Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s inspirational management philosophy

  • Articles
  • Jul 26,21
July 27, 2021 will be the 6th death anniversary of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam - an aerospace scientist who served as the 11th President of India from 2002 to 2007. Dr J P Agrawal, who worked with Dr Abdul Kalam at DRDO, narrates some of his unique management style which is worth to emulate.
Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s inspirational management philosophy

On his 6th death anniversary, I fondly recollect some reminiscences of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and reflect upon his invaluable contributions to India. As a person from within his own organisation, I had privilege of watching him from close quarters as an outstanding human being and an exceptional manager who finally, was our President! In this article, I have tried to share my impressions about this great man with the sole objective that all others including our present generation of young scientists, engineers, technologists and managers may also know his true virtues and unique management philosophy. I am sure this would be beneficial to the vast number of decision makers as well. 

As we are aware, there are 4 major scientific organisations in India i.e. Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO, now Department of Defence R&D), Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR). Among these, DRDO, ISRO & AEC are mission-oriented organisations and are in news whenever they make a remarkable contribution of national importance. Presently, DRDO has 52 laboratories all over India conducting research for Armed Forces (Army, Air Force & Navy) in order to augment defence preparedness & self- reliance of the country. 

Earlier, DRDO had only one missile laboratory i.e. Defence R&D Laboratory (DRDL) situated at Hyderabad and its Director was Air Vice Marshall (AVM) Narayanan. At that time, DRDL used to develop indigenous substitutes of imported rockets & missiles. After the retirement of AVM Narayanan, no scientist of DRDO was found suitable for the post of Director, DRDL. A few policy decision makers were of the opinion that this laboratory should either be closed down or handed over to the Air Force. 

Around the same time, ISRO launched India’s first successful Space Launch Vehicle-3 (SLV-3) and Dr Kalam, being the Project Director of SLV-3, was in the news all over the world. At this point of time, name of Dr Kalam was discussed for the post of Director, DRDL. It was agreed by the Government of India (GoI) and an invitation letter was sent to Dr Kalam who immediately accepted the offer and was appointed as Director DRDL. Dr Kalam had complete confidence in his capabilities and accepted this offer as a challenge. He believed that golden opportunity comes only once in life. This was the beginning of the Golden Era in the life of Dr Kalam because except for Padma Bhushan, all other honours and awards were bestowed on him only after his appointment as Director, DRDL and later as Director - General, DRDO. It is also worth highlighting here that Dr Kalam was concurrently holding the posts of Secretary, Department of Defence R&D and Scientific Advisor to Raksha Mantri (SA to RM) in addition to Director - General, DRDO. 

Subsequently, on the recommendations of Dr Rama Rao Committee’s Report, DRDO was restructured and trifurcated into the Secretary, Department of Defence R&D & Chairman, DRDO; Scientific Advisor to Defence Minister (SA to RM) and Director- Generals. Currently Dr G Satheesh Reddy is Secretary & Chairman DRDO who is assisted by about 12 Technical & Corporate Director - Generals and the post of SA to RM is designated to another eminent scientist.

After about a year, a missile programme entitled “Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (abbreviated as IGMDP) was conceived and proposed by Dr Kalam which was sanctioned by the GoI. This programme consisted of development of 5 missiles of different types and for different applications namely:
  1. Prithvi: Surface-to- Surface Missile (SSM), battlefield missile of range 80 to 90 km for the Army
  2. Akash: Medium range Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM with range of 25 km) for Army and Air Force
  3. Nag: Third-generation Anti-tank Missile (ATM) or ‘Fire & Forget Missile’ (range of 8 km) for Army
  4. Agni: Intermediate & ballistic missiles of varying ranges for armed forces
  5. Trishul: Quick reaction Surface-to Air Missile (SAM) of short range (8 to 10 km) for the Army (discarded after about a year or so)

Dr Kalam was designated as Programme Director with DRDL as the Nodal Laboratory and Explosives R&D Laboratory (ERDL) - now High Energy Materials Research Laboratory, (HEMRL) - for explosives & propellants; Armament R&D Establishment (ARDE) for warhead & other hardwares; Research & Development Establishment (Engineers) or R&DE(E) for platforms and Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL) for testing & instrumentation as sub-systems laboratories.

After about a decade, Dr Kalam was posted as Director-General, DRDO and moved to Delhi. In order to augment missile research in India and to keep pace with the advanced countries, at the initiative and recommendations of Dr Kalam, GoI established another 3 missile development and testing laboratories which were named as Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL), Research Centre Imarat (RCI) and Integrated Test Range (ITR).

