Ajay Kaul

Legends of leadership and management – Akbar the Great (1556 – 1605)

In Politics on September 17, 2015 at 7:08 AM


He never had a formal education; was brought up by his guardian while his father struggled to retain his position, yet Emperor Akbar the Great boasted of a 21% contribution to the World GDP between 1556 and 1605 when he headed India Inc. as its Emperor!

The vision and its execution: Akbar has a vision of a strong and lasting Mughal kingdom over India. Instead of focusing just on the military to achieve this goal, Akbar expanded his focus to socio-economic and political areas. The end result was a strong and vibrant economy in a secure and peaceful state. For this, Akbar the Great makes it to the list of legends of leadership and management from history!

A secular state: Very early in his reign Akbar realized that he could not establish a permanent and stable rule in India without the co-operation and acceptance of the majority Hindu population. So instead of establishing a theocratic Islamic State, Akbar established a secular state. But he went several steps further and ensured the nobility and theologians understood and adopted the concept of secularism. In 1575, he built a hall called the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship) at Fatehpur Sikri, to which he invited theologians, philosophers and selected courtiers renowned for their intellectual achievements to discuss and debate matters of spirituality and religion. Alfred Tennyson’s poem Akbar’s Dream explicitly lauds the Ibadat Khana while decrying 19th century British intolerance.

Akbar’s council of ministers and advisors was a blend of intellect and diversity. It was a collection of artists, intellectuals and statesmen, transcending religion and ethnicity. His passion for knowledge and interest in learning from great minds attracted him to men of genius, from the Hindu Rajput General Man Singh to the Moslem historian Abul Fazal.

Akbar was so liked by Hindus for his secular outlook that there are eulogies in his name in several religious hymns.

Defense/Military Organization – a very agile setup: The Mughal Empire was in a fledgling state when Akbar ascended the throne. There was a need for expansion as well as establishment of absolute authority upon the existing kingdom. Akbar recognized the need for a strong military to achieve this goal and strengthened it both at the hardware and resource levels. Instead of maintaining a mammoth centralized force, Akbar conceived and implemented the Mansabdari system. Under this system, each officer in the army was assigned a rank (mansabdar), and assigned a number of cavalry that he had to supply to the imperial army. The top three commanding ranks were responsible for 7000 to 10000 troops. As a result, majority of the troops were supplied by the mansabdars, the central army on its own was very small. Akbar also implemented an excellent system of performance management which entailed promotions and salary hikes based on merit to ensure a very high quality cavalry.

The high quality cavalry was further supplemented with the latest artillery. Akbar sought the help of Ottomans and Europeans in procuring firearms and artillery. Mughal firearms in the time of Akbar came to be far superior to anything that could be deployed by potential enemies – regional rulers, tributaries and landlords. Such was the impact of these weapons that Akbar’s court historian Abul Fazl, says “with the exception of Turkey, there is perhaps no country in which its guns has more means of securing the Government than [India].”


Building a vibrant economy: The reign of Akbar is characterized by commercial expansion. The Mughal government encouraged traders, provided protection and security for transactions, and levied a very low custom duty to stimulate foreign trade. Bands of highway police called rahdars were enlisted to patrol roads and ensure safety of traders. Akbar also made efforts to improve roads to facilitate the use of wheeled vehicles through the Khyber Pass – the most popular route of traders and travelers in journeying from Kabul into Mughal India. He also strategically occupied the northwestern cities of Multan and Lahore in the Punjab and constructed forts near the crossing of the Grand Trunk Road and the Indus river, as well as a network of smaller forts called thanas throughout the frontier, to secure the overland trade with Persia and Central Asia.

Land revenue reform – use of data and analytics: Land revenue was the chief source of revenue for the government during that era and Akbar tasked his Finance Minister, Todar Mal to come up with a robust, reliable and just system of land revenue. And the outcome was one of the highlights of Akbar’s reign. The three main features of the land revenue system were: (a) Survey and measurement of land, (b) Classification of land on the basis of its productivity and (c) The assessment of land-revenue. The classification and assessment of land was based on data over a period of ten years. This ensured fair and tiered taxation based on past productivity and prices.

Akbar was a great commander, a team player, a leader with a vision and a brilliant manager. And it is no surprise that he also made it to Time Magazine’s Top 25 Political Icons of all time!

Which other figures from history were iconic leaders and managers? Would be great to see your picks.

The Presidential Debate – selecting the right candidate

In management, Politics on August 14, 2015 at 12:17 PM

DebateThe Republican Presidential debate concluded recently – the questions were specific, but the response from the candidates was by and large – vague. Each candidate seemed to come to the podium with “We need to make American great again and only I know how to do it.”

