Commandant of the NDA, Air Marshal JS Kler, AVSM, VM
Dty Commandant, Rear Admiral SK Grewal, VSM
Officers and Academic staff; and
Cadets of the National Defence Academy.
Good evening to all of you and thank you for your kind introduction.
It is indeed an honour and privilege for me to address you all this evening. I am filled with nostalgia as I joined this great institution 41 years ago in 1976 and graduated from here in June 1979. It may seem a long time ago, but I can still hear myself sing, the announcements at Kilo squadron; I hope that it is still the squadron tradition. I also remember the aroma of the Gole market bakery that sold doughnuts. I must confess, those were the best doughnuts that I have ever eaten.
When I received the invitation from the Deputy Commandant, I was no doubt thrilled to come back to talk to all of you. However, summarizing a life long journey into 45 minutes is not an easy task. There are some common threads through my journey – first as a soldier and then as an entrepreneur, and when I look back at my life, I can see that these threads were woven into my character by the National Defence Academy.
Admiral Grewal asked me to speak about “Leadership and Risk Taking”, but I have been given latitude to cross reference my experiences. The Chief Instructor, Brig Jacob had cautioned me that most of you are going to sleep; I had therefore requested him to provide some pillows and blankets. I believe these are available should any one need them.
During the course of my talk, I will map my journey, both through successes and failures, and also reflect on my recently published book, in which I have proudly acknowledged that I would not be the man I am today, without the strong foundation that the military gave me. You will also see some visuals appearing on the screen; these are pictures from the past and some highlights of my presentation.
I do have to tread on thin ice today, as I want to motivate you to rise to the top in the armed forces; and not leave and follow what I did. But it is important for you, to know the qualities the Army engrained in me, that allowed me to get to where I am today.
One consistent factor in this auditorium today, is recognition, that by being the 8th hardest institution globally, to be admitted into, we are a unique group of individuals. Individuals, who have been filtered through a fine mesh, that above all distils an alumnus of outstanding leaders.
To illustrate this point, my course boasts of 8 Lt Generals, of which three are Army Commanders. The Quarter Master General, General Ambre, who is present here this evening, three Vice Admirals including the Vice Chief of Naval staff, The Flag officer Commander In Chief of the Southern Naval Command and 4 Air Marshals, including one, who was the Commandant of this great institution a few years ago. The inference is, that no matter how you feel today, you are part of an elite group, that will lead the armed forces, in the not so distant future.
So what is this sieve that you are going to be put through for the next 30 to 40 years of your life? How do you prepare for it? What is the code of conduct that you live by, what purpose and goals have you set for yourself, and how do you achieve them? More importantly, what is the legacy that you will leave behind when you finish your innings and head back to the pavilion? These words may sound complex and farfetched, but it is what you do, from the day you join this glorious institution, that will determine your destiny.
From the day that I joined the NDA until the day I left, there was an emphasis on two interconnected values; Leadership and Espirit De Corps. We all arrived here from different walks of life. The first step of the training, consciously or unconsciously, whether on the official parade ground or while front rolling in each other’s vomit after dinner, was to unify the cadets through cohesion.
There was initially a belief that if you were a fast runner, you could rest if you came first, after running rounds of the quadrangular. It is only a myth. Whether the exercise conducted was by your Squadron Commander or by a second termer, or during the various training camps, the outcome expected was the same; and the methods, as brutal as they seemed, achieved the goal of cohesion. It was not who came first, but that we all came together, and came on time.
I remember one of my course mates, after reaching the end of his tether, committed sacrilege by walking up to our Squadron Commander, then Lt Commander Zuthi, and telling him that he was beat, and exhausted, and could take no more of 7th heaven, or the post dinner commando training. We had done so many push ups that night, that none of us could even wear our berets at muster. Commander Zuthi got us all together and gave us the explicit difference between being a man and a sissy; nothing complimentary I might add. He looked at the Squadron Cadet Captain and said that he wasn’t doing his job.
I am sure that everyone in this auditorium would recognize the outcome of that mischievous insult. What resulted from that day on, until camp Greenhorn, was that despite the expected onslaught, we never looked back. When there is no recourse, you look up, regroup and then forge ahead. That is the attitude that is instilled into each of us. This is at the core of who we are; without being together, we are nothing.
