen him talk about others or interfere in others’ matters.

The second learning has been that he was very self disciplined.  He was a government employee and served in the telecommunications wing of the central government for more than three and a half decades.  He was a self made man and worked very hard day in and night out.  He was always on time to work and never made anyone wait at home or at work.  This was possible only due to his self discipline and his ability to be organised.  Thus there is little scope to lose his cool for things which were not in place as he wanted them to be.

The third attribute which made him patient was his ability to be an active listener.  I have hardly seen him speak.  He was a man of few words but always a good listener.  It is easier to keep talking than to listen.  If you are a good listener, you have the time to assimilate and not react as the way we do most of the time.  This means less impatience and more maturity in our interactions.  Thus listening helped him to be patient at all times.

The fourth quality I learnt from my father was his ability to be self dependant.  I have never seen him depend on others for anything.  Even after his retirement from service and after my mother’s death, he did not depend on anyone for his living.  He cooked his own food, did his own shopping and maintained the house and the garden with his own hands.  This self reliance enabled him not to depend on others and thereby lose his cool when others do not deliver.

The fifth characteristic of my father which stuck to me was his ability to share happiness with others and keep sorrow to himself.  I have never seen him in my life time cribbing about anything.  He has never shared his distress with others but was always willing to share his joy.  This made him an endearing person to all.  I am yet to meet anyone in my family or friends circle who was not in awe of my father and his patience.

My father’s patience is like the endless water of the sea and me like a bird flying across to feel it.

All these qualities of my father left lasting impressions on my mind.  I was short tempered as I began my career.  But, as I grew up, I realised the value of patience and have tried my best to learn from the interactions with my father and live life the way he did.  I may have only achieved 10% of patience he had but still consider it worth an effort as it has helped me immensely in my career and life.

It is never too late to start.

S Ramesh Shankar

Looking back or Moving forward

It is that time of the year when the Christmas carols can be heard. The end of a calendar year and the beginning of a brand new year. We look back to move forward. All of us love to reflect on the past year and build hope for the next year. We are happy of some events and regret others while we look back. We are optimistic about the future and hence wish the new year brings joy and happiness to all of us.

It may be a good idea to look back. But, what should we look back at. We need to realise that looking back and being grateful to people, who have contributed to our success in the previous year may be a good idea. It may be worthwhile to feel happy about some of our key accomplishments during the year. It may be worthwhile to learn from some of the mistakes we may have committed in the previous year.

But many of us tend to spend more time looking back then moving forward. This is what we need to guard against. It is like driving a car looking at the rear view mirror. The rear view mirror is very helpful when we need to reverse or when we need to overtake someone on the road. It is not possible to drive a car on the highway by only looking at the rear view mirror. We need to look at the windscreen and anticipate what is coming in front of us and how the road is twisting and turning before us.

It may be a better idea to move forward rather than looking back at all times. We need to believe in ourselves. We need to realise that there would always be a sunrise after a sunset. We need to hope that tomorrow would be better than yesterday and today. It is like most of us do not spend time in planning for an event. We spend more time in fixing issues while an even is occurring in our lives.

It is better to plan and foresee the future. It is better to dream and anticipate change. It is fun to hope and aspire for the upcoming year. We tend to spend more time in analysing what went wrong rather than anticipating what could happen in the future. It is this change in attitude, which would help us navigate change. It will help us anticipate and prepare for whatever is likely to happen.

I am a born optimist. I would prefer to spend less time analysing the past and more time in dreaming about the future. We cannot do much about what has happened in the past. But, we can create a future of our choice. While past is history, future is mystery, yet to explored. While history can teach us lessons, it may not be able to anticipate what is likely to happen. I would prefer to brood less about the past and dream more about the future.

I have learnt in my life that it is worthwhile to reflect on the past to learn for the future. But, if it is better to spend less time looking back then moving forward. The past will not necessarily lead us to the future. It is important to remember that we need to move on in life irrespective of what happened in the past. We need to cherish good memories but it may be worthwhile to spend more time in shaping our future.

As in the photo above, the peacock in the forest was not sure whether to look back or move forward.

Let us learn to drive our life by looking more at the front windshield rather than looking at the rear view mirror. I am by no means suggesting that we need not look back at the past. I am only recommending that looking ahead in life is more fruitful than brooding about the past. I am saying we need to learn to move ahead. The earlier we learn this lesson, the better we can anticipate the future of our life.

Lets move forward.

S Ramesh Shankar

Experience speaks..


