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Lessons in Leadership from Satish Dhawan, The Telegraph

The late A. P. J. Abdul Kalam liked to tell stories with morals. A story he was particularly fond of related to the launch of a satellite by the Indian Space Research Organization in July 1979. Kalam was in charge of the project at ISRO; and when some members expressed reservations about its readiness he overruled them and ordered it to go ahead. The launch failed; instead of going into space, the satellite plunged into the Bay of Bengal. As team leader, Kalam was humiliated by the failure, and terrified by the prospect of announcing it before the press. He was saved from embarrassment by the Chairman of ISRO, Satish Dhawan, who went himself before the television cameras to say that despite this failure he reposed complete faith in the abilities of his team, and was confident their next attempt would succeed.

The following August, Kalam and his team tried once more to launch a satellite into space. This time they succeeded. Dhawan congratulated the team, while asking Kalam to address the press conference. In telling the story in later years, during and after his term as President of India, Kalam would feelingly recall: ‘When the failure occurred, the leader owned it up. When the success came, he gave the credit to his team’.

This month, India’s scientific community is celebrating the birth centenary of Abdul Kalam’s hero. Satish Dhawan was born on 25th September 1920 in Srinagar. The son of a judge, Dhawan was raised and educated in Lahore, where he took degrees successively in physics and mathematics, in literature, and in mechanical engineering. The combination was unusual, if not unique, in the Indian context, bridging the three worlds of science, the humanities, and technology respectively. The Lahore of the 1930s and 1940s was a place which encouraged such experimentation. The city was then a great centre of culture and scholarship, a confluence of the best of the Hindu, the Islamic, the Sikh, and the European intellectual traditions.

In 1945, after taking the third of these degrees, Dhawan came to Bangalore and worked for a year at the newly founded Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. He then went off to the United States for further studies, obtaining an M. S. from the University of Minnesota followed by an MS and a Ph D in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology. He was away when Independence and Partition occurred, the latter event forcing his family to leave Pakistan and migrate to India instead.

Soon after returning to his now divided homeland, Satish Dhawan joined the Aeronautics Department at the Indian Institute of Science. One of his early students, Roddam Narasimha, recalls that ‘Dhawan brought to the Institute an element of youth, freshness, modernity, earnestness, and Californian informality that captivated the students and many colleagues’.

Dhawan enjoyed his research, building the first supersonic wind tunnels in the country. He enjoyed his adopted city too, where he fell in love with and married the cytogenetist Nalini Nirodi (the couple went on to have three children). In 1962 he was appointed Director of the Indian Institute of Science, a place that at the time was (in the words of one chronicler) ‘slowly slipping into a comfortable state of academic somnolence’. Dhawan woke the place from its slumber, making it the premier research institute in the country. In his tenure as IISc Director he helped incubate new research programmes in computer science, molecular biophysics, solid state chemistry, ecology, and atmospheric science, recruiting brilliant scholars from all over India (and the world) to staff and run them.

In 1971-2 Dhawan was granted a sabbatical by the IISc. He went off to his alma mater, Caltech, hoping to dirty his hands with research. While he was away the head of India’s space programme, Vikram Sarabhai, died at the tragically early age of fifty-two. This was a body blow to Indian science, and especially to our space efforts, then at a nascent stage. On the advice of her Principal Secretary, P. N. Haksar, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent a long cable to California asking Satish Dhawan to succeed Sarabhai as Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization. He agreed, but not before stipulating two conditions: that he continue as Director of IISc, and that the headquarters of the space programme shift from Ahmedabad to Bangalore. Mrs Gandhi accepted both conditions, as well as a third; that Dhawan be allowed to complete his year of research at Caltech before returning to his new responsibilities in India.

