A Leader Should Know How to Manage Failure

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 the  project director of India’s satellite launch vehicle program, commonly  called the SLV-3. Our goal was to put India’s ‘Rohini’ satellite into orbit by  1980. I was given funds and human resources — but was told clearly that  by 1980 we had to launch the satellite into space. Thousands of people  worked together in scientific and technical teams towards that goal.  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 four  minutes before the satellite launch, the computer began  to go through  the checklist of items that needed to be checked. One minute later, the  computer program put the launch on hold;  the display showed that some  control components were not in order.

My experts — I had four or five of  them with me — told me not to worry; they had done their calculations  and there was enough reserve fuel. So I bypassed the computer,  switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage,  everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed.  Instead of the satellite going into orbit, the whole rocket system plunged  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 7:00  am, and the press conference — where journalists from around the world  were present — was at 7:45 am at ISRO’s satellite launch range in  Sriharikota [in Andhra Pradesh in southern India].

Prof. Dhawan, the  leader of the organization, conducted the press conference himself. He  took responsibility for the failure — he said that the team had worked very  hard, but that it needed more technological support. He assured the  media that in another year, the team would definitely succeed.

Now, I  was the project director, and it was my failure, but instead, he took  responsibility for the failure as chairman of the organization.  The next year, in July 1980, we tried again to launch the satellite — and  this time we succeeded. The whole nation was jubilant. Again, there was  a press conference. Prof. Dhawan called me aside and told me, ‘You  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 that  failure. When success came, he gave it to his team. The best  management lesson I have learned did not come to me from  reading a book; it came from that experience.

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