My father, who distinguished himself both as an army officer and a corporate legend, defined leadership as, “an ability to influence and inspire people to work willingly and enthusiastically to achieve group goals. At the end of his 65 year career, in his definition, he emphasized the word “willingly”. This word signifies cohesion, through a common mission or goal. Espirit de corps is defined as the spirit, that makes the members of a group want to succeed. So what is this spirit that needs to be instilled in each one of us, to willingly achieve an objective?
This Spirit, whether in the armed forces or in the corporate world, is nothing but the motivation that drives an individual. In the ultimate analysis, the art or science, of motivating people, to achieve a goal, is what leadership is all about.
I was commissioned straight into field, with 113 Engineers. The regiment was on a classified operational task. My first company commander, then Major Jagannathan, gave me my first lesson on leadership.
Jagannathan was a veteran of two wars, and prided himself on his achievements as a soldier on the battlefield. The troops simply loved him. Despite his foul language and rough exterior, they would do anything for him. My first question was: what is the genesis of this loyalty? Combat soldiers may have strong beliefs about patriotism, but when it comes to the crunch, they follow their leaders. They follow men and women, who have established credibility through consistent actions, and can therefore be trusted implicitly.
As I was to realize over the next three years, my company commander personified these ideals. He drilled one important lesson into my DNA: if there is a single soldier under your command, who is on duty, you have to be there with him. To be effective, you cannot lead from behind.
Over the next few years, I understood that he had no agenda other than excellence. As we toiled in the Rajasthan desert, Col Jagannathan relentlessly emphasised some basic qualities of leadership: tireless persistence for perfection; leading from the front; humility; conviction; the ability to always stand up for what was right, and giving due credit to the people that you lead.
I have dwelt on this, as this early experience formed my character, and to this day, I have lived my life following the value system that the NDA instilled in me. Our foundations have been laid in this great institution and these are qualities that each of you have, which will be essential, as you take your positions as junior leaders of our armed forces.
After my tenure with 113 Engineers, I finished my degree course at CME in 1986, during which time I got married. In January, the same year, I was awarded the VSM at our Army day parade. BTW, I can assure you that the VSM wasn’t for getting married. I then moved to 114 Armoured Engineers in Patiala. It was an opportune time to have been with the 1st Armoured Division, as we played an important role in Operation Brasstacks.
Then came the turning point in my life. It had always been my dream to go to the Antarctic, and I was selected to join the 7th Indian Scientific Expedition.
The experience at the Antarctic in 1987 was like no other; it was like living in a refrigerator. Our mission was to build the foundation of India’s second base at Maitri, which is on an oasis, 110 KM into the continent. We acclimatized first at the High Altitude Warfare School in Gulmarg and later at our first base camp in Dakshin Gangotri; we then moved to Maitri which was close to the Russian base Novorossiysk, which is on a glacier.
The experience was enriching as it was my first exposure on inter-service cooperation or jointness of the three services. The armed forces contingent had pilots and technical members from the Airforce and the Navy; they were responsible to ferry, man and material, on Chetak and Mi-8 helicopters, from the continental shelf, to the two base stations.
The weather conditions in Maitri were hostile, and although we had daylight for 20 hours, there were a number of days when the white-outs or blizzards would not allow us to go out, or for the helicopters to fly. The Naval and Airforce pilots, most of them Ex NDA, were our lifeline, and were always on standby to make extra sorties on clear days. It was hard work, and in 3 months, we succeeded in our mission of moving over 300 tons of steel and equipment, over a distance of 110 kilometres and building the foundation of the station.
We would not have succeeded without the team work among the three services, and the great leadership from our Expedition Commander, Col Ganeshan. This spirit of inter-service cooperation is born right here at the NDA and will be an integral part of your careers, particularly as you start to gain seniority in the armed forces.
Other than the experience of building our station, there were a few other important lessons. The most important of which was to respect Mother Nature. I remember one morning when we got up in a blizzard and it took us 4 hours to cover the 200 metres from the outside shelter to the main base station at Dakshin Gangotri. On another night, our porta cabin caught fire and Captain Kurup, Captain Patole and I escaped with our lives, bare foot on razor sharp blue ice. It was during this visit that I saw first-hand, how ice bergs were breaking off because of global warming, which was becoming the cause of changing weather patterns.
