ISRO's Amazing Accomplishments - II

Continued from Previous Page

4.1.6 Sarabhai, the Leader Who Built ISRO with an ‘Uncanny Artistic Intuition’

By the late 1960s, Sarabhai, sensing the difficulty of getting foreign assistance for taking forward India’s space program — indeed he voiced his concern so explicitly in one meeting: “the military overtones of a launcher development program of course complicate the free transmittal of technology involved in these applications”12 — had made India’s first-ever-study for development of its own space launch vehicle. In his palpable hurry for developing a launch vehicle with indigenous capability, he had also got the cost analysis of building a launch vehicle program. The drawings were indeed got ready, and of the six, he ticked the third design and that is how the name of SLV-3 emerged. It is of course a different matter that with his sudden demise and the 1971 Indo-Pak war, India’s launch vehicle building program had obviously suffered a setback.

However, the impact of Sarabhai’s personality in making his colleagues to carry forward his vision for ISRO can well be understood from what Rao had to say: “The dynamism and purposefulness he infused, contagious enthusiasm and inspiration he transmitted and the deep concern and love for people he showed made a strong impact on his close colleagues and the institutions he built.”

Bruno Russi, the celebrated scientist from MIT with whom Sarabhai collaborated, very aptly summed up Sarabhai’s contribution to science at the special session of the Cosmic Ray Conference held at Denver in 1972 as, “I believe that the stature of Vikram Sarabhai as a scientist depends not so much on any specific achievement as on the unique character of his scientific personality. For him scientific research was an act of love towards nature. He had an almost uncanny capability to absorb and store in his mind a vast amount of experimental and theoretical data. Having done that and guided by what I am tempted to call an artistic intuition, he would then proceed to arrange these data into a self-consistent picture bringing out hidden regularities and relationships; a picture which, through the years, would progressively evolve and become more precise. This is why his death dealt such a hard blow not only to the personal feelings of his fellow scientists, but to science itself’.”

Sarabhai, the founder Chairman of ISRO, as Rao observed, being an amalgamation of a great scientist, an administrator, industrialist, a social reformer, a manager, a skillful diplomat and above all being a very warm and charming person, always smiling and never losing his poise even in the face of most adverse situations laid strong foundation for ‘achievement culture’ in ISRO. In fitness of the fact, it must be said here that Sarabhai, “working against time”, as though he was aware of the short time he had within which he had to compulsively achieve his goal — the goal of innovatively “linking the culture of fundamental research, the culture of research and development, and the culture of industry”13 that would automatically make India self-reliant in space technology paving the way for the ultimate development of the nation — devotedly pursued his mission (for instance, once gave appointment to Kalam at 3.30 a.m.!) and in the process burnt the candle at both ends and died of a heart attack on December 30, 1971, at a very young age of 52 years. And another great legacy that he left behind is: as he said in his speech delivered at the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of TIFR, “One of Bhabha’s greatest accomplishments was that when he died suddenly, he left the state of affairs in the hands of people who shared a common trust and a common culture and could manage to develop these institutions further as a joint group or family.”14 Sarabhai too left ISRO exactly in the same style. And, the current state of ISRO indeed testifies his leadership legacy.

4.2. Satish Dhawan

Prof. Satish Dhawan is considered as the father of experimental fluid dynamics research in India and one of the most eminent researchers in the field of turbulence and boundary layers. After the sudden death of Sarabhai, he succeeded him as the Chairman of ISRO in 1972. He was also the Chairman of the Space Commission and Secretary to the Government of India in the DoS. Simultaneously, he continued as the Director of Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru too, for that was his first love. Even as the head of the Indian space program, he continued to devote considerable time and effort towards boundary layer research. His contributions are presented in the seminal book, Boundary Layer Theory by Hermann Schlichting, even to date.

During his tenure as Chairman, he, with his dedication, breadth of vision, meticulousness, humanity, and extraordinary scientific and technological abilities steered ISRO through a period of extraordinary growth and spectacular achievement. Hence, it is often said by the scientific community that it is Dhawan who “lent substance to Vikram Sarabhai’s vision” and built ISRO as a vibrant body that it is today.

