During a launch, we manage the most complex activities with utmost calm, in an organised and disciplined manner: ISRO chief

Somnath says it is important to give youngsters the freedom to take decisions for, that is the ideal way to extract the best from them

January 27, 2024 10:10 pm | Updated 10:10 pm IST - CHENNAI:

S. Somanath, at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Saturday.

S. Somanath, at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on Saturday. | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Think of a typical day involving a rocket launch, and one is sure to imagine a control room where chaos reigns supreme, and the people involved in the launch, moving about frenziedly. Somnath S, chairman, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), debunked this myth, at The Hindu Lit Fest’s session ‘Transformative Leadership in ISRO: My Experience’, as he revealed, “During a launch, everyone in the main centre is at ease; they manage the most complex activities with the utmost calm, in an organised and disciplined manner.”

He spoke of multiple stalwarts in the organisation, including Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Madhavan Nair, among others, who revolutionised leadership and work culture in the organisation. “In the 1960s, there was space race between Russia and the U.S. Though India wasn’t a space power then, Vikram Sarabhai had great dreams for the future. He went on to create what ISRO is today. Though there was no clarity on how rockets or satellites were to be built, undeterred, he would often work through the night to come up with what could be done.”

After his demise came Satish Dhawan who brought in multiple changes in the organisation, and things became more structured, explained Mr. Somnath. “He started the SLV programme which was a gamechanger, and also brought in Abdul Kalam. Dhawan closed down multiple programmes in the organisation for they wouldn’t bring in any outcomes; he left open only those programmes that would bring results. This was a gamechanger and resulted in bringing in the SLV programme. The Dhawan diagram, a graph which would talk of the kind of programmes that could be done, was popular. “He was a visionary who foresaw many things which we would go on to do in the future,” he said.

As for Kalam, elaborates Mr. Somnath, his uniqueness lay in identifying the right people for the right job. He also had a habit where he would ensure that only people from different states were put together in teams. Another method he brought in was configuration control — what was defined had to be written down, drawings had to be made, and changes could not be made after that. He also created a culture of quality assurance processes which ISRO follows till date. His biggest competencies however, continues Mr. Somnath, were with people, “He could make leaders out of ordinary individuals. When I joined ISRO, Kalam was leaving to join the DRDO. However, I was fortunate that people from the ASLV programme like Madhavan Nair, who were APJ’s deputies, joined the team. Many of them and their methods of dealing with problems, was just like Kalam. So, it felt like his presence was hovering around.”

Inspiration abounds

Mr. Somnath also pointed out how, at ISRO, unlike other organisations, newcomers had the opportunity to choose whom they wanted to work under. “We do not train newcomers. When I joined, for instance, my boss gave me a choice to observe my seniors for a month and then let him know about which boss I wanted to work under. It was like a gurukul system in the organisation.”

He also added how ISRO gave importance to what youngsters thought, “Even though I am a chairman, youngsters can question me. Great ideas come out of such discussions. For instance, when we launched 104 satellites at one go, we didn’t know how to separate them without collision between different satellites. So, a sequence had to be created in such a manner that they would not collide for at least 10-20 orbits. No one was able to find such a solution. In one meeting, finally, an experience without much experience came up with a solution. However, the idea was implemented successfully. Hence, new ideas from youngsters are always welcome.”

Mr. Somnath also stressed on how it was important to give youngsters the freedom to take decisions for, that was the ideal way to extract the best from them. “It is a powerful feeling to be able to take decisions. When we allow youngsters to do so, they achieve great things. He concluded the session by saying, “Leadership isn’t about some individuals; rather, it is about the ability to transform people along with you. The spirit of the team is what drives the organisation and becomes an integral part of the success story.”

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