In an era where fact checks happen in an instant and a bluff is called in real time, Presidential candidates need to have specific resolution plans for key issues being discussed. Debates need to be centered around specifics, not pie-in-the sky solutions.

So can the moderators guide debates in a direction where candidates are forced to talk specifics. Besides knowing their positions on key issues, we need to know if they have concrete resolution plans for these issues.

The final Presidential nominee should be a good blend of leadership, management and operational efficiency.

Leadership: The President must have a vision of where the country and the world needs to be at the end of their tenure. This would entail newer laws and agreements on the domestic and international front. On the domestic legislative front, the President has 5 frontline managers – the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate and the Speaker of the House. A strong leader will work very closely with these frontline managers to realize his/her vision for the country. This means he/she must be open to feedback from diverse viewpoints and not mind tweaking the implementation towards realization of the vision. Same scenario plays out in the international arena as well – the ability to get divergent viewpoints and personalities to come to an agreement.

So one of the key questions to the presidential candidate must be:

What is your past record with getting legislation passed when the opposition is in majority?

Management: The executive arm essentially entails management – management and maintenance of peace at home and abroad. And management of the local and global economy. Here, a strong candidate will have full awareness of the current issues and constraints coming in the way of resolution. Presidential candidates need to realize that once elected, they will face experts in various fields and any quick fixes they may have promised the electorate will need to withstand the intense scrutiny of ground reality. President Obama’s PRISM program is a great example of a promise that failed to withstand the onslaught of ground reality.

So another key question to be asked of a Presidential candidate with respect to a current domestic or foreign policy issue can be –

What do you think are the key constraints facing the current administration towards resolving <this> issue and how would you overcome these constraints?”

Operational Efficiency: The President is the CEO of the Federal government. So every President must target leaving the government more efficient (less expensive and more nimble), than when they assumed office. So the President must have an operation efficiency goal. This could entail consolidating departments that have a similar charter, to obtain economies of scale OR systems integration between the DHS and DMV to drastically reduce cost of information sharing.

So a key question here could be:

“Do you have any plans to make government more efficient? If yes, what’s the plan?”


Based on these characteristics, one would expect Governors to better suited than their Senate counterparts to be the Head of State. But thinking outside the box, CEOs would be great Presidents. HP’s Carly Fiorina is one such candidate in the Republican fray and if Starbucks’ Howard Schultz joins on the Democratic side, a Schultz-Fiorina contest could be very interesting. Hopefully then, the focus would be on specifics!

Management: awareness, communication and execution!

In Business, management on April 21, 2015 at 12:18 AM

90 minutes of intense soccer action in a world Cup game – a player is fouled, the team members are up in arms. One individual runs up to the center of the commotion – flashes a few yellow cards and directs the players back to their positions – the referee has just performed his job as a manager!

The house is short on groceries – the paycheck is still two days away. She pulls together a quick meal out of the frozen vegetables she has in the refrigerator for this kind of a contingency. The mother has just performed her job as a manager!

Managers – they thrive in execution. They make things happen. While leaders dream up a vision of the future, managers help realize the vision and build the new future.

Managers are accountable for results. Leaders thrive in disruption. They get us away from status quo; managers help stabilize the disruption to get us to a new status quo while maneuvering through constraints.


Successful management entails 3 key aspects:

  1. Understanding the environment/team – Understanding the environment provides an insight into the prevalent opportunities and risks. Understanding the team provides an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the team members individually and collectively. Managers have to tailor their implementation strategy to the environment and the available resources. Implementation plans and techniques cannot be cloned across teams and environments. Ferdinand De Lesseps successfully built the Suez Canal as an Ocean level canal, but failed miserably with Panama Canal when he tried using the same implementation approach. The Panama Canal was finally built as a combination of lake and ocean level by William Gorgas. (Read: Panama Canal Timeline)
  2. Communication: You can never communicate enough – Communication is key to a successful implementation. Managers work with teams and it is important that every member on the team understands their role towards achievement of the final goal. Managers have to continuously monitor and evaluate progress to ensure the team is on the right track for a successful implementation. Communication is a 2-way street. Managers have to communicate and also receive feedback from the team. Feedback ensures that the team has understood the goal and both the manager and the team are on the same page. A disconnect between the initiator and recipient of a communication can lead to massive consequences – the Berlin Wall apparently collapsed prematurely due to a massive miscommunication.
  3. Execution: Management is all about execution and results. A successful execution is built upon the foundation of a strong understanding of the environment/team and a clear and solid communication channel.In Soccer, a successful strike at the opponent’s goal is usually accomplished after a series of moves that entail a combination of forward push and retreat. The implementation cycle is where reality comes head to head with perception/assumptions. The manager needs to closely monitor progress and be ready to fine-tune the implementation to ensure achievement of the end-goal stays on track. Fine tuning can mean re-assigning team members based on the strengths and weaknesses they have exhibited or taking a detour to avoid an oncoming obstacle.