During my 4 months on the frozen continent, I began to reflect on what I wanted. It was during days of blizzards, that I dared to start dreaming of the outside world. A world I had no idea about, but a seed had been sown.
On my return from the Antarctic, I spoke to my father, who was livid at the idea of my wanting to leave the Army. My son was to be born any day, and he thought I had lost my mind in the cold. Standing up before a legendary father’s logical statements, and understandable temper, was not easy. You are an outstanding and decorated soldier, he reasoned. Why do you want to leave this wonderful and honourable life? What will you do he asked me again and again; I had no answer. I was stubbornly adamant but did not have a plan. I was scared to tell him, that he had done the same, and had turned out absolutely fine.
What gave me hope were a few things. First, at a personal level, a loving mother; who as most mothers do, felt that my father was being unreasonable! And a loving wife, who at 23 years of age, wisely said, it does not matter what you do, I will always be by your side. At a professional level, I had two degrees, 13 years of tempered discipline, ethics and an exemplary code of conduct; surely these things would count for something.
My father didn’t give up and as a final measure, he asked me to meet one of his retired Army friends. At the end of the lunch, General Dayal, who a few months later went on to become our Lt Governor in Pondicherry, said something reassuring. He said, “Son go out and follow your dreams”. These were important words and while my father was disappointed in both of us, he finally gave me his consent.
I eventually resigned from the Army in April 1988, which was accepted 5 months later. When I left the army, I had Rs. 17,000 in my bank account, a young wife and a 5 month old son. This was perhaps the greatest risk that I have ever taken.
At my home coming party on the 29th of September, one of my uncles who owned a construction company asked me to work for him. He had won a contract for building army accommodation in Patiala, and asked that I move there to look after the project, as Project Director. What followed for the next 3 months was the worst professional nightmare that I ever had. I watched in shock the utter disregard for quality standards and blatant corruption; I had not anticipated the violation of ideals that had been instilled in me. I raised the issue with my uncle, who took pains to explain the way things happened in the construction industry. I wasn’t convinced.
One thing I had to get used to was interpreting what people actually meant with their words. In the army when you said something, you stood by it; it was your honour code. I found people in the real world, say one thing, mean something else and then do something completely different. The institution of implicit trust was destroyed.
As a young officer in the army, you are shielded from the harsh realities of life, but this was being thrown into the deep end. I was disillusioned. The greatest fight was an internal one with my conscience. The bottom line was that I had not given up an honourable life to start a dishonourable one. In 3 months, I resigned from a comfortable and well paid job, and found myself at a cross road again. I swore that I would never go back to the construction business.
As a Sapper officer, my bio had some interesting experiences highlighted; demolitions, mine-field laying & breaching, anti-tank warfare, bridging, laying booby traps; just to mention a few. These are not skills that read well on a CV; since no one was looking for mercenaries in 1988, the responses I got from potential employers were not earth shattering.
I then went back to my father asking for his advice. He was at that time the Chairman of ONGC and also the Chairman of the Standing Committee of public enterprises. I was sure that he would have some ideas on what I could do. My father’s words to me that day were perhaps the most difficult ones to digest. He said, and I quote “I do not know what you plan to do, but this is what you will never do. You will never discuss my business or come to me with any proposals from anyone relating to what I do. People will use you to reach me and this will not happen. You must build your own worth, son, and people must meet you for who you are and not who I am”.
These were the harshest words that anyone had ever spoken to me; but he knew what he was doing. I am sure as a father it must have broken his heart to have said this to me. He was right, and in retrospect, as much as it was difficult for me to understand at that time, my complete success was because my father did not give me a crutch to handicap my life.
Proverbially, when one door closes another one opens. My older sister and her husband were visiting India and on seeing my plight, she asked me to come to Dubai, to work with her publishing company, and try something different. As I took the flight to Dubai in April 1989, I kissed good bye to everything that I left behind in India and never looked back. I undertook another risk to join an industry I was not educated to get into, and detach from a well-recognized family name and legacy, entering into a world of the unknown.
All I carried with me was what I had learnt from my army days; a very strong code of conduct. I swore to uphold these values at any cost, just as my father had, in showing me the door. In the last 28 years, I have never touched a single industry that my father was involved in, nor did any business in India, both by design and by the opportunities that followed.
