Leadership Lessons from Suresh Prabhu’s Desk

Sushrut Munje shares on Frankaffe the leadership, management and branding insights to be gained from the stormy relationship between Suresh Prabhu and PMO.
Suresh Prabhu – Union Minister of Railways

The following article is with reference to this Mumbai Mirror article, dated 21st February 2016.

Suresh Prabhu was roped in as the Union Railway minister in a systematic manner for a track record of competency and sincerity. India had voted in favor of a decisive non corrupt government, and we needed a honest man to ‘fix’ the railways. Prabhu belonged to a smaller regional allied party, which attempted to create a hurdle to his appointment, but through a swift coup and camp changing activities – he had that chair and a country wide network of railways to run – probably the largest employer in the world.

All is probably not as smooth as it seems. As unfortunate events are unfolding – they have the potential to give us insights on leadership, lessons on expectations management and underlining the need to execute on spoken word.

What makes a leader?

Managing a team, making promises where equal efforts from the entire team is required, and ensuring you fulfill them is a mammoth task. Leadership is ideally a cocky blend of multiple personalities and thought processes. It requires you to be adaptable at a moment’s notice. It requires to be as resilient as a cliff by the raging ocean. But though a cliff often gives away, that’s merely a form of adaptation for you.

Leadership is Effective Communication

It is not how much talk, it is how well you do that. Communication covers your tone, your gestures, the glint in your eyes, the words you choose and the sentences you structure. Communication should capture the attention and the imagination of your audience – for when you share a tale, you ought to make them believe that you’re the only person who knows how the tale ends. Leadership is convincing the other person that though the tale doesn’t belong to you – you ARE the only person who can take it to its logical conclusion. And therein lies the magic.

Getting Them to ‘Buy In’

In all pitches and team meetings – synchronization between the speaker and the followers is crucial – a wave does not flow with disconnected units. A leader must either try to get in to the followers’ mood, or ensure they fall in line in his. This can be done by keeping the objectives intact. When the Pied Piper drove rats into the sea, and the children beyond the mountain – the species being driven by his hypnotic music did not know where they are headed, for they believed in the Pied Piper and his intentions, and the man did what he wanted to do.

The above example applies in all cases, good and bad. Not everyone can see a bigger picture, and trade offs is an essential part of the game. By being in touch with the top management and understanding their objectives, our individual responsibilities need to be shouldered – no matter what. It is all about people, and getting work done is essential. Suresh Prabhu holds a political position, and it is crucial for him to strike a fine balance between the political rhetoric and actual delivery – he cannot afford tilting either way.

Managing Expectations

When the CEO sells the impossible dream to the world, either the team standing behind him can grimace or they can put their chest out at the prospect of achieving what has not been achieved till date. The latter happens when there is trust in the CEO’s word, and self belief. Leaders in organizations are given single line objectives to achieve – the action plan is their prerogative as are all iterations. Achieving the stated goal is crucial, unless aptly communicated.

While Suresh Prabhu is a good man, no doubt, and has all the right plans – his inability to move as fast or at least project an impression of moving at the required speed might cost him his job. Does that mean that the top management fails to understand talent? No – it means that the leader is unable to understand what his job requires him to do – while the work is in progress, it is always necessary to spin a tale around it which sells the future vision. No one buys what currently is, everyone buys what it will be.


Everyone is a best friend in this world, or rather, that’s how it should be. Invoke the ancient scriptures who teach you to love all, or invoke the rules of politics where everyone is useful – diplomacy is a highly useful trait to nurture for it helps create win-win situations.

A leader deals with 3 layers – one he leads, one he coordinates with and the last he takes instructions from – and all layers need different things to keep themselves happy. Balancing the three layers and keeping them all happy requires telling a story where they are made the protagonist, their problem is made to seem the baddest and the solution being employed by us is made to seem the most ideal. It is not blatant transparency – truth is always case sensitive and subjective – it is ‘perception building’.

Perceptions + Stories

Perception Building is a lesson that applies to developing internal communication and branding – it is a skill that should be mastered. Imagine having two people with you with differing mindsets and world views. As a result, no matter that you tell them, they would always perceive it from their perspective. If they talk to each other directly, chances of a misunderstanding are high. This is counter productive to the organization, because energy will be lost in getting them on the same page, and getting the work to start. Plus, it is unnecessary, because they do not need to interact either. That’s where Perception Building comes into play.

You build a pipeline between two individuals/departments – shaping what’s coming out on either side into something they would understand – translated to suit their world view. Your objective perspective ensures that the required information spoken by them sees the light of the day, their unnecessary bias does not, and the information is designed to look as if it aligns with the listener’s world view.

To put it simply – you tell a story to Ayodhya citizens positioning Rama as the protagonist and the same story to Lankans positioning Ravana as the protagonist. It is easier to buy in and sees swift action on both ends – thus everyone saves an ample amount of angst, time and energy.

All Clearly Not Aboard

“The world is never fair to good people,” will not be a correct phrase to employ here, since leaders ought to understand what comes with the chair that they occupy. It seems that Suresh Prabhu, unfortunately, has failed to sell his vision effectively to multiple stakeholders. There is no point in having a vision, if it is not being sold. Hoping the ministry gets back on track. He is a good man, after all :)

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