Leaders come in different shapes, and demeanor. There are men and there are minions; then there are Leaders and there are Dealers; and finally, there are Lions and there are also Hyenas.

Sardar Hardev Singh Kohli, the person I am talking about today was a Man, a Leader, and a Lion in true spirit. He began his final journey into panchtatva just a few days ago.

Sardar H S Kohli was the President and Executive Director of Hazira complex of Reliance Industries Limited, and probably the longest serving leaders. But to tie a man like him to a particular post is to lower his stature ;he was not for the post but rather he defined the post, for he gave this post a tremendous sense of authority , purpose and respect like nobody else.

He was, in a true sense, the path-breaker, a trail blazer and in a true sense a benchmark of what effective leadership could be.

He was admired, he was feared, and he was eulogized. Now think how many people or leaders are there about whom you can express all the three emotions in the same breath?

Now you might be thinking why and on what basis am I making such tall claims about this person?

So here I am sharing with you some of the leadership competencies and qualities that this phenomenal person possessed and which make him, in my opinion, one of the greatest leaders that I have come across in my 35 years of illustrious career. My objective is also to share with you some of the competencies and capabilities that, in my opinion make great leaders. This could well be a template for young and ambitious leaders wanting to climb the success ladder:

  • Great Listener: Hardev Singh Kohli (or HSK, as we used to call him with both affection and respect) was a listener of unmatched capabilities. He could just listen to you for an hour or more without interrupting you. He would ask you to start, and then close his eyes and just listen, nudging you in between with his Hmm! Hmm! just to assure you that he is all attention and to encourage you to keep going until you are totally satisfied with having said what you wanted to say. You would never get an impression that he is either bored or irritated or wanting to cut you short! One of the most profound outcomes of this would be that while you are talking about your problem, the solutions are also beginning to emerge in your own mind.
  • Extraordinary Time Discipline: HSK’s planning and discipline was simply out of this world. And this was one of the critical ingredients for his being able to extract so much more from his daily working hours. His time management was so precise and so impeccably defined that it had risen to the level of being legendary. You could virtually adjust your watch based on his schedule. If he says I will reach a said location at 5.17 pm, you better be there at that moment, otherwise you had it. His objective was clear; “I have my work completely carved out and slotted, and I expect the same from you.”
  • Execution par Excellence: One of HSK’s greatest assets was his near perfect execution. However big, critical, and game changing job it was, he had his execution planned to the last humble detail. And it was clearly documented, detailing who does what and when. There were no ifs and no buts and in case there was a delay by any remote chance (except for the natural calamities) he will exactly know how to compensate for the delay. This was achieved not by any coercive or covert methods but through detailed reviews and discussion process. And that brings me to another of his great leadership skills.
  • Detailed, Regular and Rigorous Review Process: His reviews were legendary. In fact, one can easily say that he used to govern, build accountability, and ensure flawless execution through his periodic reviews. This included every department and every function, big or small, Manufacturing Services or Support Services, with no cancellations, no postponements, and no rescheduling in 99% of cases. If your function has been given a date and time, rest assured it will happen. He also effectively used this platform for understanding issues, encouraging healthy discussions and unrestricted exchange of ideas, and above all assessing people. And one of the strongest aspects of his review process was his focus on measurable tasks and outcomes. While there was lot of encouragement towards healthy discussions, he would discourage meaningless meandering and purposeless grandstanding.
  • Right into the Trenches-Management by Walking Around: This was another of his passionate beliefs and daily routines which he never compromised on. He would start his plant round every day at 8 am and his itinerary would include every nook and corner of the plants. Whoever is familiar with the gigantic size and scale of this facility, would know that how big and arduous challenge this was. But not with HSK, and by the time he would finish his round which was 3-4 hours or more he would have every detail and information about the status of various plants and the problems they were facing. And that would mean he was one step ahead of many concerned people about what is going on.
  • Connecting with his Employees: He was a people’s man and enjoyed being with people and discussing issues. Very often you would find him absorbed in discussion with frontline operators, under the hot sun, talking, sharing, and understanding issues. This was in effect his way of understanding the underlying issues, both technical and behavioural, and in the process unearthing the unsaid and unattended.
  • Courage & Conviction: HSK had strong and unshakable values and beliefs, which he articulated quite often and quite effectively and made sure that people too understand and internalise them. unwavering faith in them, giving them a shape and making people understand and internalise them. And one of his strongest beliefs was that the organization is above everything else which he was ready to safeguard at any cost. While he had his fair share of nay-Sayers and detractors , he was not the one to be cowed down and often you would find him right in the middle of the conflict zone addressing people, communicating with them and conveying his thoughts to them with unmatched conviction.
  • Fiercely Nationalistic: Everything for HSK finally boiled down to how our every action ultimately needs to be judged by whether we are adding value to the nation, and are we effectively contributing to that goal. Like a true Sardar- country was always first to him and he effectively forged these values into the day to day working of the organization. I remember, just after the Kargil war had ended, in one of the in-house functions and in front of hundreds of employees he suddenly switched the topic and started talking about the Kargil martyrs with such intense passion and with a hoarse throat , that the whole audience heard him in stunned silence and the atmosphere became very sombre.

I can go on and identify many more of this leadership capabilities but the point which I want to emphasise upon is that leaders are not born but they are made. One must keep learning, struggling and continuously hone skills to become the best. And that is what Sardar Hardev Singh Kohli was; one of the finest leaders I had the good fortune of meeting and working with.

I also want to mention an especially important aspect here; Late Shri Dhirubhai Ambani was a great miner of such gems and he had a divine gift of identifying, preserving, and nurturing such gems. And the most crucial aspect of this was that he used to give them enough freedom and bandwidth to operate and excel in their jobs. Otherwise, there are many talented people all around us but how many are encouraged and challenged to perform and reach their actual potential. This tradition has been further enhanced and effectively carried forward by Shri Mukesh Ambani.

H S Kohli’s life and success is a clear, demonstrable, and living testimony to the fact that leaders are made in trenches- through rigorous and arduous training and self-discipline, and not in classrooms or conference circuits.

Sardar Hardev Singh Kohli was a real leader and will be remembered, emulated, and eulogised for a long time.


(The views and opinions are entirely my personal)


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