4.2.1 Leader with a Knack to Pick Right People for Key Seats

Immediately after becoming the Chairman of ISRO in 1972, Dhawan brought Brahm Prakash from the DAE as the head of the newly-formed VSSC at Trivandrum to streamline its functioning.15 They together transformed the VSSC — an institute with activities fragmented, with different groups working independently, at times at cross purposes — into a dynamic structure capable of delivering results time and again.

Continuing with his mission to pick right people to man critical missions of ISRO, Dhawan along with Brahm Prakash, one day called Dr. Abdul Kalam, one of the technologists in VSSC, and said: “Kalam I have good news for you! You are going to run a huge program for ISRO. I and Director, VSSC have decided to appoint you as the project director Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV). I am going to give all the money required for the project, the management structure and the human power needed. But you guy, by 1980, you should show that you can launch Rohini Satellite using our own launch vehicle.” Recalling the incident, Kalam16 said that as he was dumfounded at the enormous responsibility that they were assigning him, Dhawan coming to his rescue said, “We believe in your capacity, we believe in your team-building capacity and above all the knowledge required you can assemble and integrate … when you undertake a big mission like the satellite launch vehicle project, there will be many challenges — technological, leadership, and also some unexpected critical problems which you cannot visualize… Kalam remembers, you should not let problems become your captain. Instead, you become the captain of your problems, defeat the problems and succeed.” Kalam said that it is this advice of Dhawan that “reinforced my [his] thinking and action” and also made him “accept the project.” And the results are all around to testify Dhawan’s eye for right people for the right job.

4.2.3 A Leader Who Is Ready to Accept Failures but Pass on the Success to Followers

Initially, ISRO was to face many failures. But Dhawan never lost his faith in the capabilities of ISRO and its young crop of scientists/technocrats. In 1979, as the countdown for launching the test flight of SLV was on, Kalam,17 recalling the episode, said that four minutes before the launch, computer put the launch on hold, for a glitch was noticed. Believing that their manual calculations proved otherwise, they switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage, everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed. As a result, the whole rocket system plunged into the Bay of Bengal. It was a big failure.

After the incident, Dhawan, conducting a press conference himself, took the responsibility for the failure upon himself saying that though the team had worked very hard there appeared a need for more technological support. He assured the media that in another year, the team would definitely succeed. This gesture of Dhawan naturally doubled the vigor of the project director and his team that enabled them to come up exactly within a year with a new rocket and launched it successfully in July 1980. That is the visionary leadership of Dhawan: Making Kalam and his team “see that it is not his purpose which is to be achieved, but a common purpose, born of the desires and the activities of the group”18 ensured the success of the project and in the process he too became a successful leader in making ISRO self-reliant in launch vehicles. And the creative leadership of Dhawan had not ended there: he called Kalam and said, “You conduct the press conference today.”

4.2.4. A Great Mentor

Sharing his relationship with Dhawan, Kalam said that on July 18, 1980, as India put a 40 kg Rohini satellite in a low-earth orbit through SLV-3 which took off at 0805 hrs, everyone in the control room at Sriharikota turned at once jubilant — in an emotionally charged atmosphere they were shouting, hugging and lifting each other. For, it was a great accomplishment for the scientists, especially after an unsuccessful earlier mission on August 10, 1979. Amidst that cacophony, it seems that Dhawan, taking Kalam aside to a silent place and sitting on the launcher and watching the waves of the Bay of Bengal in silence, said to him: “Kalam, you know you have been working hard for the last eight years. You encountered a number of problems and failures. You faced them all with utmost courage, patience and perseverance. For all the efforts that you put in, today we have got the results. I want to thank you for your excellent work. I will remember it and cherish it.”19 And Kalam says, “I have never come across such a beautiful day till then.” That is the subtle way of telling a colleague that he did matter for the Chairman and in the process letting him know that he had all that the organization needed. What else mentoring is!

