Saboo’s 10-point message on leadership

From L: PRID Manoj Desai, PRIP Rajendra K Saboo, PRIP K R Ravindran and PRID Y P Das.
From L: PRID Manoj Desai, PRIP Rajendra K Saboo, PRIP K R Ravindran and PRID Y P Das.

As he stood before the group of DGEs and their spouses, he was filled with “utmost positivity. I can see a new surge of energy which will enable you to handle the job of leadership with your personal commitment of action, sincerity, beliefs, values, and most of all, objectivity,” said Past RI President Rajendra Saboo, addressing a GETS plenary session on the topic ‘Ignite the leader in you’.

As the “future custodians of leadership” in their districts, each of them would do well to remember the Olympics swimming legend Michael Phelps’ reply when asked if he would become the second Mark Spitz, the top record holder till then. Phelps replied: “Mark has been an all time great but I don’t want to be the second Mark. I would like to be the first Michael Phelps.” He was sure Virat Kohli would say the same when asked if he’d like to be the second Sachin Tendulkar.

Similarly, each of the incoming governors could scale a new height in Rotary not by “sitting on the shoulders of others, but standing tall on your own feet”.

Coming to the essence of leadership, and its genesis, Saboo said one theory was that some people are born leaders. “If you are one, I will bow before you because I am not.” The second theory is that leaders are created by catalytic events, such as M K Gandhi being thrown out from a first-class compartment in South Africa despite holding a valid ticket. Had that not happened, perhaps he would have remained just a lawyer, without getting transformed into the Mahatma who gave us Satyagraha.

The third theory is that everybody has dormant qualities of leadership, which surface once the dust is cleared, said Saboo, offering the class of 2018–19 ten points to mull over.

Never compromise with the values you cherish, the principles you live by, the ideals of the organisation you’ve adopted. Have the courage to stand up and speak against the evil that you see.

 Think positive. Just as Thomas Edison did after failing 38 times, but never giving up. Rather than saying “I can’t, if you believe that you can, I bet you will,” Saboo said, while giving an example from his own life. When he was nominated RI President, his son Yasho joined as Managing Director in their German joint venture. But his father’s absence from the scene caused a tussle with the German partners, even court cases.

“It was one of the most difficult periods in my business and I even thought of resigning from RI Presidentship. But I was back in my elements after I talked to my son. He was firm and positive in his attitude. He was like a raw iron that was put in a furnace and came out as perfect stainless steel. Today, he is heading the biggest watch conglomerate in India. All because he never lost his positivity. So when you have a cause or an objective, the leader in you awakens; your winning card is positivity and objectivity.”

Don’t think of positions. Just as ­Tribhuban Dass Bhai had not aspired to become the chairman of the newly formed milk cooperative AMUL, in Gujarat, many decades ago, leading Morarji Desai to give him the mantle. And he went on to serve the milk producing farmers of Anand with distinction for long years. True leaders don’t aspire for positions.


“I do not call myself a great leader,” Saboo said, adding he was reluctant to take roles such as club president and later district governor. But when he did become a DG, some people told him that the next July he would become a nobody. To which he answered that as he had no plans to put himself on a ­pedestal, such a catastrophe wouldn’t ever happen. “So don’t be obsessed with your position; a good leader is made through his work.”

Add value to yourself. For this, the first requisite was an impeccable character. “Superficiality does not work. People are not fools, they see through us just as we see ourselves in the mirror and know what is inside.”

Poison called populism: Next, the district leaders should imbibe the true values of Rotary, which “teaches us to be kind, thoughtful and a role model to your children and other Rotarians.” Populism was a poison best avoided and the right path, however tough, selected.

Integrity: Rotary advocated high ethical standards in business and professions, and this was one of the foundation pillars on which the Rotary edifice rests. “You will be the custodians of this pillar and have to ensure it does not get weakened.” Again, delving into his own experience, Saboo said in his business partnership with the Germans, he had their total confidence and it wouldn’t have taken much effort to copy their high-end specialised machines and start a parallel needle factory of his own. “But I did not abuse their confidence and I have never regretted my stand on integrity.”

When I became district governor, my wife Usha said: ‘God you have made my husband governor; now give me the power so that
I can keep him humble!’

It was well known in investment circles that “ethical bankruptcy precedes financial bankruptcy”. Satyam’s ­Ramalinga Raju was a good example of what happens when you throw integrity out of the window.

 Think big, act big. A leader should always think beyond the immediate present. “Many times we think of the food, the programmes, time management, etc, at conferences and we complain. That is not leadership,” Saboo said, giving the example of PRIP Clem Renouf from Australia who had the vision to make the world polio-free, and he galvanised the whole Rotary world to work for this dream, which is now on the threshold of being realised. There have been some great new ideas, such as literacy, shelter boxes, medical missions, water projects and others.

Big thinking, clubbed with immediate response, gets great results, such as happened in building schools after the Uttarakhand disaster and the tsunami in Sri Lanka and villages after the Gujarat earthquake.

Choose your team wisely. As DGs they would have to choose their teams wisely, without giving “important positions to those who helped them in the election. Just as we would, in our business or profession, keep out sycophants from plum positions in exchange for favours done. Get the best people for the job because they will become your permanent support and help you achieve your goals.” Great plans would fail without the right people to execute them, Saboo said. Once the right team was chosen, “you must stand with them as part of the team as its captain, not because you are the best but because you are a part of the team where all the players are the best.”

Saboo then gave the example of the DG he had succeeded — late R K Berry, who compromised some principles to support a particular candidate, not fit for the role, for governorship. “He later told me: ‘Raja I have gone through hell. Be straight and you will be happy at the end of your year.’ ”

Get yourself out of the way. A good leader should get her aspirations, ego and above all, stupidity, out of the way, said the former RI President. Many a times at the International Assembly, he was pained to see many governors-elect “desperately wanting to meet the next RI President, not their own President. The reason is very clear. They are already looking for assignments once their year is over. When you have that objective, you are misguided at the cost of your own performance in the district.” He then gave the example of Socrates who would take on as his disciples only those who saw fish in the pond against those who saw only their own reflections.

Flexibility and firmness: Another great tool was to be strong but “by being soft and flexible rather than inflexible, brittle and hard”, just as an ancient Chinese philosopher had advocated. “Friends, all things, including grass and trees, are soft and pliable in life; dry and brittle in death. The hard and stiff will be broken; soft and pliable will prevail.” But, he put a caveat, the flexibility should not mean any compromise with the “values you cherish, the principles you live by, the ideals of the organisation you have adopted. Have the courage to stand up and speak against the evil that you see. If you don’t, you will be collaborating with it. Integrity, honesty, dignity, sincerity cannot be redefined.”

You can be wrong. Another principle to remember was that one can be wrong and saying “I am sorry” would go a long way in raising both one’s own and the other person’s self-esteem.

Walk the talk. He illustrated this point with an apt message from the children of a school he manages. They told their teacher: “Our parents complain that we don’t listen to them. Ma’am, please tell them that we are always watching them.” Similarly, please remember that other Rotarians may not be listening to you but they are always watching you… “and me, and all others, particularly those who are rising up in positions in Rotary.”

He concluded by leaving them with two thoughts; ensuring quality — “in your own conduct, your team, planning, conference, membership, whatever… make quality your character.”

The second message was particularly directed to the spouses in the room and was on humility. Saboo recalled that when he became district governor his wife Usha said: ‘God you have made my husband governor; now give me the power so that I can keep him humble!’

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

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