Leadership lessons I learnt from my illiterate father

Leadership is a fascinating idea. Stories and anecdotes about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa and several other greats have always inspired me. During my professional career and during this MBA program I learnt about businesses that were inspired by exemplary leadership. In my opinion no worthwhile change has ever come about without inspiring leadership.

On different occasions when my friends learnt about my personal journey, in varying degrees, they all said that I should be proud of what I achieved in my life. That comment always got me thinking. I worked hard to get where I am today, but what enabled me to become what I am?

One of the ideas I’ve practised in this MBA is, taking a step back, connecting seemingly unrelated dots to draw insights. Applying this to my personal journey, it occurred to me that a key factor is the influence of my father, and I realised that I picked up some key leadership lessons from him. Here is my version of it.

Marrivagu Narsimha is my father’s name. He was born to a poor farmer in a village, Tangutur, in India. He never went to school. He inherited no wealth, but as the only boy child, was responsible for his three sisters. To financially support my grandfather, he migrated to Hyderabad city in search of a better livelihood in his teens. He worked as a daily wage labourer. He set up his family in a slum because he could not afford a decent house elsewhere. He raised 3 children under these conditions.

When he stopped working in 2005, this is what he had accomplished:
• Eldest son: merit student, electronics engineer, employed with one of the top corporate houses in India
• Younger son: gold medalist, electronics engineer, employed with India’s second largest software exporter
• Daughter: pursuing graduation in science

His monthly income at that time was INR 2,000 ($31).

Taking an outsider perspective and looking back in time, four key elements of his approach stand out to me. These are my leadership lessons from him.

1. Vision: Must be a compelling idea of a better future
We grew up in poverty. As a family we had to choose between the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter on a daily basis. Several days in a month, eating three square meals was a luxury. Sanitary conditions included defecating in the public, clogged drainage systems and sewage streams in the locality. On several occasions, I was not allowed to sit in school because either my clothes were torn, or because I was barefooted, or because I had not paid the fee due for the month. Our relatives looked down upon us and there was very little support.

These circumstances notwithstanding, my father made education a basic necessity for us. He believed very strongly, and was totally convinced, that education is the only thing that will ensure his children will not lead the life of poverty that he lived. What he used to say whenever I was sent back from school or I asked for shoes is still fresh in my mind, “Your focus should not be on the shoes, your focus should be on your studies. If you don’t eat once or if you don’t wear shoes it will still be okay. But if you don’t study well it will not be okay. One day when you are well educated all these problems will be gone. Sometimes it may not happen on time, but I will somehow pay your school fees. All you should do is work hard to be the best (1st ranker) in your class”. He would relentlessly repeat this message whenever we children asked for anything that he deemed was unnecessary.

2. Execution: Must be a relentless pursuit
He dragged us through those circumstances for about two and a half decades never showing signs of giving up. I remember him waking up early in the morning at 4, taking a cold bath and leaving home to bring some bags of metal scrap, then quickly cleaning his hands, eating something real fast and going to the metal shop where he was working, then coming home for lunch around 2, and returning in the night around 9. And early morning during weekdays and on Sundays, he would work on separating useful metal pieces from those bags of scrap to make some additional money. This was his routine. He would do this without any complaints, with same energy, consistently through all those years. He would buy groceries on credit because his income was not enough to provide for everything the family needed. At other times he would default on payment of house rent. With three children to educate, at times he had to default on our school fee too. But he strove real hard to pay the school on time. That was always his top priority.

As for our studies, his emphasis was on “focus” and “excellence” right through. I have vivid memories of how he used to look at my progress report. The first thing he would look at is my class rank. If it was not “1st”, he would never be happy. Sometimes when I was 2nd or 3rd he would say “Not good enough. Why are you not the first in class? You are not studying well. You keep playing cricket and roaming on the streets all the time. Whenever I see you, you are always with your friends. Instead if you had studied you would have been the 1st ranker. You have to be the best in your class, the best among your friends, the best among all our neighbours.” He was very insistent on this, all through my school years.

But once we got out of school, he never told us what to do. It was almost as if he had deliberately changed his strategy. He used to say “I am an illiterate, and I don’t know what is good and what is not when it comes to education. I sent you to school and fortunately you had good teachers who told you how to study. I could never help you with studies other than paying your fees and buying you books. You studied well so far and whatever you got was your hard work. From now on you have to make your own decisions. You decide what you want to study and how much to study. You just tell me how much money you need to study and I will try and arrange it somehow.”