The stint with my sister’s publishing company gave me a start that I needed in Dubai. This was the start of my second innings, and Dubai has for the last 28 years, been our home away from home.
In 1991 the Russian market started opening up, and with the help of some friends I began to look at opportunities in Russia. It was an opportune time to be there. For one thing, people were as ignorant about business as I was. There was no internet or mobile phones. Communications were by telex or by booking trunk calls to your business partners. There was no commercial or private banking, and people did not even know what personal cheque books were. Yes, it appeared that we were in the dark ages.
Since people were scared to travel to Russia because of the emergence of the so-called mafia, I built a trading business on the principles of information arbitrage. This simply means profiting from peoples lack of information and access.
To my mind, this was a traditional world of carpet baggers. Profiteering from chaos! Everyone had their hand in the cookie jar; this was indeed a period of economic boom. It was also my training ground, for learning about taking risks and getting high returns.
While the opportunities were abundant, one had to travel far and wide, often in under developed areas, with little or no comforts. The problem was personal security, mainly because of crime and lawlessness. Once again, I was blessed to have my army training of making do with little and being very aware of my surroundings. There were a lot of Russians, who would show up at meetings with armed body guards, and on occasion, revealed weapons during negotiations. I followed some basic rules of engagement: Remain respectful of local laws and culture, honour your contractual commitments, be calm and fair in crisis but stand your ground on your rights.
By 1994, the whole world had an interest in Russia and competition became fierce. Hundreds were doing what I was doing; and I clearly lacked any points of differentiation. Additionally, I did not have an organizational structure or personal credibility. It dawned on me that to build a sustainable business, I needed to build an organization. To do this, I had to go back to the drawing board, as I was not prepared to take on the challenges that I faced.
I am a great believer that people play a very important role in your life, and that they come into your life, for a reason. Through interdependence, they become entwined in your destiny. No relationship in life can flourish without mutual interdependence. We rely on each other for our strengths and complementary skills. This is the basis of any team, whether on the sports fields, battle field or in business.
I coined a phrase that I use in my mentorship lessons: “Every now and again in your life, there will come another human being, who will touch your heart, soul and destiny. He or she will be the messenger of an opportunity and, consequently, your destiny”. Keep your eyes open for such people, and do not fail to build interdependence with them.
All the people in this auditorium today are part of a time and space chart that we cannot explain, but there is a greater power that brings about these interactions. You will see as you grow over the years, that your circle of influence will be formed here and will continue to grow from these very relationships that are built at this institution. Do not ever forget to nurture and build on these positively, as you cannot grow in a vacuum.
As I travelled the world, I was introduced to a great American entrepreneur, Rick Michaels. Rick introduced me to investment banking, asset management and the world of Information technology, Media and Telecommunications (ICT as we know it). These were unfamiliar areas, but I spent the next 8 years of my life, from 1994 to 2002, in navigating a path that I knew nothing about.
The army instils in you the habit of personal development and continuous education. You will all recognize the phrase: “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”. There is more truth in these words than what you will ever realize. I went back to educating myself, and since I did not have the luxury of going for a full time university program, I began to get up at 4 AM every day to study finance and read about the ICT sectors. I attended workshops and conferences and took every opportunity to learn. You cannot lead from ignorance, and if I had to lead people educated at Harvard and Stanford, I needed to know what they knew, and more.
This is another important lesson for all my young friends in the room this evening; just being a soldier will not get you to your goals. You need to constantly educate yourself, to keep yourself current with technology, and the latest trends in your respective fields, or you have the risk of becoming a dinosaur. The future belongs to the era of “scholar warriors”.
Studies and hard work paid off; it wasn’t long before I became an authority on my subjects, and a speaker at conferences around the world. I became a pioneer in Islamic private equity, and set up the first team to establish a 50 million dollar private equity fund, focussed on the ICT sector. This period was magical, and was perhaps the greatest learning curve in shaping my life.
As if stability was not to be a consistent factor, the dot com bubble burst. Internet companies that had mushroomed, and gained incredible value, had started to crash. Luckily for us, we had kept clear, by strategy and design, of any investments in Internet companies. However, with the collapse of Dot.com companies, the financial markets crashed, and in 2002, I was faced with yet another crisis, where everything that I had learnt and built for over 8 years, was under threat.