4.2.5 The Change Leader

“To make the future is highly risky”20, said Drucker. But a change leader sees change as an opportunity: he knows how to find the right changes, and also knows how to make them functional. And that is what Dhawan did: drafting the services of Kalam for the space launch vehicle directorate at ISRO Headquarters, Dhawan assigned him with the responsibility of drawing space program for “remote sensing and communication satellites linking the corresponding launch vehicle systems including the launch complex.” After ten months of intensive interdisciplinary dialogs, they could design and develop a six degree of freedom simulation model integrating the progress of technology in different disciplines. But Dhawan’s devotion for the national cause was such that one evening, he, knowing fully well that the “most effective style of managing change is to create it”, sat down and drew the entire road map for the space program and depicted them in his own hand in two simple graphs which, according to Abdul Kalam, became the driving force for the entire space department for the next two decades.

4.2.6. Ace Manager of Knowledge Professionals and Their Knowledge

“Management of knowledge workers is a marketing job”, said Drucker. This concept had been fully exploited by Dhawan when he was to relieve Kalam on his transfer to Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). As Kalam was to finally move in 1982 to DRDO, Hyderabad, Dhawan, organizing an ISRO Council Meeting that was attended by all the Directors of ISRO laboratories and headquarters, asked Kalam and his team to present the space vision profile to the ISRO directors. By announcing the transfer of Kalam at the end of the day long presentation, Dhawan made Kalam feel that he not only elegantly made him “a part of the future space program but also honored him with a warm farewell.” It also ensured transfer of knowledge — knowledge that went into drafting of the space vision — to the successors who are going to execute it in Kalam’s absence, which in terms of organizational requirement is a must for success. That is the leadership of Dhawan!

4.2.7 Dhawan as a Teacher

Narrating his approaching Dhawan seeking his guidance to design a contra propelling rotator, Kalam21 describes the unique feature of Dhawan’s teaching thus: “He creates a spirit of research and inquiry in the taught by teaching how to design without giving the design. Indeed, he worked at enriching the design capability of the taught. By following through the implementation and test phase and just by asking more and more questions and making the taught find the answers for them”, Dhawan appeared to have enhanced the self-confidence of the taught — as it indeed happened in the case of Kalam — in taking up future design problems.

Dhawan thus ran the country’s space program by first drawing such programs which are societally conscious with objectives that are easily understood by everyone engaged in its execution; second, exhibiting immense faith in the ability of Indian engineers and scientists; third keeping the technology development work open and transparent through an elaborate system of reviews; fourth, maintaining accountability through peer pressure, but shielding the engineers from blame for honest failures; and, fifth, adopting a promotion and assessment system that had some unique features, which enabled the more productive engineers to move ahead of their colleagues, but not too rapidly and thus retained the confidence of the bulk of the staff in the fairness of the system.22 It is this idealism and commitment of him that influenced his colleagues in substantial measure as is reflected in the ultimate success that ISRO had accomplished.

4.3. U R Rao

U R Rao, an exceptionally versatile scientist with a wide-ranging expertise in many contemporary topics, took over as Chairman of ISRO in 1984. He is a gifted space scientist, technologist, and a passionate space application protagonist. He is known among the space-scientists for his sharp analytical bent of mind and enormous intellectual ability. He is an inspirational leader par excellence with forthright views and innovative ideas.

In late 1968, Rao, at the request of Sarabhai, started work on designing a 100 kg satellite with a team of around 20 engineers from SSTC and 20 young scientists from PRL that was then named as Satellite Systems Division. It was supposed to be launched by an American Scout Launch Vehicle, but was abandoned half the way due to changing political equations in the international arena. Later, Moscow came forward offering India a free launch. Drawing fresh plans, ISRO, naming Rao as the Project Director of the Indian Scientific Satellite Project, directed him to get the satellite ready within 36 months for launch by a Soviet launcher. Relying heavily on his project management and system engineering abilities, Rao created a sophisticated electronic laboratory, a clean room for assembling satellite, and a small thermo-vacuum chamber and other infrastructure in the industrial sheds allotted by Karnataka government. Simultaneously, he recruited 150 young engineers and scientists and commenced work on the satellite. With that young inexperienced but committed team of an average age of 25 with a ‘never-say-impossible’ attitude, Rao assembled the 358 kg Aryabhata satellite that was launched in 1975 from USSR. Later, becoming the first Director of the ISRO Satellite Center, Bengaluru, Rao designed, fabricated and launched over 15 satellites including INSAT-1 and INSAT-2 series of multipurpose satellites and IRS series of remote sensing satellites. Thus, he played a stellar role in “building an endogenous space technology capability in India”.

