Leadership Lesson I Learnt 5 Years Ago This Day
June 16th will always carry a special meaning for me. Five years ago, I lost my father when I was at a conference. That day, I learnt an important lesson through a someone I admire a lot: Sachin Tendulkar.
I was traveling to Jaipur where I was scheduled to speak at a conference organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). I had just stepped out of the train at Jaipur station at eleven a.m. when my wife called me and informed that my father had passed away in Pune. He was in a critical condition, so his death was not unexpected. What was challenging was the timing. I had to be back in Pune as soon as possible, and I also had a conference to attend. I was going to speak at a regional level conference for the first time. Straight of of business school, I had taken up a role in an entirely different industry, and was going to represent my company at an important conference. If I were a debutante, this event was my ‘coming out party’.
Weighing the Options
I called up my office and informed my then boss what had happened. He offered his condolences, and left the decision to me, whether to stay at the event or head back. That’s when I began to weigh my options. Half an hour of research over the Internet revealed that there are three possible ways to reach Pune from Jaipur: travel to Delhi and take a flight; fly to Mumbai and take a taxi; or fly direct to Pune from Jaipur.
The challenge with the last option was that the flight was around 7 PM. The flight itself was little over an hour, but I would not reach home before 9 O’clock. Not that the other options were all that straightforward: travel back to Delhi would take another four hours by train or road, and then the flight would take about two hours. Flight to Mumbai was a little over an hour, but then the travel to Pune would take another three to four hours. In other words, irrespective of the option I chose, the earliest time to reach home would be 8 PM.
Enter Sachin Tendulkar
I admire Sachin Tendulkar both as a person and as a sportsman. But I respect him for his ability to deliver the best under the most difficult circumstances. He was playing for India during the 1999 Cricket World Cup in England when he learnt of his father’s death. He flew to Mumbai, completed the last rights, and flew back to the tournament. In the very next match, he smashed the opposition and helped India win the game. What I learnt from him is paraphrased below.
A son’s got to do what a son’s got to do; but you need to deliver for your team. And beyond.
Remembering this incident, I decided to apply this learning in my own situation. One thing was clear- my father could not be cremated on June 16th, because there was no way for me to reach Pune before the crematorium closed. A series of phone calls to my wife and cousin enabled us to take the next logical step- my father’s body would be kept in the mortuary till next morning. That took care of the immediate task at hand.
Then remained the issue of my travel to Pune. I decided to take the evening flight from Jaipur, not because it was the direct and the most convenient option, but because it was the most practical one. All the rush to reach home would still not have served the purpose for which I was needed the most. The road trip to Delhi or from Mumbai would not save us any time. The tickets were booked, friends and family were informed, and so was my office.
Focus On The Task At Hand
It was nearly 2 O’clock by the time the situation was sorted out. I was scheduled to speak at 4 PM. A chat with the organizers over lunch helped me in getting an earlier slot, and I finished my presentation a little after 4. An hour later, I was at the airport.
My talk that day did not win me any prizes, nor did it earn me a standing ovation. But I had successfully represented my company, and educated the audience about the need for energy efficiency. More importantly, I was able to overcome my angst, emotions, and focus on the task at hand. This talk also paved the way for the nearly fifty presentations, panel discussions, and seminars where I spoke in the years to come.