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How can a leader thrive when faced with overwhelming odds and uncertainty? This episode with D Sivanandhan, the former DGP of Mumbai Police, explores how leadership is a combination of time management, leading without fear, and prioritizing the well-being of others. Nitika Goel, Chief Marketing Officer at Zinnov, unpacks the concept of fearlessness with the former DGP about how a leader can chart a practical risk-taking strategy. The conversation breaks down how innovation and change are constants and why adapting to current times and scenarios is imperative for a forward-thinking leader.
Humility is an essential trait in leadership, but how does a humble person exhibit leadership qualities? How can a role model inspire people, positively and negatively?
Watch this episode to understand how leadership is a combination of hard work and fearlessness.
Nitika: Hi everyone. My name is Nitika Goel, I’m the CMO of Zinnov, I’m the host for your podcast today. Today I have with me a very, very distinguished guest DGP Sivanandhan who has an illustrious career that is truly fearless. A key part of being a leader is having the ability to understand what you can face and what you can’t.
And then the belief in self to be fearless. I have one such leader with me who’s walked the talk, who’s done it again and again and again, and we want to explore how we can learn from him and translate that into the context of our lives, our businesses, and also our own priority.
You mentioned early on that you’ve had different careers. You were a professor that went on to write your UPSC and then has now become a top cop. And now you’re a speaker and a person doing good for the community and a nation builder, I would call you.
How have those different career shifts happened and why?
Sivanandhan: I work as a…for 10 companies, corporates I work as an independent director. Then I work for 15 NGOs free of cost as a trustee. One NGO is my own roti bank where we have served 95 lakh meal free of cost. I earn money for that and then I feed 95 lakhs of people.
Then other 14 NGOs I’m working. For example, one is PCGT, that is Public Concern for Governance Trust that is run by Mr. Mr. Julio Ribeiro, I’m a trustee there. So I give time for such things.
Then I also have written a bestseller called Chanakyas 7 Secrets of Leadership, and I write regularly a column in the newspapers, like Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Free Press Journal and things like. So I run a company also called Securus First India Private Limited.
And I also do all these things. There’s not that you are doing only one thing at one time. You can be very useful to the society by multitasking.
Now, going back to your question, I did work as a professor of Economics from 1974 to 1976 in the University of Madras. But then I got tired of teaching the same Adam Smith and Paul Smith and things like that. I was bored actually. So I said, let us do an adventurous life, you know. Dull life toh hona nahi chahiye. So I appeared for the UPSC and in the first attempt I got, IPS. I think somebody from the above heard my wanting to have a rollercoaster ride in life. They said ‘Tathastu’! I became an IPS officer. So after that, having joined IPS, the rollercoaster ride never stopped. Now I’m retired -11 years I’m retired, still the rollercoaster ride is going on.
So that way life, what you make out of your life is your choice. Lot of people ask me at the age of 60 people retire and they wither away, they grow gray, and they say nobody’s listening to me now. How you are going to make others listen and how you are going to be relevant to the economy, to the income tax, to the GST… all of them are sending me notices all the time. That means I’m earning money, you know?
So that way, if you make your life interesting, it is in your hand. So mine is an interesting life.
Nitika: Do you think it’s an innate characteristic of self or is it something that you learn with time?
Sivanandhan: It is not innate, you know? I wouldn’t say it is innate character, but you do learn as you run. Like Neeraj Chopra.. I’m sure has been working for the last 15 – 20 years… 15 years minimum to grow into this level. It doesn’t happen in one day, but it does run into lot of people and imbibe those qualities and they become excellent in their life.
So all these characteristics, the leadership qualities, which I’m telling you can be cultivated by somebody who’s a nobody. If you ask me, frankly, before I became a professor, I was a nobody from zero to 100 you can take off, not in a short time. It does take time… for me it took 40 – 50 years to come up to this level.
Nitika: So I think I can summarize it very effectively. At least my understanding is correct, just tell me. So zero to 100 really is a choice. It’s just a choice to be able to experiment, take those micro risks you talked about
Sivanandhan: Exactly! It is your life. It is in your hands.
Nobody else can chisel out your career, you just allow, you reach out to be the Sundar Pichai, or Satya Nadella, or Indra Nooyi, somebody like that. It’s in your hands.
Nitika: So you spoke about something which was extremely profound about being fearless. Now fearless is very easy to say, but is very difficult to do. So what do you think is in the DNA of a person who is fearless?
Sivanandhan: All people have in-built fear. The outward appearance, that show that he’s fearless. Inside fear has to be there. Fear would be there. It is utter foolish not to be afraid of something which has to be afraid of.
So you can’t say I’m fearless and go bang your head against a stone wall. You’ll break your head. So you have to have a stone wall. You have to scale it and go and jump over that. You got me banging your head and breaking the stone wall. That is not fearlessness. Fearlessness which I have described today is a calculated, well practiced risk taking ability. So anybody skiing in those difficult areas, or anybody doing all those varieties of feats are the ones who have practiced it million times.
