Leadership through values that changed the face of a nation


Rides to the airport to catch early morning flights from Bengaluru in winter are occasions to savor the uniquely refreshing and cool morning air. On a Saturday morning in January, I was on my way to take a flight to Kochi. This was a journey I had waited for with bated breath for over two weeks.

Kochi was relatively warm and humid. After getting out of the airport, I boarded a cab to get to Ponnani, a small nondescript village about three hours by car. The directions were clear and I had no difficulty finding the place, and the door was opened by the man himself.

The man I was meeting was none other than E Sreedharan – a Padma Vibhushan recipient, who had also been conferred the E&Y lifetime achievement award for entrepreneurship; the man behind many of India’s engineering marvels; and above all a man of destiny. At 86 years, he has the energy and liveliness of a fifty-year-old. No doubt, he is still consulted by governments and government institutions.

Many of India’s major problems in post-independent history have seemed too complex and inextricably intertwined to be ever solved. But a careful study of history, and you would realise that the right leaders at the helm have always been successful in bringing about transformational change at a swift pace even in a complex democracy like India. Like Alexander the Great, they cut the Gordian knot! Leaders like E. Sreedharan, TN Seshan, MS Swaminathan, Verghese Kurien, Nandan Nilekani, and R S Sharma are glorious examples.

Even strong institutions can be tamed and made to operate to the whims and fancies of men in power, but whenever institutions have been led by men and women with a deep passion for making them work, the outcomes have been magical.

What do these men and women have in common and why does this model work so well? We had some thoughts, but it was to find deeper answers to these questions that I chose to make the trip to Kochi.

At the end of this piece, I will summarise the traits of these individuals who changed the face of the nation.

Their life experiences and the way they dealt with some difficult situations make for interesting stories.

Building a reputation

The Pamban Bridge that connects mainland India to Rameshwaram and Dhanushkodi is one of the many engineering feats of the British era. Completed in 1914, it has withstood the ravages of time and tide (literally). In the third week of December 1964, there was a massive cyclone on the east coast. On December 23, the winds and waves were merciless and unrelenting. The Dhanushkodi passenger train with 150 passengers on board was on the bridge. The surge in the storm was lethal and the bridge, along with the train, was washed away. It was one of the biggest railway disasters in independent India. In the popular imagination, from Lucknow to Kanyakumari, there was a lot of religious and sentimental value attached to this bridge.

It had to be rebuilt on a war footing. Even a year would have been inadequate, but the government wanted it done in three months. The railways identified a young and brilliant civil engineer to do it. He was on vacation in Karukaputhur in Kerala. Frantic phone calls were made, and he was asked to cut short his vacation and proceed to Chennai. To cut a long story short, the bridge was rebuilt in less than three months! To put this in perspective, it took over nine years to build India’s second sea-bridge – the Bandra-Worli sea link in Mumbai. While the comparison isn’t completely fair because the concrete piers of the Pamban Bridge were already in place, it nevertheless makes a point.

India’s greatest engineering marvel

Mangalore and Mumbai are two large port cities on the west coast that were not connected by rail before 1998. The only rail connection was a circuitous one via Bengaluru and Pune. This was a big constraint for the economic development of this region.

There were reasons for the lack of a direct rail link: The route was treacherous and the terrain intractable. No one was sure if a project of this nature could be executed. A good chunk of the land in Goa and parts of Maharashtra and Karnataka were fertile, and land acquisition itself would have taken several decades. It needed the participation and budgetary support from four state governments and the central government. Funding this project through budgetary allocations alone like the rest of the railway projects would have taken decades to implement.

New financing mechanisms, never attempted before in government projects, had to be explored. The hurdles seemed insurmountable. During the tenure of the VP Singh government, there was a confluence of political will and support for this project when three important positions in the government were occupied by powerful political personalities from the Konkan region (George Fernandes, Madhu Dandavate and Ramakrishna Hegde). There was unanimity that only one individual could convert this political will to reality. Sreedharan agreed to undertake this project on the condition - that he was given complete freedom in decision making. The terms were agreed upon and in mid-1990, the Konkan Railway Corporation was set up.

Many of the places along the route were inaccessible, and no four-wheeled motor vehicle could get there. With the help of the Kawasaki Company of Japan, several hundred fresh civil engineering graduates were sent on Kawasaki bikes lugging equipment to survey the route and determine alignments.

Sreedharan’s first priority was to build a great startup team! Every member of the team had to have a demonstrated track record of execution and integrity. Large contracts were involved, and even the slightest hint of corruption could derail the project. Every time he was entrusted with a difficult project, this was the first thing he always did – assemble a great team. He was a magnet for talented engineers. Great founders have the same approach when they start companies!

There were agitations by environmentalists, farmers and others – some genuine and most motivated. The agitations spun out of control in Goa. Sreedharan handled these agitations with grace and panache. His communication was transparent and apolitical, always focusing on the benefits of the project and countering the claims of the agitators with facts and data.

