Kalam and Creativity: 5 key insights

5 min readOct 15, 2020

Bharat Ratna APJ Abdul Kalam, the People’s President of India and our Missile Man, was one such person revered unparalleled by the scientific community and the common people alike. I distinctly remember the day of 27 July 2015 when this great soul left us for the heavenly adobe. I was riding on my bike to IIM Bangalore and I crossed the Madiwala Market, a loosely organized fruits and vegetables market in South Bangalore, where I saw a huge poster of late Kalam. A poster typical of Rajnikant or any other super-star in down south. Moments later, an even bigger poster awaited me right at the entrance of IIM Bangalore campus. It set me thinking of who could be another person in India who would be uniformly loved in the Madiwala Market and IIM Bangalore? Till date, I haven’t got an answer. Can you think of any?

Born on October 15, 1931 on the island of Rameswaram in a poor Muslim family, Kalam had come to epitomise the power of perseverance and faith, so much so that even his death came at a moment when he was in a state of flow, doing what he loved the most — teaching. His life was inspirational in many ways, especially on how he furthered the creative temperament of Indian scientific and research community and helped put our innovations on the global radar (literally). Here are some insights on leading creative teams gleaned from the life and work of Kalam that promises to inspire any individual attempting to live more creatively and liberally.

Creativity is a spiritual journey

Kalam used to say that he is a scientist by mind and a philosopher by heart, and his several poems and notes reveal the deeply spiritual person that he was. Being spiritual, and not necessarily religious, enabled him to connect with people at a very deep level and get the most of them, as demonstrated by his early days at the DRDL (Defence Research and Development Laboratory), Hyderabad, where the team was still reeling from the failures of the past projects and mired with bureaucracy. He could turn around the team through a deep connect with the purpose, which was almost of the spiritual nature to him.

Kalam notes, “for me, science has always been the path to spiritual enrichment and self-realization”, and perhaps this deep spiritual anchoring made him a creative scientist and an administrator par excellence.

Be comfortable in own skin

One thing that runs common between Einstein and Kalam is that neither cared so much about their looks, as much as their work. Kalam’s typical hairstyle later become iconic, perhaps inadvertently, but the way he dressed up, his ascent in English, and his ability to strike a conversation wouldn’t certainly count as his strengths. On one occasion when Kalam was to meet Indira Gandhi urgently and was worried about his attire if it was appropriate for the occasion, and his boss, Prof. Satish Dhawan calmed Kalam’s nerves saying, “you are beautifully clothed in your success”. His modesty, even after being bestowed with the Bharat Ratna allowed him to just focus on what mattered the most — science. That’s one for reducing the cognitive load.

Learn to marry knowledge with skills

Kalam wanted to be a pilot, and when his dreams were dashed at an interview in Dehradun, he turned to designing flying machines, and ultimately, rockets. But his success largely comes from his uncanny ability to blend knowledge with skills. When he was studying aeronautical engineering at the prestigious Madras Institute of Technology his final year project involved designing a low-level attack aircraft. We are talking of 1957, and there was young Kalam with his teammates turning around a project in three days, as against the schedule of a month! He carried the same ability of getting his hands dirty to HAL where he was a trainee and later to ADE (Aeronautical Development Establishment) where he designed and fabricated India’s first indigenous hovercraft- Nandi. He also piloted it for then Defence Minister Krishna Menon. You can’t find a better blend of knowledge and skills than young Kalam, and when he demonstrate an intricate understanding of how things work, he inspires his team members to follow suit.

On the imperative of experimentation, which is the essence of skills, Kalam noted, “the price of perfection is prohibitive and (I) allowed mistakes as a part of the learning process.” This ability to tolerate mistakes has, perhaps, made ISRO an innovation leader in the space of space.

Learn to absorb failure with grace

Kalam’s career was mired with failures. To being with, not getting through the Indian Air Force was a major disappointment, to an extent that young Kalam almost slipped into depression before he met Swami Sivananda at Rishikesh who set him right. In the following decades, Kalam faced the shelving of the Nandi hovercraft, termination of the RATO (rocket-assisted take-off system) project by Indian Air Force on which Kalam was working, sudden cancellation of French Diamont BC program for which Kalam and team worked on the Stage IV rocket for over two years, the failed launch of SLV-3 in August 1979, and later the series of failures experienced by Agni in April 1989 before it was successfully launched.

These were just few of the publicly known setbacks, but there were many more in his personal life and those experienced during the administration of large institutions. Kalam learned to absorb failure and never to fall for self-pity, as he reflects, “a sense of distance and detachment is required in dealing with all activities of our life”.

Be a good follower to become an effective leader

Finally, a strong sense of gratitude. In his autobiography — Wings of Fire- Kalam writes about how a few individuals deeply influenced his way of thinking and working and enabled him to dream big while being grounded. The spiritual Kalam was shaped by his father Jainulabdeen, a close friend Ahmed Jallaluddin, and Kalam’s cousin Samsuddin. As for Kalam’s scientific self, the key leaders were Prof. Vikram Sarabhai, Prof. Satish Dhawan, and Dr. Brahm Prakash, all from ISRO. In the words of Kalam, these leaders taught him ‘the importance of big picture thinking’, ‘how to create synergy among available talent’, to practice ‘a delicate balance between hands-on and hands-off approach’, and ‘to praise publicly and criticise privately’ — practices that helped Kalam manage the ambitious IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme) within a tight budget and under record time.

In his lifetime, Kalam worked with three of India’s most prestigious institutes — ISRO, DRDO and DAE, on SLV-3, IGMDP and Pokhran- II projects, respectively. One mustn’t doubt the creativity at scale that such endeavours involve, especially in the light of international sanctions, tight budgets, and secretive nature of engagements. And yet Kalam, a villager who earned his first penny by selling newspapers, led such development with a deft hand. If he can, anybody should be able to. Here’s a final note from Kalam to sum-it up all for you, “if someone asks me about my personal achievements in Indian rocketry, I would put it down to having created a challenging environment for teams of young people to work in.”

You can do the same.




Innovation Evangelist and author of the book, Design Your Thinking.