Here is an article of our Former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam at Wharton India Economic Forum, Philadelphia, March 22, 2008. A Leader Should Know How to Manage Failure Question: Mr Kalam was asked how leaders should manage failure?
Kalam Replied: Let me tell you about my experience. In 1973 I became theÂ project director of India’s satellite launch vehicle program, commonlyÂ called the SLV-3. Our goal was to put India’s ‘Rohini’ satellite into orbit byÂ 1980. I was given funds and human resources — but was told clearly thatÂ by 1980 we had to launch the satellite into space. Thousands of peopleÂ worked together in scientific and technical teams towards that goal.Â By 1979 — I think the month was August — we thought we were ready.
As the project director, I went to the control center for the launch. At fourÂ minutes before the satellite launch, the computer began Â to go throughÂ the checklist of items that needed to be checked. One minute later, theÂ computer program put the launch on hold; Â the display showed that someÂ control components were not in order.
My experts — I had four or five ofÂ them with me — told me not to worry; they had done their calculationsÂ and there was enough reserve fuel. So I bypassed the computer,Â switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage,Â everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed.Â Instead of the satellite going into orbit, the whole rocket system plungedÂ into the Bay of Bengal. It was a big failure.
That day, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, Prof. Satish Dhawan, had called a press conference. The launch was at 7:00Â am, and the press conference — where journalists from around the worldÂ were present — was at 7:45 am at ISRO’s satellite launch range inÂ Sriharikota [in Andhra Pradesh in southern India].
Prof. Dhawan, theÂ leader of the organization, conducted the press conference himself. HeÂ took responsibility for the failure — he said that the team had worked veryÂ hard, but that it needed more technological support. He assured theÂ media that in another year, the team wouldÂ definitely succeed.
Now, I Â was the project director, and it was my failure, but instead, he tookÂ responsibility for the failure as chairman of the organization.Â The next year, in July 1980, we tried again to launch the satellite — andÂ this time we succeeded. The whole nation was jubilant. Again, there wasÂ a press conference. Prof. Dhawan called me aside and told me, ‘YouÂ conduct the press conference today.’
Abdul Kalam said, I learned a very important lesson that day. When failure occurred, the leader of the organization owned thatÂ failure. When success came, he gave it to his team. The bestÂ management lesson I have learned did not come to me fromÂ reading a book; it came from that experience.