APJ Abdul Kalam: Humility in Leadership

September 15, 2015India’s former president APJ Abdul Kalam, who died on July 27, 2015, had a leadership style many would do well to emulate.

I received the sad news of his death recently, when I called my parents in Amritsar from Washington DC. He had collapsed while giving a talk to students at IIM Shillong, and passed away soon after.

My thoughts immediately went back to when I heard him speak at Georgetown University in 2010. I had just spent a long weekend and a few late nights working to send off a client deliverable, so as soon as I had finished, though it was still early afternoon, I told my boss I was heading out. My body cried out for rest, but my heart knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: Dr. Kalam was speaking at the McDonough School of Business as part of its Distinguished Leaders Series.

And I was not mistaken: this event left a mark on me. I still have handwritten notes of what Dr. Kalam said. What I clearly recall from that day—because it came through every pore of this immensely smart, accomplished, successful man—was his humility. There he was, not preened and polished, just himself, with his long white hair curling at his neck and forehead. He looked more grandfatherly than presidential, especially when he smiled. He spoke about four aspects of leadership, and gave examples of each from people he had encountered and learned from, in his unique self-effacing, humorous style.

I remember Dr. Kalam’s account of a mission at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). He was project director for India's satellite launch vehicle program and had been leading a team to put a satellite into orbit. On the day of the launch, all went well for a while, but then the satellite plunged to earth. The launch had failed. Dr. Kalam described how his boss, ISRO Chairman Dr. Satish Dhawan, calmly stepped into the sea of cameras and microphones and took responsibility for the failure. Within a year, the team tried again, and succeeded. This time, Dr. Dhawan asked Dr. Kalam to meet the press and get the accolades. This, said Dr. Kalam, was a critical quality of leadership: sharing credit for success, taking responsibility for failure. And he modeled this behavior even in his talk: though he had plenty of admirable experiences as a leader that he could have used as examples, he chose instead to share stories of people he admired—his teacher in school, his boss.

Humility is not a value we typically associate with leadership or success. An exception may be Robert Greenleaf’s concept of Servant Leadership, but this, unfortunately, is not something one sees in practice much in either the East or the West. Catalyst research on inclusive leadership across six countries—including India—also shows that after empowerment, humility is one of several key leadership behaviors that fosters feelings of inclusion in followers. Together with courage and accountability, these facets of leader behavior form the hallmarks of altruistic leadership. In turn, employees (the study was conducted in a work setting) who feel included volunteer to do additional work to help their teams, and are more innovative in approaching problems and identifying new opportunities for the organization. Thus, altruistic leadership can have deep and widespread impact upon an organization. It is even more curious then, that such characteristics are not the ones usually associated with leadership.

In a world where it is becoming more and more acceptable for successful and powerful people to be nasty and rude, APJ Abdul Kalam is an ideal of leadership I hold on to.

This was a leader: brilliant yet humble. A rarity who lived simply but dreamed big. An inspiring visionary with a sense of humor. A lifelong learner who generously shared what he had learnt. One among many stories of his approachability is that he gave out his email address to students after talks—and then actually replied to their questions. No wonder that the United Nations declared his birthday, October 15, as World Students Day in 2010.

He wore many hats—scientist, president, writer, poet, head of India’s missile program—but wanted to be remembered as a teacher. This illustrates another leadership lesson few leaders understand well: that a critical part of their job is to develop and empower their subordinates and teach others to lead.

He was called “the People’s President” because he saw that leadership is about people, about inspiring and connecting with others. And he did so with no motives of personal gain. His integrity and authenticity shone through.

While Dr. Kalam’s life can serve as a model to anyone, the best tribute my compatriots and I can pay him is to incorporate the principles we so admired in him into our own lives. In how we interact with others, how we inspire and support, how we lead, and how we dream. And in doing so, we can take our country to the heights he envisioned.

Kalam ko mera salaam! (I salute you, Kalam!)

(This article has been adapted from a previous blog post on LinkedIn:



The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.