“Moscow 1980 Olympics: India v/s Spain finals: The second half of the last game begins. The players on the both sides are all on their toes prepared to make a slip. But you can’t help running a risk if you want to win. And they made it, winning by a score of 4-3. India has won! ”
As I sat in the room with Maneyapanda Muthanna Somaya (M.M. Somaya), then Executive Director of Aviation Business Unit at Bharat Petroleum, I could sense a feeling of warmth and humility reflecting across the room. I had the pleasure to work with him when I was transferred to the Aviation BU. For a country where cricket is almost like a religion, field hockey has taken a backstage since long even though it has been one of the most successful sports for India in the Olympics.
M.M. Somaya is a former Indian field hockey player and a member of Indian squad in many international games, including the team that won the Gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games. Somaya went on to play two more Olympic Games, viz., 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games, and 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games. He was the captain of the 1988 Olympics team. In 2007 Somaya was bestowed the Life Time Achievement award by the Government of India. He is also a recipient of Arjuna Award.
As I worked with him and interacted with him over the years, I became more and more awestruck by his leadership style and personality. I would, in fact, make him travel back memory lanes to revisit his past and tell me interesting stories from his decorated sports career. There are so many important leadership lessons that I learned through observing him and interacting with him. A lot of these learnings have been reinforced over my journey at IIM Ahmedabad recently.
In fact as we crawl through the extremely difficult times of Covid19 pandemic, the memory of his smiling face and his soft-spoken words make me rather resilient. There are no setbacks since you can always set it back, he used to say in impossible times.
The most prominent of qualities that one would observe in him is effective listening. In our conventional methods of education, we are only taught about technicalities and mechanics of effective reading, writing, and speaking but never listening. In this digitally connected VUCA world, even hearing has become a growing challenge. Be it your personal life or professional life, take a pause and listen when someone is speaking to you. As the 14th Dalai Lama has said, “If you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
Also, sometimes the only thing you need to do is to listen, and most issues will get resolved. If you haven’t experienced this, next time when someone has the strongest urge to come up to you and spill out their problems listen to them attentively. (For example your maid) They will find their solutions to their problems often while talking to you and even respect you more for you listened.
As Somaya once mentioned, if you’re not listening to your coach, teammates, and opponents on the field, you’re no good with your skills and hockey stick in the middle of the field.
Ability to Delegate:
Don’t we often want to be the one who will score the winning goal? This urge is often the strongest in all of us. However, at the world stage, a pass made at the right time to the right person can change the game upside down. You need to be confident on the ability of your team to take the pass and score a goal.
Many great leaders have quoted similar things as Andrew Carnegie, “No person will make a great business who wants to do it all himself or get all the credit.” Resist the urge to do it all by yourself. In my own experience, I have seen people trying to do everything on their own and then calling for help almost like firefighting at the last minute.
It takes a great level of maturity and leadership to gain delegation as an important skill set in our lives. Now is the time to begin!
Every great leader that I have read of or heard of has been a very humble person. If you didn’t know who Somaya is, you could never guess of his achievements. However, why is being humble such an important characteristic of a leader?
If you work with Somaya, you’ll realize that he is a fiercely competitive person who does not shy away from difficult decisions. Moreover, yet when you meet him in person, he is very empathetic and friendly.
In my experience humility brings with it a great environment of positivity, learning, and innovation. Everyone wants to be associated with such environments and people. No matter how much we achieve in life, it is in our best interest to be grounded.
Thinking differently and on the feet:
In the field often one gets only seconds to decide on the next move or the next pass. Even if an overall strategy is decided before or during the game these subtle decision-making skills can be the deciding factor between a victory and a loss.
Business environments are quite similar in terms of decision-making opportunities. I could see how Somaya thought on his feet and how he could come up with different ideas. Hockey in the 80’s was not as sophisticated as it is today. Yet the young boys playing the sport valued this quality tremendously.
In today’s time, advanced analytics and video processing abilities have helped players to transform their games, and it has become critical to be on the feet and think differently. However, could we develop this quality? I for sure think we can. Being mindful is one of the best ways to do so.
As a leader, if you want to be successful, you have to make your team and subordinates successful:
On the podium stands the entire team with their gold medals. That’s the beauty of team games. You can be the best player in the world, but you can rarely win it all alone. Somaya has this unique ability to read the talents and abilities of his teammates. Not only that, he is also able to sense the learning needs to his teammates. He says it is mostly his intuition.
Is it possible to develop a strong intuition? Many psychologists have written about this. What I have seen and believe is that when one increases their awareness about their environment and has good knowledge in general, the intuition grows stronger and stronger. You just know what the right thing to do eventually is.
Most of these leadership lessons are quite obvious, but they don’t come very naturally to people. It’s almost like textbook knowledge, however, when you experience these first hand early on in a very long career to come you have already started on the path of being an effective leader!
One may not be an expert sportsperson, but there is a great learning & leadership development opportunity in each and every activity that we do beyond our normal lives. Pick up your bags travels to places and undertake unique experiences. I would love to write about my experiences of solo travel on the Ganges at its mouth, a meditational retreat, bag packing into the northeastern tribal lands but these are for some other time.
This article for originally written for the IIM Ahmedabad Student’s Blog: Writing On The Wall