Following is an interview between Insights Success and Dr. Satasuryaa K Sharma, the Founder and Managing Director of National School of Leadership.

Dr. Satasuryaa K Sharma | Interview with Insights Success
Dr. Satasuryaa K Sharma | Interview with Insights Success

Q.1 It is commonly believed that your Lead India initiative in the late 90s led to the formation of the National School of Leadership. How did the journey begin?
Ans: In 1997, as college students, we started a humble school in the slums of Mall Road, New Delhi to educate slum children. We named it the Lead India School, which, later transformed into the Lead India initiative. The National School of Leadership was formed in 2009 to sustain the Lead India initiative.
Q.2 Were there any challenges during your college days when you were working on the Lead India initiative?
Ans: Well, not much! There were some opportunities though [laughs]
Q.3 Tell us a little more about those opportunities.
Dr. S: I decided to sponsor my own stay and studies in Delhi looking forward to the impulsive kick that you get out of earning your own living. My father tried hard to convince me that such an act is not necessary and we negotiated a deal (the first business deal of my life) wherein I would ask him for money whenever I needed it. I started by giving private tuition to an IXth standard student. In addition, I started teaching 5 slum kids from Mall Road near Delhi University out of passion. This is how the Lead India school started and the number of slum kids was growing every day. It was getting financially difficult to support such an initiative. That is where life changed. It introduced me to rapid changes in my professional life, right from juggling bottles and mixing drinks as a barman at a local pub to riding a shuttle auto-rickshaw from Kingsway Camp to Mukherjee Nagar. Motorbike races radically increased my income, but the rent I had to pay for the hired sports bikes depreciated it marginally. Our Lead India slum school strength grew to over 100 kids within a span of 6 months and it required consistent funding to keep going. I joined the corporate world part-time at the age of 18 as an ethical hacker and vulnerability assessor; in simple language, as a ‘Techie’. The changes the Lead India school created to Mall Road where the transition from being a beggar dominated the area to be the only locality in Delhi where there is no begging even today. All the kids from the locality go to school now and there had been major redevelopment happening in the area, which also means, the first Lead India School was happily swayed away.
Q.4 The Mall Road case became an example that many NGOs follow even today. Did you really intend to set an example when you started off?
Ans: To be honest, no. I started teaching without a vision. I was way too casual and happy-go-lucky to even know what a vision means. The vision shaped itself much later.
Q.5 From being an ethical hacker at the age of 18, then Head – International Operations of SiegeWorks, Country Head at Capgemini to becoming a Vice President at Boston Analytics at the age of 27. Even now you are a leadership advisor to 14 companies and have helped over 50 start-ups make it to the global scenario. Why this sudden shift to an educational initiative?
Ans: I joined the corporate world only to be able to earn the required funds to sustain the Lead India initiative. My journey started with an educational initiative. The passion to mentor was always there.
Q.6 You went on to start the first Leadership institution of the nation. How did you go about starting the National School of Leadership?
Ans: To start the National School of Leadership, we did not quite have a traditional model to follow. The first person I got to meet and get inspired by was Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and it was the most humbling experience of my life. I neither had any political connections nor any medium to reach him. I simply wrote an email to his official email ID without expecting any response. But to my surprise, I got a call from his office informing me that Dr. Kalam would like to meet me for 10 minutes at his residence. I was both overwhelmed and nervous; it was like the realization of a dream where I would get to meet my role model. When I met him, I learned what humbleness is all about. Since I was the last person meeting him on that day, I could spend almost an hour with him. He was aware of the Lead India initiative and we discussed how we can associate with his Vision 2020 initiative. To help me set up the first leadership institute of the nation, he had put me across to Prof. Yashpal, another legendary scientist and former Chairman of UGC. Prof. Yashpal helped me understand the nuts and bolts of the education system in India and suggested that we should go autonomous so that we could be innovative and experimental rather than being a traditional university. Meeting the two legends at that time gave me an idea about how real leaders are like; be it their humbleness, their attitude to help or their love for the nation; the lessons learned were plenty.
Q.7 There is a belief that the corporate had a huge stake in starting the National School of Leadership. Kindly, enlighten us about it.
Ans: CXOs and learning experts from some major global organizations has helped us immensely with their inputs over what they really look for from their employees. They also helped us design our programmes. After the initial disjointed efforts from multiple organizations, the inputs of which were given an academic shape by some leading academicians, we felt that such inputs need to keep coming in in a sustainable manner. That is when we started the NSL Consortium for Global Leaders (CGL), which currently has over 50 leading organizations as members. Down the line we have also started helping organizations with advisory to grow their organizations as a give back to their contribution towards the National School of Leadership over the years.