Gandhi – managing the implementation of India’s Independence:

Leaders design the future; managers implement it.

The vision of an independent India, free of British occupation was designed by Lokmanya Tilak in the early 1900s, but India had to wait for Gandhi the manager to take the vision through to implementation.

Gandhi excelled as a manager on all 3 fronts:

Understanding his team and environment: Soon after landing in India from South Africa, Gandhi undertook a tour of India to acclimatize himself with the social and economic structure of the country. He witnessed a huge population of 350 million –  economically impoverished and socially suppressed (Watch: Gandhi tours India) under the British. Gandhi realized that the impoverishment was rife for a revolt, and the suppression could be channeled productively into non-cooperation.

Communicating the plan: In an era where the word of mouth was the most effective mode of communication, Gandhi was able to communicate his plan effectively across to about a quarter million Indians. His tactic? Shock and awe.His execution plan entailed non-cooperation and non-violence and he started his campaign for non-cooperation with a message of boycotting foreign goods. He mass communicated this via a dramatic burning of English garments under the very eyes of British cops. This set the tone for the non-cooperation movement. Word spread like wildfire and soon all of India was creating bonfires of English goods.

Executing the plan: Gandhi’s brilliant plan entailed having the entire population of India refuse to co-operate with the British. He indicated this in his TV interview with “100,000 Englishmen cannot control 350 million Indians if the Indians refuse to co-operate”

Gandhi monitored the progress of the movement closely and did not hesitate to pause and fine tune the execution. During the non-cooperation movement when a group of protestors turned violent and set a police station on fire killing 23 policemen (the Chauri Chaura incident), Gandhi immediately called off the non-co-operation movement and went on a five day fast to protest the bloodshed, holding himself personally responsible for not communicating the message of non-violence effectively. News of his fast and its impact on his health spread like wildfire and effectively delivered the message to his anxious followers about the importance of non-violence in the freedom movement.

A leader will lead the horse to water, but the manager will make it drink. Leaders inspire (and pull us out of our inertia of complacency) and managers motivate (to deliver results)

Pope Francis: Fixing a dream gone sour:

One of the most effective managers in recent times, Pope Francis has been busy reshaping the Vatican. Pope Francis too has excelled on all 3 fronts as a manager:

Understanding his team and environment: As an insider, Pope Francis had a head start on this front. He did not need time to understand his team and the environment. He was well aware of the politics within the Vatican and probably had a semi-operational game plan in mind to get the Vatican vibrant and functional. All he needed was a handover of the leadership baton.

Communicating change: “Who am I to judge?” – an opening remark that echoed across the globe. Like Gandhi, Pope Francis too is a follower of the shock and awe technique. However, instead of laying out a complete agenda for the change, he has shared his intentions one topic at a time – shaking the thinking of his followers, waiting for it to get absorbed and then moving over to a different topic to shaking it once again.

Implementing the change: Whereas Gandhi sought to empower 350 million Indians to drive the British away, Pope Francis has sought to empower his leadership team to influence change in the Vatican. And the first step in empowering the leadership was to change the leadership itself. Hence the election of a new set of cardinals – empowered with a fresh agenda, to enforce change.

Great managers like Gandhi and the Pope do not need to be far and apart. We come across great managers in our everyday lives – managers who have to be effective because their role demands. Some of these roles are:

  1. The mother – the mother performs the job of 3 managers simultaneously – the finance Manager, the inventory manager and the human resource manager. Most of the skills come naturally to the mom – and most of the execution is carried out without any tools. The most challenging piece being a majority of her team members (the children) are a huge management challenge. Among all professions/roles, the mother undoubtedly is the most unique example of an outstanding job as a manager.
  2. Sports referees/umpires – especially in fast games like Soccer and Basketball, the referees rely on manual and tech tools to deliver the right decision. They have to maintain order in chaos to ensure a fair game. During intense moments, tempers and egos run high and test the management skills of the referees to the fullest.

What other characteristics in your opinion are also key to successful management?

What other roles demand effective management skills?


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