Leadership Lessons from Making of India – Book by Ranbir Vohra

making of India - Ranbir VohraIt was quite some time back that I read the book – Making of India – by Ranbir Vohra.  This was December 2006 and I had a habit of taking notes from any book that I read. Sometimes even movies. So what you read below are my interpretations of the historical narration of India’s journey of acquiring its national identity.

Good Leadership involves Policy Making. More effective than individual action.

For Political leadership, this has obvious relevance, but I would feel safe betting that this is true in a business context too. Imagine the kind of ripple-effects that the CEO can create, by clearly articulating effective rules and policies. This would include not only the core values that the organization wants to pursue but also how to conduct itself in the marketplace. How is performance measure, how are incentives decided, how do you gradually build the culture and the DNA of the organization. All of these could be better achieved by effective policy making esp in the context of a big organization.

Learn to trust your team and delegate effectively.

Delegation is a pretty obvious trait one would expect in a leader. Motivation to delegate might differ. Some leaders might be inspired to create free time to think, like Jeff Weiner(CEO Linkedin) does  whereas others might do it out of sheer laziness (which by the way is again a good virtue of a leader, if found alongside intelligence).

Sometimes you need to lead a team of people you don’t trust or consider incompetent.

Sometimes, with the bigger goal in sight, you might be forced to choose a path where you end up leading a team of people you don’t really trust. Or whom you consider grossly incompetent. And inspite of your drastic opinion if the party(or organization or team) enjoys the support of the people (or the market in case of an organization), it wouldn’t be wise to remove them as the first step once you assume charge of the new office. Create an able leadership that is recognised by making the machinery work and slowly remove them in a phased manner. While this might sound scheming to many, I saw this as a way to keep the bigger interests of the party at the center.

To get your way through a tough negotiation- Create a diversion

Sometimes when you are stuck in a tough negotiation situation, a serious distraction might help. Create a new clause and pretend that this is what matters most to you. But be careful to choose something that the other party would find almost impossible to concede. Now with this new clause coming in, the other party (hopefully) focuses energies there and might go easy on the original bone-of-contention.

Need for Symbols. How do you inspire people?

Gandhiji’s Dandi march is a great example of how you build support. Find something that many can relate to or find an activity that many can participate in. Symbols can similarly act as a strong rallying point for your team/supporters. Symbol doesn’t necessarily have to be a prop or a logo or an image. It could be a simple tradition – like wearing Khadi . Create traditions that can start to mean a lot to people involved over a period of time. And you might end up creating a legacy that generations can relate to.

Also it is important to stay connected with your organization. Stay connected by talking to them regularly. Start by clearly articulating a dream, a vision, a reason to exist (for you, for your professional self, for the party or for the organization). And then keep re-iterating this vision. Make them believe in it as much as you do.

CEOs role as friction buster

Not so long ago, a Private Equity guy told me that I was trying to do too many things as the CEO. Initially I thought he meant that I should hire more people and let them manage the daily operations. While that was there, but what he went on to mention could probably be summarized as – CEOs should play the role of friction busters.

CEOs as friction busterAt that point of time, I was not really convinced as I felt it was necessary for me to be hands-on and keep my ears to the ground. Given that these were early days of the venture, there was so much to learn, so much to tweak, so many experiments to run.

But over the years, I have come to see the value of a CEOs role as friction buster, especially for a growth stage venture or even a start-up where the product/offering validation is done and the revenues are coming in.

So what does a CEO do as Friction Buster:

In any organization’s journey, there are two types of roadblocks  – external and internal.

External could be the market conditions like consumer preferences, competitors product or pricing or even regulatory changes. That apart there are hurdles that one finds within the team. These could pop-up in the form of a poor-culture, lack of internal processes, insecurity within the team and so on.

The CEO should be spending a good amount of time removing these internal hurdles to growth – ensuring a great culture that thrives on collaboration, innovation. Where team members feel secure and feel and act with a certain sense of ownership. These would typically span not just the Human Resource function, but would also encompass the technology and operations set-up.

Why is it important?

  • Keeps your team happy – If the CEO is able to hire rockstars and then help them be better at what they do – it would not only show immediately in the financials, but would help build a happy team.
  • Do it early on – A venture is like a car which is planning to pick up speed. If there are fine-tunings to be done, its best done when you are still at a low gear.
  • CEO is the best guy for the job – He/She has a complete context and would be able to prioritize the multiple internal opportunities.
  • Its not just the sales numbers – Too often we are trapped in the sales oriented metrics and keep focusing our energies on getting a bigger share of the market at lower costs. But too often, the constraints lie internally – in who we hire, how they work, how we fail to empower them or how we fail to build a solid culture.

Decisions, smart decisions and implemented decisions

Reports suggest an adult makes on an average 35000 decisions every day.

Wow !

That’s surely a lot of processing for our brains. Maybe some of these decisions are so minor, that we do not even recognize the exact moment we made them. Still its these decisions which allow us to thrive in our chosen surroundings.

DecisionsDecision making becomes more important in a group – whether its a sports team or a business venture. Decisions are what help us move forward, allow us to discover the opportunities, to create a mental map of where we want to go. Decisions and maybe smart decisions, influence the outcome significantly.

Failure to decide

Many teams fail to decide or decide too late, and this could happen due to many possible reasons.

  • They are afraid to make decisions. The culture of the team is such that fear is what drives people away from decision making
  • Lack of data or information which makes the leader feel helpless (Google has helped make this a weaker cause)
  • No clear leader and everyone is waiting for someone else to decide. (wonder how a mob decides?)

At work, we typically work hard to ensure our decisions are smart. We use strategic frameworks, run complicated data models, build sxcel based simulations all in the hope that this single decision would take us on the path to success, fame and glory. But reality is that its not the decision alone, its what we do once we have decided, which determines our success.

Implementing Decisions

During the Common Wealth Games in New Delhi, a foot-over-bridge at one of the venues collapsed due to faulty construction. The civil contractor came back saying there was no way the bridge could be rebuilt in less than 2 months, whereas the games were less than 10 days away. Indian Army boys came in and 2 days flat the bridge was up.

So what was it that a contractor who has had the experience of building multiple such bridges in the past couldnt commit to doing something that the armed forces team could deliver so beautifully. The answer lies in the will to implement, the commitment to see through our decisions. Maybe the armed forces are an extreme example but theres a lot that todays corporates can learn.

In my small career-span I have sat through many meetings, where some smart managers and great leaders would decide on action items. But in many of those instances, there would be no follow-ups, no checks whether the decisions were really implemented within the agreed timelines. No going back to see if the course chosen is indeed correct or if it needs any further correction.

To my mind, this is one area that any leader should focus on – ensuring that there is a culture of seeing through the team’s agreed decisions.


Coz you might choose to make fewer decisions, you might also make far-from-smart decisions, but if you are able to implement those decisions, you have made progress. You would have a fresher and better perspective to re-evaluate your decision(s). You would have a team which gives the leadership the confidence to take bold steps.

Boeing- Built to Last !

Just got this mail from a friend in the US-truly inspiring-

boeing“I happened to see this in passing at the backside of a Boeing newsletter few months back. Simply love the raw determination of the human spirit. What a privilege to belong to the same species!!”

I’ve tried to make the men around me feel, as I do, that we embarked as pioneers upon a new science and industry in which our problems are so new and unusual that it behooves no one to dismiss any novel idea with the statement that “it can’t be done!”. Our job is to keep everlasting at research and experimentation, to adapt our laboratories to production as soon as possible, and to let no new improvement in flying and flying equipment pass us by.”

William E. Boeing, founder The Boeing Company, 1929