How good leaders manage failure

This was an article snippet posted as an anonymous comment on Tan Kin Lian’s blog. I thought it is so appropriate in light of our recent “Toilet Break” affair.

(Former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam at Wharton India Economic forum, Philadelphia , March 22,2008)

Question: Could you give an example, from your own experience, of how leaders should manage failure?

Kalam: Let me tell you about my experience. In 1973 I became the project director of India ‘s satellite launch vehicle program, commonly called the SLV-3. Our goal was to put India ‘s ‘Rohini’ satellite into orbit by 1980. I was given funds and human resources — but was told clearly that by 1980 we had to launch the satellite into space. Thousands of people worked together in scientific and technical teams towards that goal.

By 1979 — I think the month was August — we thought we were ready. As the project director, I went to the control center for the launch. At four minutes before the satellite launch, the computer began to go through the checklist of items that needed to be checked. One minute later, the computer program put the launch on hold; the display showed that some control components were not in order. My experts — I had four or five of them with me — told me not to worry; they had done their calculations and there was enough reserve fuel. So I bypassed the computer, switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage, everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed. Instead of the satellite going into orbit, the whole rocket system plunged into the Bay of Bengal. It was a big failure.

That day, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, Prof. Satish Dhawan, had called a press conference. The launch was at 7:00 am, and the press conference — where journalists from around the world were present — was at 7:45 am at ISRO’s satellite launch range in Sriharikota [in Andhra Pradesh in southern India ]. Prof. Dhawan, the leader of the organization, conducted the press conference himself. He took responsibility for the failure — he said that the team had worked very hard, but that it needed more technological support. He assured the media that in another year, the team would definitely succeed. Now, I was the project director, and it was my failure, but instead, he took responsibility for the failure as chairman of the organization.

The next year, in July 1980, we tried again to launch the satellite — and this time we succeeded. The whole nation was jubilant. Again, there was a press conference. Prof. Dhawan called me aside and told me, ‘You conduct the press conference today.’

I learned a very important lesson that day. When failure occurred, the leader of the organization owned that failure. When success came, he gave it to his team. The best management lesson I have learned did not come to me from reading a book; it came from that experience.

It’s interesting that in Singapore (at least in the Government), it seems the opposite is practised. When some amoeba civil servant comes up with a great idea, the government mouthpieces boast that “Minister Chin Tua Liap mooted the idea”.

But if a disgraceful prison break occurs, the blame is contained within the detention centre and no higher. And the Government’s logic is that blaming the Minister will lower morale of the staff. So better to blame the underlings and “move on”.


Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

8 thoughts on “How good leaders manage failure”

  1. Dear Gerald,

    Apparently Dr Lam Pin Min do not see the story from your angle, I had taken the liberty to cut and paste his reply to this story which another netizen had posted on the so-called P65 blog.

    Pin Min’s Reply:

    Thanks for sharing this inspiring story. This is a good example of a leader taking responsibility for a failure and making the bold move of staying on to ensure things are put in order so that the ultimate goal is reached. He did not resign because of one setback. This is the right thing to do. Sometimes it is so much easier to throw in the towel and walk away, leaving the mess for others to clean up.

    Man. Can our MP think? Or do they just parrot away what the Ministers say… … Gosh, we are telling him tis story about leadership and responsibility and he chose to talk about staying and fixing the problem. Has the MPs now look at issue from their own perspective and tinted lenses. So sad that even a MP cannot think.


  2. Hi Gerald,

    Great post. Thank you!

    This reminds me of the letter Eisenhower prepared in the event that the D in D-Day stood for Disaster.

    “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” -General Eisenhower

    The hallmark of a great leader- taking full responsibility for everything that happened during his watch.



    I wonder how our national archives will record this one. “Good for nothing ISD oafs allowed top terrorist to escape. Minister of Home Affairs steadfastly remained in his post to clean up the mess, braving all forms of ridicule and calls for his resignation. His sacrifice was immense beyond measure.”

    An Old Friend

  3. If only the 66.6% understand this. I hope each and everyone of them will reflect before the next GE on what they want in a govt that works for the real good of it’s PEOPLE.

  4. Leadership by example
    listed in SAF core values.
    I’m guessing ALL were/have been BG? or BS as in bullshit in this example.

  5. Please, do not insult the term “leadership” by applying it to our politicians. They are nothing but men lured to politics for greed for money and power in my mind. Nothing else. Just look at the MP’s reply. He does not even have to guts to acknowledge that true leadership is about taking ownership and not about giving excuses of not being directly responsible.

    Going by the same principle why does the old man claim so much credit for his great leadership. Blowing this own trumpet through his own books and media dogs. It was the people’s work and attitude, so he was not directly responsible and yet he takes all the credit when thing turns out well.

    There are many great leaders in this country and they are definitely not from the ruling party and some do not even earn a few thousand dollars a month. When when it comes to leadeship, they are in front of their men with arms outstretched to protect them and to take the bullet, not hide behind their men’s backside to protect their own shameless arse. I hope the people, lawmakers and judges remember what the PM argued as a precedent to other cases as well. That the leadership should not be held responsible if they were not directly involved. But then we have two rules don;t we..

  6. Thanks Gerald! It was very inspiring! Can’t help but feel ashamed of our own govt!

  7. Thanks for the story.

    I think we are all utterly disgusted with how our own ministers just fail to take full responsibility as leaders. It is even sadder that whenever we raise the issue of taking the blame, they refute it pathetically by saying that resigning means walking away from problems. We are not calling for resignation here, we are merely asking that he admits that he, as a leader, is liable for this major error.

    He should eat humble pie and not rely on the PM to speak up for him all the time!

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