For example, Mark Spitz, the swimming champion of the Olympics. When he got eight gold medals, someone went and told him, ‘Hi, Mark! Lucky day for you.’ He looked up to him and said, ‘Lucky day! My bloody foot. I worked 10,000 hours in this water, cold and hard. And I practiced. After I practiced, I got a gold medal.’
And one more fellow came called Phelps. He got nine gold medals. So it is not that you are sleeping on your raw silk cotton bed. And somebody
comes in, gives you a gold medal and say you’re lucky day! That is not true.
There is a book called the Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. He says, unless you practice 10,000 hours either continuously or with break, you can’t become a maestro. So you want to become a maestro of violin or anything or piano or anything or even shooting or anything, you have to practice 10,000 hours. Then only you become a prodigy.
Nitika: So sir, I’ll come back to that where you’re talking about practice and lots of times, the situations that you’re going into are unknowns and variables, and I’ll use that parallel in the…
Sivanandhan: No, it’s their job… Don’t know where we go, where we land up. I can as well land up in the mortuary.
Nitika: So, how do you prepare for the unknown?
Sivanandhan: See, we are preparing for the worst in the police. If you’re talking of police, we are trained to prepare for the worst. For example, if the Prime Minister’s visit is there everything can go wrong. You know, somebody could be shot and there could be chaos. People could be running helter-skelter, and there can be a stampede. For all these things, we have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D. So all these things, we go prepared and we have to plug every expected loophole and pray after doing all those things and pray God saying that, ‘Oh God! By the end of the day, I should go home and sleep. I should not be ending up in jail or in the mortuary or anywhere like that.’
It can happen on. For example day before yesterday, a DySP, I think in Haryana, at some place he was doing against mafia, he did something. The mafia, the truck driver drove over him. There was also another ASP, Assistant Superintendent of Police, that means a 25 year old young IPS officer, in Madhya Pradesh, against the sand mafia, he did something like that. They drove the truck and killed him.
Now a 25 year old IPS officer never would’ve imagined that he’s going to be killed. His life can’t be snuffed out like that. So Madam, in the police or in anything, we have to plan for the unexpected. If everything is going to be hunky dory, then why do we have all these… there’s people who are telling prophecy and telling, ‘Hey, they read this (shows his hand), read this (shows his forehead), read that.’ All that they do. All those people will be jobless.
Nitika: From a mindset perspective, we think linearly as human beings, very often, we don’t think exponentially.
So today we are driving a cycle. It’s not like tomorrow we’ll say, we’ll fly the cycle to Mars.
Sivanandhan: You can!
Nitika: We can eventually. Very few people will be able to think like that. So most people and an everyday leader, we don’t necessarily think that far out. We solve for the unknowns till where we have foresight. So how do you start thinking very long term, very big unknown?
Sivanandhan: I have read this novel by Jules Verne. He’s a man who thought about various things known 100 years ago… he’s a scientific novel writer. So let us say, the guys who invented the airplane or the guys who invented insulin or penicillin or various other things like that and much more is happening today. So we had to be prepared for the unknown and we have to be ready, like so many companies, which were doing so well have gone out business. Because innovation, change, and all those things have changed. So unless you are running faster than the other, you will be run over by the truck which is coming behind.
We have to run faster than the truck which is running behind you. Business or police or IAS or IPS… we have to think like that.
Nitika: So what are your top three tips for any leaders who are looking to prepare for the unknown?
Sivanandhan: All the leaders who are preparing to become leaders have to be humble to start with. The book is by Jim Collins, all of them can read. Five qualities… he interviewed 1,465 Level 5 leaders of Indra Nooyi and Sundar Pichai… that type of people who earned millions in seconds, that type of people he inquired, checked and then came to the conclusion that they suffer from insatiable, honesty, and humility, and innovativeness, and transformational leadership and things like that.
So the first thing is to be humble And then be very honest. Today if you ask any youngster, if you’re asking me to give up tip to all the youngsters in the corporate world or in the college or anywhere, you have to work hard and you have to take a risk and unless you take a risk and also work hard and be honest…
Why are the Police Commissioners getting arrested in Mumbai? Can you believe ever? You’re talking to a Police Commissioner of Mumbai after I retired and after one or two other commissioners retired, everyone is getting into some trap or the other. Why is it happening? Because they are not honest. They are not honest to the job, honest financially or otherwise, and things like that.
Nitika: So honest and hardworking. Two very important traits.
When talking to you, you also mentioned something very interesting. We get inspired, we get inspired by what we see, sometimes inspired by what we read, sometimes inspired by what we do ourselves. We see the consequences of our action and that makes us do more. So who inspires you or what inspires you?
Sivanandhan: A child who is laughing continuously inspires me, dog which is giving you unconditional love inspires me. And the doctors who are treating people absolutely selflessly… they inspire me. And of course, in the police service, my own seniors who are all absolutely positive role models, they did inspire me.
But as I would say, you can’t get one role model in one package. You have to pick up one quality from each person and put it into yourself.
You become a role model and others may or may not take you as a role model.
Nitika: So that’s a very fascinating thing. You talked about role models, but are role models always positive?