4.3.1. A Scientist of International Repute

Rao obtained PhD in 1960 from the University of Gujarat for his work on cosmic ray time variations under the supervision of Sarabhai. Joining MIT as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, he carried out fundamental investigations on solar wind using Mariner-2 observations. Working along with Conway Snyder and Marcia Neugabauer of the JPL, Rao made a path breaking discovery of the “continuous emission of the solar wind , their characteristics and correlation with the geomagnetic disturbance.” Later, joining the University of Texas at Dallas as Assistant Professor in 1963, he, as the prime experimenter on Pioneer 6, 7, 8 and 9 Deep Space Probes and Explorer 34 and 41 Spacecrafts, carried out research on solar as well as galactic cosmic ray phenomena and the electromagnetic state of the interplanetary space. Returning to India, he joined PRL and started research on X-ray and Gamma-ray high energy astronomy using balloon, rocket, and satellite-borne payloads.

Rao is an internationally acclaimed space scientist and rated by the coveted Space News magazine in 2004 as one of the top 10 international personalities who made a difference in civil, commerce and military space in the world since 1989. Acclaiming his professional skills that built “a robust space program in a democratic country, which is much more difficult than in countries with autocratic rulers”, Rao has been inducted into the Satellite Hall of Fame in Washington by the Society of Satellite Professionals International in March 2013.

4.3.2. A Leader with Spontaneous Geniality

Rao’s ability to connect with subordinates is an attribute that is often admired by his followers as his best quality. He had enormous concern for his team members. The courage he displayed to stand up to this reputation during the days preceding the launch of IRS-1B from the then USSR in August 1991 was exemplary. As his team landed at the Baikonur Cosmodrome with the spacecraft for its launching, the August Coup in Russia assumed threatening propositions. Looking to the intensity of the ongoing civil disturbances in Russia, Government of India advised Rao to avoid travelling to USSR. Yet, defying the warning, Rao flew to Soviet Union, for he simply wanted to be with his team during the moment of crisis. Though President Gorbachev had resigned as general secretary of Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) on August 24, 1991, and the mighty Soviet Union collapsed in the next few days, IRS-1B was launched without any hitch on August 29, 1991 from Baikonur. And the presence of Rao, needless to say, served as a balm, keeping ISRO team’s morale high as also kept their attention focused on mission, while their families back home heaved a sigh of relief knowing that Rao was with the team in Russia. That was Rao’s spontaneous geniality!

4.3.3. An Institute Builder

Above all, Rao is a great institution builder. Like his predecessors, Sarabhai and Dhawan, he too focused the vision and mission of the Indian space program on national development. While pursuing it, Rao, with his high levels of professional competence, and grit and determination, withered away innumerable difficulties — initial failures of the satellites and launch vehicles in the experimental stage, restrictions and embargos on transfer of sensitive technology by the developed world, lull in the international collaborations — by steadfastly working with his young infusing mutual respect and team spirit in the organization, and could succeed in building self-reliance in spacecraft and launch vehicle technology. His leadership style created the much desired trust that became the organizational norm and continues to be the guiding force in defining what is known today as ‘ISRO culture’.


4.3.4 An Enthusiastic Space Application Protagonist

Rao had evinced great interest to harvest the vast benefits that the space technology offered for the development of communication, education, management of natural resources and disaster management in the country. One of the most significant initiatives that Rao launched was the Integrated Mission for Sustainable Development (IMSD) that was carried out in 84 mha in 175 districts in the country around 1992 to prepare resource maps using remote sensing as a key tool and evolve action plans at watershed level to provide grassroot solutions towards conserving the land and water resources.