Dr Kalam’s management philosophy 
DRDO is generally being criticised for exceeding the sanctioned ‘time limit’ and ‘funds’ (usually termed as ‘time’ and ‘cost’ overrun) in case of most of their projects. However, credit for the success of the Missile Program goes to Dr Kalam for his unique leadership & management style which is rare in India and may be termed as Dr Kalam’s Inspirational Management Philosophy. For the first time, Dr Kalam introduced a well-structured 3-tier monitoring system in DRDO that reviewed the progress of all projects under IGMDP and at the same time, provided solutions to the bottlenecks coming in the way of progress. The salient features of his Management Philosophy are:

1. Constitution of management boards: Following three boards were constituted which consisted of members from all partners.
i) Project Management Board: For reviewing scientific & technical progress and also for providing solutions to all such problems that hinder the progress of projects. Chairman - Project Director and frequency - Quarterly.
ii) Program Management Board: For reviewing mainly infrastructure related bottlenecks and also unresolved scientific / technical issues. Chairman - Director DRDL and frequency - Half yearly.
iii) Guided Missile Board (GMB): For reviewing/sorting out all problems (scientific, technical, infrastructure related and allied issues). Chairman - Director General, DRDO and frequency- Yearly.

2. Identification & utilisation of expertise available in India: The expertise available in the academic institutions, universities & private industries etc in India was identified and they were associated as the DRDO partners in the projects by sanctioning sub-projects to them.

3. Establishment of “Integrated Finance” in DRDO: A Joint Secretary, Director and allied staff of the Finance Ministry were posted to DRDO on deputation in order to expedite financial approvals on behalf of the Finance Ministry.

4. Flexible & motivational approach: Most of the time the decisions are taken at higher levels in India but Dr Kalam’s approach was unique. He used to arrange brainstorming sessions and take views of all concerned scientists/officers before taking a final decision. As a result, everyone used to treat it as their own decision and would try their best to make the project successful within the stipulated time. In other words, he used to convey to all scientists/officers that they are part of the decision making thus imparting a ‘sense of responsibility/ accountability’ in them. At the same time, he used to ignore the mistakes of scientists & motivate them and keep their moral high by quoting “Never treat failure as failure but as a challenge which is the stepping stone for success.”

5. Super human qualities: Dr Kalam was a super human being who possessed all human qualities - kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, helpfulness, patience and active listening. As a matter of fact, these attributes became part and parcel of his Management Philosophy. Welfare of subordinates was always his top priority which used to override the technical and project work. 

In addition, a few special aspects of his super human qualities were:
Absence of Anger & Ego: He was the Director & Director General of DRDO for more than a decade. I attended several meetings under his chairmanship but never saw even a trace of anger on his face even if a scientist failed to make a good presentation or could not answer to his questions. Despite being the Chief Executive of DRDO, he always used to be the last person to take tea/lunch/dinner after the meetings and utilised this intervening time by interacting with young scientists. In a nutshell, he was an epitome of humility and simplicity.

Honesty: Dr Kalam’s honesty with respect to financial as well as technical matters was beyond doubt and the result was that the Delhi bureaucrats had a complete trust in Dr Kalam, in particular, & DRDO, in general. The natural consequence was the prompt clearance of DRDO files/projects without any delay. Most of the time it was observed that once Dr Kalam cleared/approved any file/proposal, it used to be accepted by other ministries/departments without any query.

Compassion or Welfare of Subordinates: There are innumerable incidences during his tenure of about 10 years with DRDO, but I would like to narrate only two instances of which I have personal knowledge.

First incidence pertains to 1997, when I was not promoted to the post of scientist ‘G’ in 1996 as well as in 1997 despite completion of 7 years as Scientist ‘F’ and my significant contributions to DRDO projects. This was due to the internal politics of the laboratory. I took an appointment and met him in his South Block office at about 8 PM. During my presentation, I briefed him about my specific R&D contributions to DRDO projects including my research (Migration of Nitroglycerine from Rocket/Missile Propellants to Inhibitors) at the University of St. Etienne, France and research (Impact Behaviour of Advanced Explosives such as CL-20, ADN, GAP & NTO) at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, UK, which had direct application to several ERDL projects. 

He listened to me carefully for about half an hour without any interruption. In the end he simply commented “Injustice has been done to you and you deserve promotion”. Then he asked his PA to instruct the driver of his staff car to drop me to the DRDO guest house. When the PA pointed out that the car will not be available to him to go home till 10.30 PM, he simply smiled & commented that he would utilise this time by clearing up the files. I was overwhelmed by his noble gesture. He was more concerned about my convenience rather than his own. I have never come across a Chief Executive like him during my 33 years of service with the Ministry of Defence. He was an exceptional human being. This was my first one-to-one meeting with Dr Kalam and during this meeting, I realised that he was an apt listener. He made a note of my case and next year I was not only promoted but also awarded ‘DRDO Technology Award’. 