Once again it was time to go back to the drawing board. The only difference was that this time, I was better prepared. I had not only built a better balance sheet for myself, but had significant emerging markets experience, and specialized in the most rapidly growing sector in the world. The ICT sector was not only growing exponentially but, through innovation, was disrupting every other sector. The choices before me were to either continue with asset management, and investing into others businesses within the ICT sectors, or to start building my own businesses.
I took a decision to start building businesses bottom up. The main reason was because the maximum value and wealth creation, takes place when you start a business from scratch. Based on experience between 1994 and 2002, I decided to take well established global brands to emerging markets. The strategy was to become number 1, in every chosen industry, in the countries that we entered.
Over the last 15 years, along with my partners, I have invested into three sectors; IT, media and education. We have partnered some of the best known brands from across the world. We now have a presence in over 22 countries, where we employ a little over 1500 people from over 40 countries.
As we progressed, we did not forget our social responsibilities. As a family we established a foundation to give back. With my wife as its patron, we decided to focus our attention on three areas; orphan children, destitute women and tertiary education for children from disadvantaged families. At this stage of my life, giving back to people, less fortunate than us, has been the most satisfying part of what we have achieved.
I have so far mapped my journey. I would briefly like to highlight a few lessons.
The first is to take failure as a path to success. If you take risks and try to make a difference, you will fail from time to time. Greatness lies, not in never falling, but in rising after every fall. When you fall, dust yourself and start again.
The second is to recognize that change is an inevitable path to growth. Don’t get into a comfort zone of mediocrity or accept the status quo. If you stop growing, it is time for a change. As you make changes, remember to ensure that you educate yourself in line with your new environment.
Thirdly, risk taking is an inherent quality of being an entrepreneur. Lots of people have a notion that when you own your business, it comes with a lot of freedom. On the contrary, being an entrepreneur takes away all the freedom you enjoy in a structured environment. From being responsible just for your own family, you are now responsible for the lives of hundreds of people who rely on your leadership and vision, to make sure that they have stable jobs and a secure future.
The fourth lesson is that, the biggest challenge, when you set up multinational corporations, is in building teams and bringing a common culture across the organization. Finding good people, aligning their goals with those of the organization, working synergistically with other team members, and motivating them to deliver your vision, requires patience and a belief, that people all over the world are inherently good.
The one thing that has not changed over the last 28 years, since leaving the army, has been my belief in people. This is fundamentally at the core of what I learnt in the army. No battle can be won without the involvement, loyalty and the commitment of the very people that we are called upon to lead. Since people are your greatest assets, I personally oversee the human resources department in my business, and make sure that there is a clear management of expectations between the organization and its people.
There are some basic qualities that I have looked for in people over the years. I coined a term LIACC.
Loyalty, Integrity, Attitude, Competence, Commitment
In my view if people don’t have high marks in these 5 qualities, they are unlikely to make it into my senior team. Warren Buffet said: “In hiring people look for three qualities: Integrity, Intelligence and Energy. If they don’t have the Integrity, don’t bother with the rest”.
Other than integrity, the most important quality in my dictionary is “Attitude”. A good leader is not only someone who is positive at all times, but is able to surround himself with positive people, who can find solutions and not become part of a problem. You will see on the screen an empirical illustration about the truth to life.
The fifth lesson is to recognize the involvement of youth in our organizations. Youth are our future and we can only ignore them at our peril. As I was building my organization, I focussed a lot on the development of the middle management. This is generally people in the age group of 28 to 35. Other than starting the Young Leaders Program, which was a mini MBA related to our business, I encouraged team building exercises that are no different from the camps that you are all familiar with.
In 2013, I took a team from CNBC Africa and Murdoch University, to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. At about 6000 meters, Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest free standing mountain in the world; only 41percent of the people who have attempted to climb it, have made it to the top. More people have died trying to climb Kilimanjaro than Mt Everest. From an age perspective, at 54, I was the oldest member of the team and my son, Sid, at 25, was the youngest.