He also promoted the use of satellite remote sensing for operational flood management and agricultural drought monitoring. At his constant urging, the National Agricultural Drought Assessment and Monitoring System (NADAMS) was launched and NRSA brought out biweekly drought bulletins covering many states. Likewise, the flood mapping became operational in Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra basins with a combination of optical and microwave data.

Yet another ambitious and socially relevant project that Rao advocated was using remote sensing data to map prospective zones for groundwater occurrence, and locations for constructing recharge structures. It has become a major success, for the groundwater prospect maps thus drawn provided more than 90% success rate.

His passion for using remote sensing for national development well reflects in his carving out time from his preoccupations with steering ISRO to write a masterly book — Space Technology for Sustainable Development — that bagged the Outstanding Book Award of the International Academy of Astronautics in 1997.

Rao, as the Chairman, realizing the need to develop and establish self-reliance in launch vehicle technology, decided to go in for the Augmented Satellite Launch Vehicle (ASLV) — upgrading the first stage of SLV-3 with two strap-on boosters, with motors identical to that of the first stage. Many massive facilities were created within and outside ISRO to support the development of operational launch vehicles. Unfortunately, the first two developmental flights of ASLV carried out in March 1987 and July 1988 did not succeed. These failures seemed to have threatened the confidence of ISRO launch community. But Rao, as Chairman, standing behind them stoically, prodded them to fight back. Ultimately, the failure analysis of ASLV paid the dividends: the inputs of the report made the third and fourth flights of ASLV, carried out in May 1992 and May 1994, fully successful. This obviously encouraged the team to go for bigger challenges: ISRO took up the more challenging task of designing PSLV and GSLV launch vehicles. During the same period, Rao also initiated the development of cryo-technology and the development of GSLV capable of launching 2-2.5 tonnes class of satellites into geostationary orbit. He had also set up ANTRIX Corporation in 1992 as fully wholly owned company of Government of India to market space products and services that ISRO could offer.

Leading the youngsters from the front, bestowing confidence and encouragement, and posing adequate scientific and technological challenges, Rao introducing the “matrix management structure for optimal utilization of scarce human resources across the projects, decentralizing decision making to the level where technological expertise is available, and emphasizing on configuration management and systems engineering practices of enhanced coordination, interface control, quality assurance and professional documentation”,24 proved conclusively that India can master high-end technology and deliver world-class products.

4.4. Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan

Dr. Kasturirangan, essentially an astrophysicist of repute with research interests in high energy X-ray and gamma ray astronomy as well as optical astronomy who made extensive and significant contributions to studies of Cosmic X-ray sources, celestial gamma-ray and effect of cosmic X-rays in the lower atmosphere, had steered ISRO as its Chairman for nine glorious years.

Kasturirangan started his career with ISRO as Physicist at ISRO Satellite Center in 1971 and subsequently became the head of the Physics group in Aryabhatta Project Management Board. He once shared that keeping Rao as a role model, he attempted to execute every assignment that ISRO gave him: as Project Director of India’s first two experimental earth observation satellites, he built Bhaskara I and II satellites. Following it, he was entrusted with the responsibility of heading India’s first operational satellite program, the IRS. Later, becoming the Director of ISRO Satellite Center (1990-94), he oversaw the development of new generation spacecraft — Indian National Satellite (INSAT-2) and Indian Remote Sensing Satellites (IRS-1A & 1B) as well as scientific satellites.

Then, becoming Chairman of ISRO in 1994, he said, he felt nervous because that was a tremendous responsibility. Sharing his then trepidation, he said: “I thought I should have a style, an outlook and a culture to run the program and it has to be professional because any unprofessional activity in space can be disastrous. Luckily for me, I had seen working of Sarabhai, Dhawan and Rao closely and thought I should have an amalgam of all these three styles of functioning and try to bring in my own style of functioning.”25 Guided by that philosophy, he steered ISRO through the successful launching and operationalization of PSLV and the first successful flight testing of GSLV. He had also overseen the design, development and launching of the world’s best civilian satellites, IRS-1C and 1D, realization of the second generation and initiation of third generation INSAT satellites, besides launching ocean observation satellites IRS-P3/P4. These efforts have put India as a preeminent space-faring nation among the handful of six countries that have major space programs.