In retrospect, I see he led us holding hands when we were kids but once he realised we could take care of ourselves, he gave us freedom, the room to think, decide and execute what we thought was right for us, supporting us in every way we needed him to. He empowered us to think and act for ourselves.

3. Culture: Must emphasize values and foster excellence
The culture he built at home had “excellence” and “education” at its heart. He would let us do anything we wanted but only as long as it did not compromise the quality of or focus on our education. He would never stop me from playing cricket with my friends but as exams approached he would come looking for me at all places possible, take me home, sit me down and make me study. There were no excuses!

Other way around, whenever he or my mom needed us to do something, say buying vegetables or fetching water, we could always get excused if we said we had to study. Instead my father or my mother would go get the stuff. Whenever any one of us children had exams or were preparing for any competitive exam, that child would get decision rights to almost all things at home – how much sound others are allowed to make, whether doors and windows should be open, at what times and how long television would be turned on, when the lights would be turned off, whether my mother could sit down in front of the door and chat with neighbours, when the others should take bath, right to use all stationary, and exemption from all household work etc. It was almost as if that child had veto rights to every decision at home. My father would let us stay home instead of attending marriages etc., if the reason was studies. We could even excuse ourselves from spending time with visitors and relatives when we needed to study. Exceptions could always be made, if the reason was studies.

Given the latitude we were allowed, on the pretext of studies, it was a natural expectation that we were excellent in our studies. Sometimes during my school days, my father would even be angry with me because I was hanging out a lot with some friends who were not so bright in studies. He would let me play with them but would caution me whenever he sensed I was spending a lot of time with such friends.

4. Example: Must reflect simplicity, integrity and responsibility
All through those years he had been an unassuming person, full of integrity and responsibility. A striking example is this incident. At one time my father had left his job because of some differences with his employer. One of our relatives came to know of this and he visited us and offered my father a job in his shop. My father politely refused. The relative persisted and he tried to talk my father into his offer citing the difficulties we were facing, three children to take care of, rent to be paid and so on. My father did not budge. Later when the relative had left, my father explained to my mother that he refused the offer because that relative was not trustworthy, that his business methods were questionable, and that my father feared that if he joined that relative, he would be pressurized to help him in his dubious business methods, and that he was not willing to do such wrong things to run the family.

He was a person of absolute personal responsibility. He would never lay claim to anything that was not his. I remember him ordering me to return the extra money that the shopkeeper had given me by mistake. He would return the water to our neighbours before they reminded us. He never touched alcohol or tobacco in his life. He believed that these are addictive habits that render one irresponsible.

All through those years he stayed grounded and simple. After we had graduated and joined workforce our relatives would heap praises on him for persisting with his belief and investing the family’s future into our education. But he would never take credit for what we had become. He is not used to such praises and shows a bit of an embarrassment when people praise him. He would always reply “Whatever they have achieved is their hard work and their talent. I did not tell them that they should pursue engineering or anything like that. They chose their studies, I only paid their fees. In fact, since they started going to college they got scholarships and that helped their studies.”

Thanks dad!

13 Comments

  1. This is really inspirational story. People who were not able to get formal education are sometimes more practical and long sighted. Your dad is the perfect example of those people.
    Hatts Off!
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Just like others has posted, education begins at home. The mother is the first to hold the child and father gives the sense of protection. The references made to your father was great!

  3. Excellent article!
    This article shows importance of education to him for his father. Our parents are our first teachers, who taught us throughout life.

  4. Superb Anniah.Not just education taught us life with values.Used to tell stories and teach morals.
    Salute to the great person.

  5. Thank you for sharing the great story! The word great gets used a lot, but I think stories like this define it. A wonderful tale of a very unique and interesting perspective.

  6. Wow Santosh ! This actually made me emotional . You had told me glimpses of it , but through this story I could imagine your past. It’s so sad that sometimes we children forget all the sacrifices that our parents have made for us . As you rightly said , we are what we are because they enabled us . I see all those wonderful qualities in you now and I deeply respect you for that. Thank you for sharing this personal piece with us. It’s truly inspiring !

  7. Thanks for sharing Shantosh. These are practical lessons that you learned from someone so close to you. A good college degree can reinforce them but could never replace the 20-30 years of experience that you had with your father. They will always stay with you. Good luck

  8. This is so inspiring Santosh. Your dad is a legend and I can actually see all his teachings in you. What I like the most is that, when he gave you guys freedom, you didnt forget about his teachings and simple did your thing, you still pretty much stuck to his vision, execution and culture. And right now you are the living example of your great dad….very inspiring.

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