He had to use all his organisational and political skills to do some backroom maneuvering to bring the agitations under check. Agitations in Goa would have been the perfect excuse to slow down execution in the other parts, but Sreedharan did not allow that to happen. Construction in other parts of the project was pushed even harder. It was a risk he was taking. If the agitations in Goa eventually spiraled out of control, it could have put a complete halt to the project. The contractors had complete faith in Sreedharan. When he asked them to deploy men and equipment before the paperwork was in place, they did not hesitate. These were some of the many calculated risks he took, each of which could have cut short an illustrious career if something went wrong. This was an entrepreneur at work!

Love for humanity

After Sir M Visveshwaraya, Sreedharan’s contributions as a civil engineer have arguably made the most impact on India’s development. Like Sir Visveshwaraya, Sreedharan too was much more than just a brilliant civil engineer. In the Konkan railway project, he fought for liberal resettlement packages for displaced populations. He always saw the problems of the people impacted by these large projects with empathy and love. The entire process of acquiring close to 5,000 hectares of land and resettling nearly 50,000 families was done in record time with little or no acrimony. This was not because the nature or extent of government support was any different, but because of his direct involvement in the process and commitment to transparency.

He also ensured that payments to contractors were on time. In both government and private sector projects this has generally been a major problem and a cause for delays. He wasn’t afraid that someone might accuse him of having a vested interest.

It is strange that when bad practices become the norm, good practices are looked upon with suspicion.

When a railway bridge across the river Gandak was cleared, Sreedharan argued strongly for a road bridge as well, since a rail link was unlikely to result in any benefits for the poor in the region. He persisted till the government approved the road bridge as well. This wasn’t a civil engineer thinking!

Built the right culture

Every startup now talks about culture. Culture is the biggest driver of performance whether the organisation is a startup or a large public-sector institution. Sreedharan had the unique ability to transform the culture of a place wherever he went. The most striking case is what he did when he was deputed as the MD of Cochin Shipyard. The relationship between the management and the unions was extremely confrontational. By the right use of the carrot and stick, he quickly transformed the culture. He had to face a lot of political pressure when the unions threatened to strike. However, Sreedharan stood his ground on some core issues. Finally, the unions were completely won over when they realised his true motives. Ironically, when he had to get back to the railways after turning around the shipyard, the unions at the shipyard did everything they could to stall the move!

The crowning glory

The Delhi Metro was his crowning glory. He began being referred to as the “Metro Man”. Delhi Metro also makes for a better story than the Konkan railway because of the much higher visibility. It wasn’t an easy ride. Despite being promised a free hand, there were several instances where vested interests with powerful connections tried to influence the course of the project.

Every time he stood by his principles and took on such forces head-on. The Delhi Metro became a benchmark on how public infrastructure projects had to be executed. He began being consulted on multiple metro projects and never hesitated to call a spade a spade. He was critical of the Hyderabad metro project as it was initially conceptualised. He did not hesitate to say that it was designed to siphon off public money. He was threatened with legal action, but as later events at Satyam and Maytas (the sister concern of Satyam that was awarded the contract) proved, Sreedharan was on target.

He summarises: Pamban was about innovation, Konkan Railway was a masterpiece of financial structuring, and Delhi Metro was about teamwork!

At the end of the conversation, I realised that such leaders had five traits:

  • They were all men and women of unquestionable integrity and competence. They were utterly fearless and never hesitated to stand up for what was right irrespective of the consequences
  • Personal aggrandisement was never a priority. Not even low down in the list
  • They knew how to work with the Government. They also understood that driving transformation on scale could only be driven by having the government on your side or by being a part of it
  • They realised that solving complex and interconnected problems calls for tenacity and patience. They realised it also called for risk taking and that some of the risks could potentially jeopardise their careers if they didn’t work out
  • They understood the difference between compromises that helped in getting closures or speeding up implementation, versus compromises that jeopardised the basic objectives of a programme. They knew when to be flexible and when to stand one’s ground.

In closing

My last question to him was if he was not afraid that he would be shunted, sidelined, fired, or worse still his family put to harm for his utterly uncompromising stand against corruption. What he told me was both interesting and heart-warming. The Bhagwad Gita was his inspiration. Do the right thing and don’t worry too much about the consequences. India is not a weak state. The institutions are strong and there are reasonable checks and balances. It is not very easy for even the most powerful corrupt forces to hurt you if you are on the right path.

When I was chatting with my good friend and Sreedharan’s eldest son Ramesh, who after long and successful corporate stints is now a sought-after CEO coach, he told me that I should visit Guruvayoor during this trip! In my mind I was telling myself that a visit to Ponnani was my pilgrimage! Not to sound disrespectful or irreverent, Guruvayoor can wait.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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