Intriguingly, what he said in one of his interviews after laying down the office of the Chairman merits our attention. He said: “There are good examples of working in teams. But there is a need to strengthen that culture, the ability to work together with transparency. We need to have lot of aspiration and ambition that nothing is impossible. That ambition should fire us and propel us to the next level of development.”26 One needs to ponder over these remarks, for: Is this an expression of anguish at the waning of these traits in ISRO of today?

4.5 G Madhavan Nair

Nair, who joined TERLS in 1967, rising through the cadre with illustrious milestones — during his tenure as the Director of the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre from 1995-99, ISRO’s efforts towards indigenous development of cryogenic technology took concrete shape and vital infrastructures were built and critical technologies were developed; and during his tenure as the Director of VSSC from 1999 till he took over as Chairman , GSLV launch vehicle capable of placing/carrying 2000 kg class of satellite into geotransfer orbit was developed and launched successfully in the very first attempt and declared operational in 2003 — in his long career became the Chairman of ISRO in 2003.

As Chairman, he had initiated action for the development of futuristic technologies to enhance the space system’s capabilities as well as to reduce the cost of access to space. Major thrust was given for exploration of outer space through the ASTROSAT and Chandrayaan (Moon) missions. He also provided guidance to undertake new technology developments related to launch vehicle, spacecrafts for communication, remote sensing and applications programs to meet societal needs.

4.6 K Radhakrishnan

The current Chairman of ISRO is a technocrat par excellence with management education and a PhD from IIT Kharagpur (2000) for his thesis “Some Strategies for Indian Earth Observation System.” A dynamic and result-oriented manager with very fine personal and interpersonal qualities credited with nurturing leadership skills in the younger generation.

Starting his career as an Avionics Engineer in 1971 at ISRO’s VSSC, Trivandrum, he commendably held several decisive positions in ISRO — such as Director of National Natural Resources Management System, Director of National Remote Sensing Agency (2005-08); Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (2007-09), and Member, Space Commission (October 2008-October 2009) — before becoming the chairman.

As the Director of VSSC, he played a crucial role in the first Indian Lunar Mission ,the Chandrayaan-1, being responsible for realization of PSLV C-11 launch vehicle with a new set of strap-on motors and a new mission design and Moon Impact Probe (MIP) that impacted on the surface of Moon in mid-November 2008.

During 2000-05, he had a stint in the Ministry of Earth Sciences as the Founder Director of Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services and the first Project Director of Indian National Tsunami Warning System.

During his tenure as Chairman, ISRO launched its Mars Orbiter Mission on November 5, 2013, which successfully entered the Mars orbit on September 24, 2014, making India the first nation to succeed in its maiden attempt, and ISRO the first Asian space agency to reach Mars orbit.

As could be seen from the foregoing, ISRO has had committed leadership all along to steer it through successfully. All of them either being scientists of repute or technocrats par excellence could command the loyalty of their cadre and ensure that organizational vision is properly aligned with its human resources as is reflected in its output till date.

5. Discussion and Conclusion

History tells that the modern economic growth has been inspired by a rapid and relentless upgradation of scientific knowhow and technology. Realizing this criticality of science and technology in ushering in societal welfare, our early policy planners gave tremendous importance to setting up a number of research and teaching institutions across the country. ISRO is one among such establishments — exclusively meant for harnessing the space technology for the socioeconomic development of the country.

Yet, the functioning of several such governmental institutions is often felt far from satisfactory. Amidst such a gloomy scenario, ISRO stands out as a rare jewel, delivering results — as examined here before — the fruits of which in terms of better communication, mapping of national resources, weather forecasting, disaster management, etc. are being palpably enjoyed by the common man today.

Now the big question is: How is that ISRO, a Government of India body governed by the same set of rules that are applicable to every other institute in the country, could deliver over its chartered objectives, that too, consistently year after year for over half a decade, while the rest are way behind in realizing worth mentioning return on their investment?

