Dr. Abdul Kalam is perhaps India’s most admired technocrat who once led the country’s space rocketry and missile programme into monumental heights. I recently came across his autobiography ‘Wings of Fire‘ which is a fascinating account of his life and work and a story full of inspiration. In spite of being brought up in a rural village and a son of an ordinary boat-owner, his ceaseless courage was ultimately well paid off at the end by becoming the most distinguished person in India – the country’s 11th President. But yet, what captivated me most is his humble and unassuming nature and the way he maintained it throughout his life. Following are some of the useful traits that I could pick up from his deeply passionate personal story, which I believe will enlighten our lives too.
- Determination to learn.
Abdul Kalam spent his boyhood in an environment where books and knowledge were rare. He mentioned that he had used a neighboring library to read books and considered it as his primary source of knowledge at that time. However he bore an uncanny ability to learn something out of everything that came under his observation. For instance, he attributed two of his relatives by whom he had learnt the power of positive thinking and the intuitive wisdom that he later applied to his scientific work. Abdul Kalam continued his education from school to college to university through many hardships and obstacles on his way, but did not express the slightest trace of resentment for his deprivation.
- Willingness to explore the unknown
After his appointment as a scientific assistant at ADE (Aeronautical Development Establishment) he was given the task of developing a prototype model of a ‘hovercraft’. Many thought this was something that goes beyond the scope of his capabilities. He and his team had no experience on building such a machine and there were no design documents or standard blueprints to begin with. He read through as much literature as he could find on the subject and finally took the decision to proceed with the little information and resources he had. His efforts were frequently battered by senior scientists in the institute, who as he stated, found it delightful to point him as yet another country pumpkin in pursuit of an impossible dream. Nevertheless not only had he succeeded in making a hovercraft but also in building space launch vehicles, sounding rockets, and missiles of great variety.
This is probably the most valuable lesson we can learn from his life. He believed in leading a team from front, involving with team members at all different levels in a project. He, as a leader took the responsibility of failures and did not ever try to sugar coat the bitter part of whatever he held accountable. The book especially highlights the profoundness and the innate wisdom he bore on leadership during the space programme SLV-3. He always gave his team members the opportunity to share their ideas for the fulfillment of the project’s goal and did not hesitate to give them the credit for their creativity. He believed that the biggest problem for any leader is to achieve a regular and efficient interfacing between different individuals and work centers. In the book, he advises that no matter how hard your work might be, miscommunication and the absence of proper coordination lead your work to fall apart and shatter into pieces. I was able harness yet another useful advice from his book, which follows as; we do not just always build on success, we also build on failures. He learnt about leadership in the hard way but that eventually led him to become the first citizen in India.
It came to my notice how he had endured difficulties during the time he was heading the SLV-3 programme. The rocket’s first flight terminated immediately after its take-off, splashing into the distant ocean along with all the valuable hardware it contained. The incident caused Abdul Kalam to swirl into a wave of frustration mixed with anger. But he tirelessly re-worked on the rocket, consuming a little sleep and food. Post-analysis studies were conducted to isolate the root cause for the failure. Along with the support of his fellow team members and friends he set off making a more resilient design for the rocket. He believed the pursuit of science is a combination of great inspiration and great despair, and remained motivated by the history’s great scientists like Johannes Kepler, whose research took 17 years before the enunciation of his discoveries on planetary motion. Kalam’s timely advice on perseverance is that ‘when you become tense and tired, slow down. You should climb the mountain in a state of equilibrium‘.
Provided here are some insights from the life of Abdul Kalam, but this is merely a small piece of icing that I scraped out from his autobiography. As a distinguished scholar, a political giant, an outstanding scientist, and a humble philosopher of benign nature, what more could you ask for a better role model? I end this article with a few lines of a poem written by Abdul Kalam in his own words as in the following,
For all your days prepare
And meet them ever alike
When you are the anvil, bear –
When you are the hammer, strike..