In today’s world, some people ask – is experience valued ?  It may not be an easy answer to this simple question.  I am reminded of an incident almost thirty two years back.  My father was admitted with renal failure in the ICU of a hospital in Chennai.  The cardiologist, who used to examine my father examined him for two minutes,look at his pulse, checked his bp and would charge consultation fee of Rs. 100 per visit.  My monthly income at that time was around Rs 2000 .  This meant the consultation fee would be more than my monthly income every month.  I used to curse him for fleecing  a poor helpless soul like me.  My father recovered and was discharged.  I thanked God and returned home with my father.

Then after three weeks one day my father almost got choked in his throat while having his dinner.  I panicked and called in the same doctor on phone since it looked it were the last moments of my father alive that day.  However, the same doctor patiently advised me to lay my father on a bed and raise his legs with pillows.  He said that he will be fine and then I could bring him back to the hospital.  I did that and he miraculously became ok.  He later told me that his bp had gone down and raising his legs ensured flow of blood to the brain and he regained consciousness for me to get the breather to take him back to the hospital.  This incident taught me how valuable experience is in life. The same doctor I considered as a life saver of my dad and almost God sent.

In today’s work place, many employees feel threatnened the moment they cross fifty years of age.  Some employers also feel people over fifty may not be very useful and work on voluntary exit schemes to optimise this category of the workforce.  However, neither of these are necessary if we plan the right way.  It is true that as we grow old, our competencies may become redundant.  It is upto us to keep ourselves updated and upskilled.  If we do that and we are the best in whatever job we do, no employer will even dream of losing us.  On the contrary, if we live in the past and want to drive the car using the rear view mirror only rather then the windscreen in front of us, we may become obsolete sooner than we think.

So, the reality is that experience has to speak for itself.  It is like the doctor who was in his fifties then taught me how valuable experience is to save lives even on the phone.  Experienced managers can be great mentors and coaches.  One generation has to hand over the baton to the next.  It is upto us to be the beacon of light in the organisation rather than the dimming candle light.

Organisations gain from the wealth of the experience of her employees.  No organization can survive with material assets or cash in the bank.  It is the capabilities of employees which is invaluable.  It is the experience of the seniors which becomes the competitive edge in the market place.  However, if the seniors live in the past and are not in tune with the times than the future will not take them along.

It is like in the picture above, you should be willing to walk the ramp along with the younger generation if you are in tune with them.

Do you think experience speaks ?

S Ramesh Shankar

Mirror


I wonder many times as to how my behaviour with others will impact me.  I have seen in my life and career that many people get away with rude behaviour.  Sometimes people in power and authority think that have a right to behave rudely.  This happens both at home, work environment and society. Let us try to explore why this happens and what is the impact. 

At home, as I grow into an adult and become successful in my career, I tend to believe that I can boss around in the house.  I tend to take my family members for granted and sometimes even my parents.  This further makes me short tempered and unpredictable.  In some families, irrespective of both husband and wife working, there is a sense of superiority in either of us.  We are intolerant to the success of the other person and live in a make believe world. We do not realise how our behaviour as adults impacts the psychology of our own children.

If we move to the work place, the situation is not very different.  As we grow in the organisational hierarchy, we tend to believe we become demi God.  We treat our colleagues with disdain rather than human beings.  We tend to show not enough respect to people down the hierarchy.  It can result in simple courtesies not being extended to our colleagues.  It could be like not wishing back to our colleagues, when they wish us.  It could also mean not listening to junior colleagues or dictating our way through key decisions.

This tendency reflects in societal behaviours too.  People in positions of power whether in organisations, politics or other institutions tend to get egoistic.  They take everyone around them for granted.  Pride and ego dominates their behaviour.  They get away with this sort of antics as long as they are in power.  The moment they lose power, they become cowards and they do not realise how much they have hurt people till they get hurt themselves.

In all these situations, what is common is that power and behaviour seems to be directly correlated.  As power seeps into the human body, our behaviour tends to get from bad to worse.  So, it is up to us to realise this change and keep ourselves grounded and humble.  You may get respected as long as you wield power.  But, it is critical to remember that people respect your position rather than yourself.  In real life,  people respect those with character and humility.  Your words are more important than your deeds.    

All these situations signify that as parents, leaders or citizens our behaviour impacts our future generations.  Our words and actions determine our character.  Our character determine our actions.  Our actions trigger changes in society.  It is up to us to behave in a way we want our future generations to do.  Our behaviour reflects and impacts the behaviour of the younger generation.  It is like our images are reflected in the mirror every time we peep into it.

Let us behave the way we want others to do with us every day.

S Ramesh Shankar