That said, the challenge we now face is: there is no single answer for such an amazing streak of success that ISRO is adorned with. Nevertheless, the following emerge out as the most obvious:

  • The first four Chairmen — Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U R Rao and K Kasturirangan — are all outstanding scientists, while the later two — G Madhavan Nair and K Radhakrishnan — are technocrats, besides being fine managers of men and resources. They are visionaries with rare human qualities.
  • Obviously, these natural endowments of the Chairmen came quite handy for them in inspiring confidence among their young followers that their mission is in competent hands and given a sincere collective-try, they all could realize whatever they are aiming at. Indeed, the buzz was: “when others could do, we could also do — do better even”.
  • This unique strength of these Chairmen lent ‘credibility’ to whatever they attempted and in the process accomplishment of the tasks such as demanding performance that could deliver the sought-after results, building of values and their reaffirmation and building effective teams and developing them for tomorrow have become a cakewalk.
  • And interestingly, all the Chairmen of ISRO have had long innings to make a meaningful contribution and almost all of them came from within the space community and importantly always appreciated what their predecessors have done and indeed taken it forward to its logical conclusion. And these seemingly simple essentials that are quite glaring by their absence in the rest of the institutions, have ensured that ISRO has always had an unwavering ‘vision’ that obviously afforded ‘strategic clarity’ for the team to aim at realizing the goals.
  • The early associates of ISRO — Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, U R Rao, Brahma Prakash, A P J Kalam, E V Chitnis, Vasant Gowarikar, Pramod Kale, K Kasturirangan and other pioneers — all evidently fired by a ‘national purpose’, have dedicated their lives for the cause of mastering the space with indigenous technology.
  • The founding Chairman, Sarabhai — essentially a lover of fundamental research, who realized the need for establishing an institute of management for supplying effective managers to Indian businesses for making them productive — as though taught by the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter27 who made a fundamental distinction between invention: discovery of new techniques, generally performed by the inventor; and innovation: the practical application of an invention in production for the market which is usually done by an entrepreneur — sown the right seeds at the very beginning of the journey of ISRO to build a sustainable link between these agencies. Encouragingly, this philosophy continued to interest the succeeding Chairmen too. And the results are there for us to see: it has paved the way for smoothly taking forward the vision of India’s space program with such ‘shoestring’ budget even.
  • Sarabhai, as a Chairman, could think about people long before the decision on filling a job has to be made and independently of it even. His decisions about people essentially reflected his urgency to maximize the strength of the organization. To start with, he was willing to select people more for what they can do rather than be solely guided by what the job requires, or what the qualifications one is tagged with. He looked for performance — “What does he contribute?” “What can he do uncommonly well? not conformance. And, by and large this trend appeared to have been continued by the successive Chairmen as a result of which we see ordinary people hailing from ordinary institutes performing extraordinary deeds in ISRO.
  • Collegiate atmosphere is the in-thing of ISRO. Paying tributes to Dhawan, Roddam Narasimha said that Dhawan held review meetings pertaining to technology development in an open and transparent atmosphere where it had almost become a tradition that the junior-most engineer could ask awkward questions to senior project leaders. And Dhawan, who often described himself as a teacher, was known to invite even leading professionals from outside ISRO to participate in such technology review meetings. Dhawan, being an extraordinary scientist, was known to ask very detailed questions, perhaps, with an interest to unearth several options to solve a given problem. And every problem was tackled by analyzing all the options before picking up the best option. Such traditions besides obviously paving the way for the organization becoming a learning institution, also helped to foster team spirit.
  • ISRO is the most open and transparent organization where failure is discussed openly to unearth the reasons with the sole objective of correcting them rather than to punish the cause. For instance when SLV-3 flight in 1979 failed, the Chairman took personal responsibility for the failure but did take up failure analysis to make the next flight in 1980 successful. Similarly, when the consecutive failure of ASLV flights in 1987 and 1988 threatened the confidence of launch community, Rao stood by the community but at the same time carried out failure analysis threadbare, the inputs of which ultimately made the subsequent launch carried out in 1992 fully successful. That kind of leadership obviously made engineers and scientists never to be afraid of honest failures. And, failures never deterred them from dreaming big too.
  • The most unusual thing to happen at ISRO, but a pleasant one to live with, is the least amount of red tape. One may say that its absence in ISRO is no wonder, for it cannot penetrate, say for instance, when the countdown starts for launching a vehicle, there would be no room for taking shelter under funny rules. But the truth is, red tape does not walk in on its own, rather it is the people manning the business who invite it in for obvious reasons.
  • ‘Emphasis only on performance’ is the mantra of ISRO for managing human resources. This has obviously kept the morale of the young and aspiring scientists and engineers high which fact well reflects in ISRO’s achievements.
  • Team spirit is the hallmark of ISRO. The leadership succeeded well in effectively harmonizing the efforts of all the team members towards a common goal and realizing the objective. And, it is not once or twice, project after project we could see this happening as a matter of a ‘given’. Indeed, we experience this phenomena watching the photos released by ISRO after launching a vehicle with significant payload that exhibit visibly excited men and women, young and old, traditional and conservative, atheists and theists but truly a replica of India, all enjoying the success of their efforts to the hilt with wide opened eyes and broad smiles. And, this speaks well of the leadership across the hierarchy.