In his book ISRO: A Personal History, R. Aravamudan vividly recalls Dhawan’s taking over as chairman and the changes he brought in the organization. ‘Sarabhai’s management style’, writes Aravamudan, ‘was that of a patriarch dealing with a small well-knit family. It was a kind of monolithic structure and Sarabhai operated on a one-on-one basis. These were no formal systems in place, with parallel technical teams operating. Sometimes they would work on the same systems without any organization‘.

This loose, informal, style just about worked when ISRO was small and still developing; but as it grew larger and its goals became more ambitious the organization required a more structured form of management. Thus Dhawan’s ‘first task was to bring some order into the widely dispersed teams by integrating them and defining their individual roles and collective responsibilities. This he did by forming programme-based centres with undisputed leadership. He also arranged for a national-level review of the long-term tasks of ISRO in association with internal and external experts’.

As an ISRO scientist who experienced this transformation at first-hand, Aravamudan writes: ‘Our new chairman was a dignified man with great intellectual honesty. He encouraged honest criticism and was quick to recognize merit. Sarabhai’s style was fine when the structure was loose and still evolving. But now we needed to freeze things and get on to execution mode. Dhawan exactly fitted the role, with his systematic approach and no-nonsense style’.

At ISRO, Dhawan was keen to emphasize the organization’s social role, focusing on what satellites could do with regard to weather forecasting, natural resource mapping, and communications. He worked assiduously to keep the organization at a distance from powerful politicians; hence the decision to shift its headquarters even further away from Delhi, and his own unwillingness to accept personal hand-outs such as Rajya Sabha seats.

IISc is arguably our finest centre of scientific research; ISRO almost certainly our most admired public sector organization. In the making of both these organizations, and their reputations, the same individual played a critical part. These two institutions required somewhat different forms of leadership. That Dhawan could successfully guide both, and at the same time, is a mark of how great a leader he was. As P. Balaram wrote in an obituary published in Current Science in 2002: ‘The space program has has a wonderfully romantic history, with Satish Dhawan as the guiding force; in times of failure he shouldered responsibility, in the heady days of success he stood quietly by the sidelines. Dhawan’s ability to build an organization [ISRO] whose success relied on teamwork, discipline and collective dedication was truly remarkable, particularly when one recognizes that he was simultaneously building an institution [IISc], where individuality and idiosyncrasy were cherished qualities’. Verghese Kurien

This writer was privileged to know Satish Dhawan in his last years. He was a fine scientist, a great builder of institutions, and a warm and compassionate human being. His long-time IISc colleague Amulya Reddy wrote of him that, ‘unlike most of his contemporaries, he was above caste, language, religious and provincial considerations’. Dhawan, he added, ‘was devoid of jealousy and envy’. Meanwhile, his ISRO colleague Yash Pal said of Dhawan that in his treatment of individuals, ‘there was no favouritism and no animosities’. The Indian scientist with whom he worked closely for the longest period, Roddam Narashima, concluded his own obituary of Dhawan by saying: ‘He was, most of all, the undeclared but widely accepted moral and social conscience of the scientific community’.

To these tributes by colleagues let me add some words of his daughter Jyotsna Dhawan, herself a distinguished Indian biologist. Of her father’s deep social consciousness she writes: ‘In building the launch center at Sriharikota, the displacement of the Yanadi tribe troubled him, set as it was against the massive displacements going on all over India in the name of development, and he worked hard to see that some reparations were made. Medha Patkar’s selfless struggle to keep the fate of displaced people in our collective consciousness aroused his greatest admiration.’

Satish Dhawan was one of the greatest of modern Indians, being to the field of science what J. R. D. Tata was to entrepreneurship, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to the crafts sector, and Verghese Kurien to the co-operative movement. There are many lessons in Dhawan’s life for the emerging leaders of today—be they in science, politics, business, administration, or civil society. They include an absolute integrity in personal life and professional conduct; a remarkable ability to recognize and nurture talent and to allocate responsibilities wisely and well; the generosity of spirit that encourages subordinates to claim credit for success; and, not least, the moral courage that leads the leader to take the blame for failure.

Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 26th September 2020)