Q.8 Unlike most other institutions, NSL started with the doctoral Fellow Programmes in different subjects with your student base being mostly corporate CXOs and senior academicians, quite a few of whom have also been awarded for their exemplary contribution to Leadership research. Despite the fact that NSL is one of the premier institutes for Leadership research in India, what was the rationale behind starting with research programmes?
Ans: The subjects we were specialized in, including Leadership, Strategy etc. required a lot of research. When experienced CXOs and academicians take up research courses, their contribution includes a lot of their experiences which others can learn from. Because of our strong research background, we also received the honour of designing entrepreneurship programmes for the Make in India initiative through the Ministry of MSME as a part of a small give back to the nation. We do have young scholars as well. The format of the programme helps busy professionals pursue their research interests.
Q.9 You have also been quite a controversial leader throughout your journey. Can we address some of these controversies today?
Ans: I promised to answer all your questions. Please go ahead.
Q.10 One of your secret CEO camps in the jungles of Lonavala got busted and was known to be the last such camp. What is your comment on that?
Ans: The idea was to organize leadership camps where some of India’s who’s who of the business world would come together to unlearn, network, share ideas and add to their leadership skills to take their organizations to the next level. It was kept very confidential where only very close family members of the dignitaries would know their whereabouts. During one of the camps, somehow the information got leaked and we had to change the venue within a very short span. Thankfully the confidentiality of the participants did not get leaked. Otherwise, I would have been on the receiving end of brickbats from these dignitaries.
Q.11 Do you still conduct these secret CEO camps?
Ans: I break my promise here to answer all your questions. I would not answer that. [ Dr. Satasuryaa laughs]
Q.12 NSL was accused to have made a mockery of research presentations by a senior professor from a leading university and there were debates around NSL’s way of conducting research events in the academic circle. Why would a senior professor accuse you of the same?
Ans: This happened during NSL Scholar 2013, which was conducted in collaboration with IIT Kharagpur, IARS Australia and Central University of Rajasthan. As per the format, professors from IIT Kharagpur were presenting their research work along with scholars from NSL. NSLites, being mostly from the corporate world were nervous about presenting their research alongside such senior academicians. That is where we decided that our Scholars would present their research in an interactive and fun mode as against the traditional one-way communication most academicians prefer to present research. It did inspire the youth in the audience to take up research from an early stage and was applauded by a lot of academicians, though it did offend some. This has become NSL’s way of presenting research through the years. After that event, we were invited by IIT Kharagpur and IIT Mandi where we conducted trainings on our way of conducting research presentations.
Q.13 You are considered as a mentor by many business leaders. Who is your mentor?
I have never really had one specific mentor, but in exchange, what I got were the lessons and learnings from the collective experience of all those people I have come across in life, right from the highest echelons like Dr. Kalam and Prof. Yashpal, to my everlasting mentors like my mom, sisters and friends, to current day mentors like Shri Jayant Joshi, Dr. Nandkeolyar including a number of personalities who are widely acknowledged by all as being leaders in their respective fields; right down to the person on the street, rickshaw pullers, security guards, daily labourers, slum children and the like. This in effect has had a strong impact on the way I have evolved in leadership roles personally – in the sense that whenever I am faced with a situation involving people from various social strata, I can actually perceive what kind of responses I would get on the kind of decisions I make, and this in turn helps me decide on a course of action that would be beneficial to all those involved. And of course, in terms of daily interaction, my students and team at NSL are my mentors too, as there is a world of learning to be gleaned from their experiences.
Q.14 What is your message to young entrepreneurs, businessmen, youth and all other readers of Insights Success?
Ans: I believe that to begin living your life with passion through things that you love to do, you never really have to wait till you are too old in your life to begin. Leadership cannot be taught but it can be learned. Inculcate leadership qualities within yourself and reach to the top, not only in the corporate world or a profession you are trained in but also in life. Get there at the speed of light and once you are there, don’t forget to give back and help others build leadership excellence within them. Look at failures you may encounter today as additional pages to your success story. Enjoy life and lead by choice.

Related Posts