The great leaders that the ISRO had the luck to have are known to see themselves as not all that important but felt the need to look beyond themselves and build an executive team and craft a culture of performance based on societal needs that do not rely on any single leader. Knowing fully well that integrity is an important aspect of leadership, its demands on the system in terms of measurement, accountability, visibility, and active participation was never unfair, which obviously encouraged every employee to give his might willingly hoping for his due share of benefit as an automata. Above all, its leaders, besides being themselves fired by ‘national-fervour’, were often found fretting over how to instill a sense of purpose and honorable inquisitiveness into organization so that it could live beyond their own time. The value system that the pioneering leaders created had thus infused ability in the system to bounce back from failures, even from cataclysmic catastrophes stronger than before.

Nevertheless, looking to the skirmishes that recently appeared in press about the differences among the past and present top associates of ISRO, one wonders if that kind of leadership has become history. In an organization like ISRO where the phenomenon of work shifting from ‘hands to mind’ is so nakedly visible, it is all the more necessary to further strengthen the practice of ‘soft-HRM’ — motivating knowledge workers with “vision, culture, structure, strategy, and processes” rather than merely with contractual rewards. That is where ISRO should think anew: Leaders must become more “a shepherd, staying behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, where upon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

To conclude, it must be said that the set of rules that bind the scientific institutions of the government are the same for the ISRO and the others; yet, ISRO could deliver amazing results. It thus calls for an in-depth study of ISRO, its incredulous performance, the role of leadership in making ISRO what it is today and its style of nurturing leadership in the organization for so long and so successfully. The findings of such a study would certainly help other institutions to better their functioning, besides being of interest to ISRO too, for as Jim Collins observed, “Every institution is vulnerable, no matter how great. No matter how much you’ve achieved, no matter how far you have gone, no matter how much power you’ve garnered, you are vulnerable to decline. There is no law of nature that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top. Anyone can fall and most eventually do.”28 For instance, recall if you have heard anything about ICAR after Dr. M S Swaminathan? Nor did we hear anything significant about other institutions like CSIR, ICMR, etc. It is in this context that the findings of such study could help ISRO: to institutionalize its process of self-improvement in such a way that it becomes a way of life; to create internal competition with demanding performance targets for the divisions; build up such mechanisms that would not allow complacency and stagnation to creep in; and define its vision and mission in such a way that it automatically makes ISRO build for the future, no matter who the leader is. Importantly, the revelations of such a study are sure to enable ISRO adapt a different operating logic such as the one proposed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter29 — a common purpose, a long-term focus, emotional engagement, partnering with the public, innovation and self-organization — which is sure to alter its leadership and organizational behavior radically and in turn enable ISRO “get better and better”.


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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