The second incidence happened sometime in 1998-99 when the then Director of HEMRL, Pune, had liver cirrhosis and on the recommendations of Dr Kalam was admitted to AIIMS, Delhi. After about a week he was advised to go to UK for liver transplantation which would incur expenditure of around Rs 90 lakhs. Dr Kalam immediately instructed the ‘Director of Personnel’ (DOP), DRDO to make a ‘Statement of Case’ for sanction of this amount by the GoI. Looking at the urgency, he himself took the file to the Defence Minister, Finance Secretary, Finance Minister and finally to the Prime Minister and got the funds sanctioned. The entire process took less than a week and the Director along with his wife was sent to UK for surgery. After a successful liver transplant, he returned back to Pune after 5 months and served the DRDO for five years before his retirement. All this could be possible only because of the charismatic/ towering figure of Dr Kalam.

These instances clearly show beyond doubt that Dr Kalam gave utmost priority to the Welfare of his subordinates. Dr Kalam was solely responsible for the above novel ideas and initiatives adopted by DRDO for the first time which proved very effective. In my opinion, the super human qualities of Dr Kalam were the real hallmarks/cornerstones of Dr Kalam’s Management Philosophy.

Accrued advantages
As a result of taking bold initiatives and painstaking R&D under the dynamic and able leadership of Dr Kalam, a strong R&D base was created in India for the development of various missiles & associated systems. It was because of his foresight, innovative R&D and pioneering research that various missiles for different applications have been developed and are available for use by the Indian Armed Forces. 
  • Prithvi Missile for Army, Air Force & Navy 
  • Akash Missile for Army & Air Force 
  • Third-generation Nag Missile for Army
  • Agni Missiles (Agni I, Agni II, Agni III, Agni IV, Agni V & Agni VI have different ranges) for the Armed Forces. Agni VI is an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with a range of more than 5310 km, which means Beijing is also within the reach of Indian Armed Forces
  • Long Range Surface-to-Air Missile (LRSAM) for Navy
  • Medium Range Surface-to- Air Missile (MRSAM) for Air Force 
  • Astra Missile for Air Force 
  • BrahMos Missile (Medium Range Supersonic Cruise Missile) for Army, Air Force & Navy 
  • Shaurya Missile (Hypersonic Surface-to-Surface Tactical Missile) for Armed Forces 
  • Anti-Satellite Missile for destroying / incapacitating incoming enemy missiles for strategic military purposes.

In view of the foundation laid by Dr Kalam for missile research & development in India and his significant contributions, he is regarded as the “Father of Indian Missiles” or “Missile Man of India”. In recognition of his contributions and making India ‘Self -Reliant’ in this strategic area, Government of India bestowed Bharat Ratna on him, India’s highest Civilian Award. This was for the first time in India that a scientist was conferred on with such an honour. In addition, he was also awarded several national & international honours, awards & medals. 

But I feel that the description of this great man would not be complete unless we look at his lesser-known spiritual side too. Despite being a true Muslim, he respected colleagues of all religions equally without any bias and discrimination. He used to read Geeta (the sacred and important scripture of Hindu mythology) in his leisure time. Many times he used to advise scientists to go through Mahabharata (another scripture of Hindu mythology) in order to visualise the status of missiles in India more than 5,000 years ago. He imbibed all these qualities & other super human qualities mentioned above from his parents who were very pious and spiritual. 

A Tribute
Dr Abdul Kalam is no more with us now but the path shown by him to the Indian scientists will enable India to become a Super Power in near future. To conclude let me say that India was extremely fortunate to have an accomplished scientist like late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam who conceived, structured, guided & masterminded India’s successful missile programme and whose only mission of life was to make India a capable, strong, self-reliant and super power of the world. He will always be remembered in India as an Engineer, World Acclaimed Scientist, Missile Man, Educationist, Administrator, Multi-Faceted Author and People’s President.

On behalf of all Indian scientists, I salute the noble and pious soul of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, which will guide the Indian scientists for scientific research of the highest order in the years to come and there cannot be a better example than the latest invention of 2DG drug by DRDO for the treatment of Covid 19.

About the author:
Dr J P Agrawal is the former Director of Materials, Defence R&D Organization and former Chartered Chemist & Fellow of Royal Society of Chemistry (UK). He is an internationally accomplished scientist in the field of explosives and is instrumental for the development of most thermally stable explosive (TATB), most powerful military explosive (CL-20), insensitive explosive (NTO) & energetic binder (PNPs) in India & for invention of several next generation new explosives such as BTATNB, BTDAONAB, PL-1, TNABN and PADNT. He is also recipient of several honours & awards including DRDO Technology Award & Honorary Fellowship of the “High Energy Materials Society of India”.

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