Understanding the enormity of the task, I started training with my team about 6 months before the climb. Other than the basic fitness requirements, I brought the discipline of buddy pairs, and taking regular breaks after every 40 minutes, to breathe, stretch and eat high energy food. Some team members thought I was old and unfit, when I made them walk slowly and stay together. When we started the hike up Killimanjaro, I ensured that the team continued with the same discipline. Since the first four days were relatively simple, the team was anxious to move faster, and also break up into smaller groups based on individual strengths.
It was easy to see the logic of what they were trying to do; in its most simple form, it was to separate the strong from the weak. For me, it would have defeated the very purpose of the trip. I intervened, and made sure that on summit night we stayed together. The goal was clear. We would stay together, and 100 percent of the team had to reach the top.
I would now like to play a brief video to illustrate what happened during our hike up Kilimanjaro.
As seen in the video, I faced a personal crisis at 300 metres from the summit. I had seen my son struggle right through the climb, but seeing him turn blue in the face, was heart wrenching. Sid developed acute mountain sickness and his lips turned purple. The guide advised that he move down to a lower altitude quickly. I was faced with a dilemma, whether to go down with my son, whose life was in imminent danger, or to go up with the team, and send him down with a guide. This was not an easy choice. However, I finally chose to entrust his care, in the hands of a qualified and experienced mountain guide. In the condition I was in at that altitude, there was nothing I could have done for my son.
You can play board games and go to bowling alleys or parks for getting to know each other, but if you want to test character, take people out on a tough, real life expedition. You get to see how people behave when the chips are down and when their existence is being threatened. I was proud of each and every one in the team, but most of all, of my son. I knew what he went through that day to turn back and make sure that he did not let me or his team down. This is what true leaders are made of. When he gave his debriefing address in Johannesburg, he stated proudly that it was on top of the mountain that he learnt the true meaning of the word “humility”.
I pray for God’s mercy as I know that He tested us all that night, and each one of us overcame our personal limitations to achieve our goal that day. The trip helped me build one of the most formidable teams in our organization.
As you all progress in your own journeys, whether personal or professional, you will be called to make difficult choices. Despite the stress and physical hardship, you will have to think calmly and after taking council from your closest advisors, you will need to make the right decision. At all times remember that as a leader, the goal and the mission is all that you need to focus on. Everything else is secondary.
In November 2016, I published my memoirs titled “Be a Lion – Dare to Dream and Live Fearlessly”.
People have admiration for different animals; I have since my childhood been fascinated by Lions. If you have seen how a pride of lions lives, you will have seen their implicit respect for hierarchy, yet there is respect for every member in the pride. When they hunt, and depending on the prey, it could be the fastest, that leads, or the stealthiest, or the most experienced, or the strongest. This is what makes a pride of lions the most feared predators in the world. It’s all about teamwork.
For me the Lion symbolizes power, and metaphorically, is someone at the top of his game. To be a Lion is to be fearless, to protect what we are entrusted with; to build something that will endure; to ensure a succession of strong, resilient leaders who will give their lives to protect the honour and legacy of what we have set out to establish. From one Simha to another, pass the mantle of succession and, a legacy of immortality.
I was in Prague in December 2015, completing the legacy chapter of my book. It was an opportune time for me to visit Charles University that was established 7 centuries ago. After 700 years, Charles the 4th is not remembered for anything other than this grand university that is churning out thousands of students in various disciplines, and who carry a certificate bearing his name. It made me reflect on what a legacy truly is. People seldom remember you for the wealth that you accumulate. They will remember you, for your deeds, and for the impact that you make on the lives of others.
Cadets of the National Defence Academy, and the young officers present in the auditorium; take these words from an old horse:
Life is not going to be a bed of roses; each day will come with new opportunities and challenges. Face the challenges like men and overcome them. Take opportunities fairly, and carry with you the people that you lead. There will be times when you fall. Failure is a path to success. Lift yourself when you fall and come back stronger. Learn from your mistakes. Do not put limitations to your potential and overcome all barriers that hold you back. Go out there and conquer the world; serve your country with honour and dignity; make each day count and achieve perfection in all that you do.
What I would like to leave you with is a couplet, written by Dr Iqbal, that my father shared with his children until his last day:
Khudh hi Ko Kar Buland Itna, Ke Har Taqdeer Se Pehle, Khuda Bande Se Khud Puche, Bata Teri Raza Kya Hai.
Develop yourself so well that before every decree, God will himself ask you: “What is it that you wish for?”
Thank you very much.