Sivanandhan: Role models are supposed to be positive. Otherwise they have not quantified to be of a role model. Unless they’re inspirational, transformational, they’re fantastic, and they do well, speak well, dress well, and contact themselves well, success and everything… unless all these things are there, no bhikari (beggar) sitting on the road and asking for alms can give you a lecture, saying that money is nothing, life is just a mirage and no use of making money. But if this is told by Adani or Ambani tomorrow that there’s no need to chase money, I’ll believe it, because they are the ones who have gone there. They have done it. But if a bhikari (beggar) is going to tell me money is of no value, they don’t need to earn money. I will not believe him.
So that way, role models have to be like that, madam. They have done it. They have gone there. They have been role modeled. Walk the talk, as you rightly said earlier, but unless you are that nobody is going to waste your time. Today people are, as I said earlier, fact checking everything.
When I say Henry Ford said this, they immediately check. My own daughters whenever I say something, they quietly check below the table and say, ‘Dad, what you said is not right.’
Nitika: You made a fascinating commentary, I think when you were talking earlier, where you talked about the construct of learning what not to do from someone.
Sivanandhan: Negative role model. When we are talking of positivity, when you are talking, you have Amrut, can we talk of poison? So if it is offered there, so would you be offering to take this or that? So obviously the answer is that you’ll be taking Amrut and not the poison. So when you have role model and your life is being shaped, chiseled by those people who are role models, there does an element that creep in where
there is a man who was negative. He was corrupt. He was speaking very arrogantly, insultingly, ill treating the people, ill treated the police force, all that was there. But under him, I was trained and also one more officer, one more officer picked up all his qualities, started crushing people, taking money from them, all that he was doing.
I stood there in admiration saying that when I become this level, I am not going to do this. So every day I took a notebook and wrote aaj (today) he did this. Today he did this. I am not going to do that. This is what… I thank him. I really thank him. I’m not saying anything disparaging about him. That is his chosen way of life. My chosen way of life is what has made what I have today. So in great admiration, with all gratitude and thankful that I say that negative role model did help me to become what I am.
Nitika: That is fascinating and fantastic.
The last question that I have for you, you in the beginning of this podcast mentioned that you work on multiple things. How do you make and prioritize your time as a leader? That’s going to be a very critical.
Sivanandhan: Ma’am, if you read Robin Sharma, he says very clearly if you get up one hour earlier than what you are getting up from now. Let’s say if you’re getting up 6’o clock, get about 5’o clock. He says you get 365 hours in a year extra.
Now what do you do with? You to do something useful. So if that is it, you have to prioritize yourself saying that, what is good? What is productive? What is wrong? What will take me up? What will take me below? Is it the welfare of my people? My police force, my men, or the ordinary people like that?
For example, I prioritize that in my retired life, I’m going to not allow people to waste food. When you have a banquet and people eat very little, everybody is very worried about that weight and size zero, so that food which is wasted, can I on a phone call send a vehicle, collect it, and feed the poor.
That is how my roti bank started. Now, the covid came, risk-taking came, and I started the cooking food. Today we have given 95 lakh of meal, 5more lakhs, I will be a corepati.
So that is a good thing to do. So that is how, madam, we have to grow. We have to do multitasking.
In multitasking also, so if I just leave a board meeting and come to give an inspirational speech, which one do I prefer? That’s a small amount of money you get from there or inspiring 200 – 300 people. What’s your priority?
So, is there money, little money, which is more important to you or inspiring people is more important to you or even for that matter, getting inspired, even if I’m not the speaker, if I’m going to listen to, say, an Edward de Bono, or somebody, do I take leave from my job and go free of cost and listen to that kind of, you know… I have heard Edward de Bono, Tom Peters, or all these guys… and Alvin Toffler, all these guys I’ve heard. And investing money… I was a cop, so it was free. I just used to go and listen and come back. It was $ 1,000 per day per head. But then, you have to prioritize, think that what am I doing… is it investing it myself? investing in others? making others?
See, for example, when I was doing Bombay police, Thane police work, I told you, I saw a school where only 92… 82 children were there after 85 years of existence. I said, let’s change. Within one year I collected money from public, not for the government, and built a school of 70,000 square feet. And we built it in a record time and then from 82, in three years flat, it became 3000. I request everyone to visit www.thanepoliceschool.com.com
You can see, they get only First Class Distinction, year after year from 2006 to 2022. No second class or no failure. That is something we can prioritize.
Nitika: That is a fabulous way and a segue on leadership. I think you talked about multiple different constructs. We talked about prioritization.
We talked about learnability. We talked about being fearless and to be able to just enjoy the process of what you’re doing. Like you said, life is a rollercoaster and just enjoy the ride.
Sivanandhan: So you have to enjoy the ride wearing your straps, secure yourself. Otherwise rollercoaster can toss you anywhere. So all the risk taking I talked about has to be done by people who are ready, otherwise anybody can go and do any risk taking job and your neck could be severed from your body.
So take care and then do whatever is right. And rise, rise, rise above and shine. Thank you so much.
Nitika: Thank you very much. Thank you, Sir.