A leader shud know how to manage failure – Abdul kalam

July 19, 2008

Question: Could you give an example, from your own experience, of how
leaders should manage failure?

Kalam: 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.”

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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