“As a lieutenant or captain, change what’s in your capacity” – Major Deepak Iyer

-By Abhishek Ghosh,
Senior Coordinator,
Student Media Cell,
PGP 2016-18

IIM Bangalore flagged off the distinguished speaker series for Colloquium 2017, hosted by the Forum for Industrial Interaction, IIM Bangalore!

We at the Student Media Cell, personally interviewed the two speakers who brought in a diverse set of experiences and perspectives! Here is the excerpt from the interview with Major Deepak Iyer, an Entrepreneur, a Consultant at McKinsey, a Major from Army Parachute Commandos, and a leadership coach, who spoke about parallels in leadership from the battlefield to the boardroom.

What is your story? How did you transition from being in the elite army parachute commandos to a consultant at McKinsey to starting up in the education space?

It’s quite simple – I just followed my heart! When I started out as a cadet in NDA, I dreamt of becoming a Paracommando officer because at that moment, that was the zenith of what I could achieve. I became a successful Special Forces commander and led numerous combat missions in J&K. However, after becoming a Major, I was one day struck by a powerful question that I asked myself. Even if I spent the next thirty years of my life hunting and killing terrorists, would the Kashmir problem (or other similar conflicts) get solved? The answer was a plain NO. That made me awaken to the fact that if I was putting so much of my life into something, I expected that it made at least a small but real difference to the situation. That led me to step out of uniform to explore non-military approaches to contribute to the country and society. I then discovered that just like an Army marches on its stomach, the Nation marches on its economy. The best way to understand the Indian economy and how successful businesses are built was to get into an IIM-A classroom which I did ?. McKinsey was a logical post IIM-A destination because it provided me rapid exposure to solving a multitude of problems across both government and private organizations. From creating a multi-billion marketing budget for a state-owned petroleum company to improving performance at a public-sector bank, from creating India strategy for a global philanthropy organization to helping corporate governance at a leading steel conglomerate – the diverse exposure was rapid and phenomenal.

My stint in entrepreneurship began when a friend invited me to consider one of the biggest bottlenecks in the country’s progress – high-quality higher education. While India may take a few more decades to create enough high-quality universities to match the domestic demand, a more viable option is overseas. Through my startup Admission Table, we have attempted to debottleneck the process to access the best quality education overseas.

Did you not feel that it was too minuscule to solve the problems you wanted to attack after leaving the armed forces?

I remember having cribbed to my team commander on how so many things in the Indian Army were imperfect. My language in that entire conversation was negative and I could feel my energy drained by the feeling of helplessness that I brought about with my language. I was then pulled up by my senior (now Col. Balraj Gurung, SM) and his words still ring in my ears – “as a lieutenant or captain, change what is in your capacity.” That has been my mantra ever since. Rather than waste energy by talking about what you cannot change, use your energy in making a difference where you can. Every single activity you do in this world matters and if you give it your best shot, it will provide you the opportunity to go to the next level. In such an approach, there is no feeling ‘miniscule’ about anything.

What are some achievements that you are proud of?

A couple of achievements are close to my heart.

The first was my combat tenure from 2001-2004 when we helped liberate a few districts of J&K from endemic terrorism. During that period, there was no fence along the LOC and terrorists flooded into these districts. The interior parts of these districts along the Pir Panjal ranges were strong terrorist strongholds that even the Army could not enter in small numbers. During that period, my Special Forces unit was inducted into that area and within no time, we began to terrorize the terrorists! By 2004, that area was clear of terrorists and whoever were left were operating like mice.

The second achievement I am proud of was an initiative to help underprivileged matriculate students pass their 10th Standard Examination.

I was invited to participate in this initiative by a close friend and an elderly couple from Rotary Club. Our objective was to motivate and support underprivileged children appearing for their matriculation from 15-20 Government schools around Bangalore to pass their matriculation exam. The pass rates in these schools is often 20-25% or lesser. Our approach was to hold additional Sunday classes in the last 4-5 months before the matriculation exams. My role was to fire up these students and get them to treat the exam like a war.

My most emotional moment during this initiative was when some students did not do the homework I had assigned them the previous week. When I pulled them up, these students started crying and, in that moment, they bared the horror in their homes to me! Drunken fathers, sexual abuse, beatings, and child labour were rampant in the slums they lived in. I was shocked to tears! What further shook me was the immense power and resilience in these children to look beyond their suffering and commit to improving in studies.

When the results came, we had broken the pass records in every school. In fact, one school even broke the district government schools record with 85% pass rate! This achievement is close to my heart because through every additional student who passed because of our initiative, we had potentially lifted one life and one family from the throes of poverty (and possibly crime, prostitution and despondency) into a life of hope. It was nation-building in the truest sense.

If there was one message you wanted to leave behind to the audience at IIMB, what would it be?

If you are at IIM-B, then you are a high potential seed that can grow into one of the biggest leaders of our times. Know that you are incredibly special and you are cut out for much bigger tasks in life than merely bagging a dream PPO at a leading consulting firm or investment bank. You are born for a unique purpose with a unique combination of skills. If you want a clue about your real inner potential, just imagine if God came in front of you and asked you what you wanted to become in future, what would you say?

You may say something that is ‘ridiculously ambitious’ and then you may laugh at even that thought. However, understand that if you made that statement, then somewhere that ‘ridiculously ambitious’ dream is something that your subconscious mind believes is possible for you and hints at your true purpose in life. Only when you attempt to discover this purpose, will you even start moving on your own unique journey of greatness.

The only thing that can bury this specialness in you forever is fear. What is your fear now? Failing in a subject, not getting good enough grades, not getting your dream offer or not getting your perfect partner? Fear is defined as unpleasant feeling caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm. None of the things you fear can cause you physical danger, pain or harm. When I was at NDA, I suffered from real fear. Besides the harsh military regimen, we also had seniors who devised the most creative ways of inflicting pain. When I told my father that I wanted to quit, he told me that while there were many plausible reasons to quit NDA, the one reason I shouldn’t succumb to was simply fear. He said that every time I compromised on a life decision because of fear, I would not only have a lifetime of regret but in addition, that fear would only grow bigger and dominate me more every time I again faced an important life decision. Fear is mostly borne out of a lack of knowledge. If there was a terrorist attack, while all of you would run away, I would run towards the terrorists because I would see a Sena Medal where you would see fear! My action is not because I’m braver or more courageous than all of you, it’s just that I’ve been trained to kill terrorists, and so I’m in a better position to tackle the situation. Therefore, in my view, your only true fear should be of living a lesser life than you were born to.

Finally, what can help expand your ‘specialness and true potential’ exponentially is your personal leadership. While there are as many leadership principles as there are leadership speakers, what my time in the Indian Army has taught me is that a deep love for your team trumps all other leadership principles.

To sum up, as you prepare to soon enter the real world as leaders in your own right, I would like to leave you with three messages – discover your ‘specialness and purpose’, understand the fear that keeps you from chasing the dream you were born to realize, and finally, try and embrace a style of leadership where your team is even willing to die for you.

All the best and God Speed in all your endeavours!


Media Cell IIMB is the student run outreach and communication committee of IIM Bangalore dedicated to form the bridge within the student community and the outside world.

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