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Remembering A.P.J. Abdul Kalam: Leadership Lessons from a ‘People’s President’


A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was a space scientist. He was a key driver of India’s space and missile programs. After he retired, Kalam tried to bridge the gap between rocket science and politics. A popular president (2002-2007), he accepted the proposal to run for a second term. He laid down one condition, however; the choice had to be unanimous. Some political parties didn’t agree. Politics (and politicians) did not win; the country lost. A popular president had to go after only one term.

In the U.S., the president has executive powers. In India, though every bill is sent to the president for his approval before its conversion into an act, he merely has a red-flag role. If parliament sends the same bill to him again, he has no recourse but to sign off on it.

Indians tend to see Kalam as a father figure, but not as one in authority. He was not just a father figure. An outsider in politics and free of political affiliations, he redefined and demystified Indian presidency. From India’s Missile Man, he became the People’s President.

“He pushed the country to reach new heights and to aspire to lead the way in its global rise, rather than aim to merely catch-up with the developed nations.”–Saikat Chaudhuri

In a 2008 interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Kalam explained his view of leadership. He emphasized that leaders should have a vision and not be afraid to go down unfamiliar paths. Most importantly, Kalam said, they should know how to manage failure

A teacher till the very end, on July 27, Kalam, 83, collapsed while delivering a lecture at the Indian Institute of Management Shillong. Below, some Wharton professors and Indian business leaders explain what they admired about the late president:

“President Kalam was an inspiration to all of us,” says Jagmohan Raju, Wharton professor of marketing and vice dean of Wharton Executive Education. “A man of science, equally adept at designing ballistic missiles and coronary stents, nuclear devices and tablet computers, writing computer code or poetry. When it came to leadership, [he] relied more on faith, humility and integrity. We all fondly recall his visit to Wharton where he charmed one and all equally with his wit and wisdom. [He was] a teacher who cared about students and young Indians all his life up to the very end. All of us who teach at Wharton, and all over the world, salute you Dr. Kalam. You will continue to inspire us all.” 

Saikat Chaudhuri,Wharton adjunct professor of management and executive director of Wharton’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management, says he is deeply saddened by Kalam’s death not only because he was a “fine human being with multiple talents,” but because “his departure is a huge loss” for India. “The country needs many more inspiring visionaries like him to realize [its] full potential on the world stage,” says Chaudhuri. “Dr. Kalam was a ‘People’s President,’ and ignited those he met with a passion not only to contribute to India’s growth, but to aim for world-class standards in their pursuits and be the best on a global platform. He was a true nationalist, who was motivated purely by a desire to contribute to a better India and world, upholding the utmost integrity. For India to reach her potential as an economic, political, and sociocultural superpower, we need many more leaders to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Kalam. He pushed the country to reach new heights and to aspire to lead the way in its global rise, rather than aim to merely catch up with the developed nations.”

“By showing that it was possible to think big and look far, he did what the best leaders always do: recalibrate what people think is possible.”–Manish Sabharwal

Jitendra V. Singh,dean and professor of business at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and emeritus professor of management at Wharton recalls: “I was privileged to meet President Abdul Kalam not once, but several times…. In the time I spent with him, I was struck most of all by his simplicity, and almost childlike curiosity. He was extremely alert, and a great conversationalist. As I sat near him through the ceremony [when Kalam was awarded an honorary doctorate at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore], I remember thinking to myself, “What a remarkable life story; what a remarkable Indian.” We have lost a remarkable Indian. While born a Muslim, he truly embraced the spirit of being Indian, quoting, as he would from time to time, from Hindu scriptures. He will be missed, but his ideas will live on, even as India takes its rightful place in the world. This is the India he dreamed about.”

Manish Sabharwal,co-founder and chairman of TeamLease Services, India’s leading staffing company, believes that Kalam did for Indian science and politics what the IT industry did for Indian business. “He raised aspirations by catalyzing a demonstration effect. By showing that it was possible to think big and look far, he did what the best leaders always do: recalibrate what people think is possible. He was also one of the first in public life to reaffirm that you don’t have to be Western to be modern, but that India must work hard to come up with our [own] definition of modernity, which must include science, technology, innovation and equality of opportunity for all.”

This was a President of India who commanded respect for the human being that he was, and not because of his title.”–Rajat Kumar

Allwin Agnel, founder of education network PaGaLGuY, says Kalam taught leadership to people the way it always should be done: humbly. “By humbly, leading. To touch lives by doing what is right, by never saying no to any good deed and by simply stepping up and being more. In a world of alpha leaders, he was the servant leader. Twitter  A million people followed him because his words and actions always reflected his passion and willingness to help the world be a better place.”

Rajat Kumar,vice president of SnapDeal, says: “My grandparents used to tell me stories about Dr. Rajendra Prasad (India’s first president) and Lal Bahadur Shastri (India’s second prime minister), and the faith they inspired. I was looking for that inspiration from our [current] leaders, but was not really sure whether I would ever find it — until Dr. Kalam became our president. He was a great scientist, an epitome of hard work, but most importantly, a human being who was untarnished by the trappings of power. My fondest memory of him is of a speech when he was addressing some children. When a child asked something, he sat on the steps to hear what the question was, and answered it sitting right there — on the steps of the stage with the child. This was a President of India who commanded respect for the human being that he was, and not because of his title.” 



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