Salaam, Kalam!

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Monday 27 July 2015 6:30 pm. APJ Abdul Kalam goes up on stage at the IIM Shillong campus. He is preparing to tell students the story of our living and liveable planet. Within ten minutes, he collapses on stage and then, within an hour and a half becomes a story himself. If our lives are nothing but the stuff of stories, his story was about a giant redwood falling silently over a jungle in the mountains.

APJ Abdul Kalam was a striking protagonist. With cascading curls of silver hair mopping his face,—he reminded one of a Greek statue. He had this pronounced scholarly stoop that comes from long hours of reading and sitting before the computer. My first encounter with his famed humility was when he sent a personal acknowledgment after reading one of my rather ordinary books, Light the Fire in Your Heart! His own book Ignited Minds that followed my book was a much more impactful work and sold million copies in print. Kalam was committed to the youth of India because he knew that the shelf life of his vision for India would be much longer if he stole the hearts of young India. His memory now remains etched like the national anthem in the hearts and minds of millions of school children that he met in his lifetime.

During the next meeting with him, I saw him cut through layers of Presidential protocol to allow my colleagues and me to take an informal photograph with him. The occasion was a leadership award ceremony where he was giving away IIM Lucknow’s corporate leadership award to Mr. Ratan Tata. I heard him saying: ‘For me teachers come before leaders.” For once, one felt legitimate pride in one’s occupation as a teacher. This was Kalam’s greatness as a leader. He could make people around him stand taller and stronger as if that is what they actually were.

Kalam was not as much religious as he was a spiritual man. The signature of his spiritual quest was his mind-stretching austerity. His ignited mind was fed by a frugal diet. The former Chief Secretary of Jharkhand once told me a story of attending a breakfast meeting with the former President on a train. The Secretary, a frugal eater himself, decided to skip dinner the previous night in anticipation of a sumptuous Presidential breakfast. When he actually met the President for breakfast, the Secretary was shocked to see that all that the President had for breakfast was one idli. The Secretary realized that even an insignificant idli would seem so desirable and that hunger was indeed the greatest appetizer.

Minutes before he got up on stage yesterday Dr. Kalam looked for the security guard at IIM whom he had met three years back. He asked the guard if he was doing well and thanked him for his services. Then, there was an exclusive photo opportunity: the former President and the flattered servant. It must have been tough to tell whether Kalam was the servant or the leader because he was both—the quintessential servant leader.

I conclude with following six insights on leadership that our people’s President leaves behind as his legacy for generations to come. Here they are:

  1. It is very easy to defeat someone, but it is very hard to win someone.
  2. Dreams are not those which comes while we are sleeping, but dreams are those when you don’t sleep before fulfilling them.
  3. This is my belief: that through difficulties and problems God gives us the opportunity to grow. So when your hopes and dreams and goals are dashed, search among the wreckage, you may find a golden opportunity hidden in the ruins.
  4. You cannot change your future, but you can change your habits, and surely your habits will change your future.
  5. Don’t read success stories, you will only get a message. Read failure stories, you will get some ideas to get success.
  6. End is not the end, if fact END means “Effort Never Dies” – If you get No as an answer, remember NO means “Next Opportunity”. So Let us be positive.”
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