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Leadership and Executive Coach | TEDx Speaker | International Radio Host | Colonel Ajai Lal

Colonel Ajai Lal

Colonel Ajai Lal

“Your mind is a battlefield – be its commander not its soldier.” Colonel Ajai Lal

Building an Early Foundation:

I am a second-generation army officer who grew up with a passion for the uniform.

At the age of 15, I joined the National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakvasla for 3 years, followed by 1 year at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun of intense and rigorous training. I was baptized in fire with the mottos of the NDA and IMA - ‘Service Before Self’ and ‘Valour and Wisdom’, respectively. We indeed went through a crucible. These values transformed me into a physically, morally, mentally and emotionally robust, resilient and mission-oriented leader - core principles which later became fundamental in my corporate career and beyond. Trained by the very best to carry on and live the legacy of the finest institutions in the world.

I recall the last words enshrined and etched on the walls of the Chetwode Hall, when I stepped out on my commissioning parade as a 2/Lt at IMA in June 1974. I have lived by the famous Chetwode Motto that has been immortalized, carved in stone and ingrained in us right from the onset of my military career. It is the credo of the Indian Army:

My 25 years of service in the Army and two United Nations military missions in Cambodia have been rich experiences in battle, low intensity warfare, actions in hostilities, peace-keeping and a plethora of challenging and life-threatening operations. These experiences battle tested my leadership in volatile situations and taught me invaluable lessons in dealing with setbacks, ambiguity and were truly acid tests in inspirational leadership.

The Journey from Setback to Success:

The most significant and pivotal challenge I faced in my life and career happened as I was commanding my tank regiment, having served 25 years in the military.

The 11th Dec ‘97 remains a day that is etched in my mind - a day that changed the course of my life. Leading my regiment in a river crossing operation close to the border forefront, I met with an accident on my tank and suffered a serious injury on my right leg. My knee bone was crushed to near powder. I was in excruciating pain, but refused to get evacuated till the time my regiment completed its mission. 

While I lay on that river bed, I could sense 25 years of my unflinching and undaunted service in the military being washed away in the river. I could feel the cold, wet ground against my back. It was a dark, devastating moment in my life. 

I had a promising military career and was on an upward trajectory to hold higher military ranks. However, that tragic accident led me to make one of the toughest decisions in my life - my farewell to arms. I took premature retirement and felt that my deep sense of identity and destiny as a military officer and my second skin in uniform had suddenly been stripped off and ripped apart. I had no idea of my next step and no other qualification, apart from the military. My worst setback was on the threshold of becoming my greatest set-up.

In that challenging season, I remember thinking of my greatest fears - no business qualification, no job in hand, not enough money, no house, not young enough, a wife to support and two sons yet to find their careers. As I fixated on those realities, I distinctly remember feeling a tremendous wave of inferiority and insecurity wash over me. I had to make a deliberate decision to stop disempowering thoughts of inferiority and insecurity from gaining control over me.

One key thing which propelled me to convert this ‘set back’ to a ‘set up’ was application of the principle: “Your mind is a battlefield – be its commander not its soldier.”

In short - you are not your mind. Every battle is first fought in the mind. If you win the battle in the mind, you will likely win the battle in the field. But if you lose the battle in the mind, then it is more than likely you will lose it on the outside as well. That is why it is important to be its commander and not its soldier. If we are a soldier of the mind, then we surrender to the fears of the unknown, the old stories, old conditioning - all of which imprison us in the past and in our comfort zones. But if we are the commander of our mind, then we can direct our minds to fully leverage its power and be the truest and fullest expression of ourselves.

I got my negative thoughts under control, counter-attacked every disempowering thought, and instead, replaced and installed an empowering thought. I made a committed decision to see the brighter side of the situation and focus on the ‘GOT’ - of what I had and not on the ‘NOT’. I focused on leveraging and applying my military training, leadership insights, principles of war and warfare strategies in the next phase of my corporate life - using my strengths to create a bright new career and future for myself and my family. While I've focused on my internal journey in the preceding few paragraphs, it would be an incomplete picture of navigating this valley without acknowledging the encouragement and incredible support I consistently received from my wife, family and friends during this transition period.

I chose to also recalibrate my ‘attitude’ to unlearn some aspects and learn business concepts and strategies from my mentors, seniors, and even my subordinates, which helped further my corporate career. I exercised my ‘power of choice’ to prevent myself from falling into the trap of fear, and instead leveraged my faith, which helped me to ‘suspend disbelief’ and accomplish my business goals.

Utilizing these principles, I successfully transitioned from the ‘War Room’ to the ‘Board Room’, from a career in the military to a corporate career. I joined NIIT Ltd, a global talent development corporation where I served for the next 15 years leading domestic businesses and later as the Chief Business Officer leading international businesses spanning nearly 40 countries.

Journey to become a Leadership and Executive Coach:

Given my over four decades of experience in leadership in the military and the corporate, I principally focus on what I call the ‘Four Cornerstones of Leadership’ in the growth journey of those I coach. These cornerstones are the basic, essential, most crucial aspects on which success depends. I believe these ‘Four Cornerstones of Leadership’ are - Passion: People: Performance: Legacy.

Passion: Imprinting timeless tenets on the hearts and minds of individuals and leaders, to generate a strong feeling and emotion of boundless enthusiasm, intense desire and excitement for what they are doing. It also encompasses their willingness to suffer for what they love and the activity, goal or cause that they are pursuing. 

People: One key word that comes to mind for people is: CARING. In the military, the term related to people is ‘maintenance of morale’. Being outrageously enthusiastic as individuals, leaders & organizations towards your mission. Preventing own forces from losing their will to fight. High morale fosters an offensive spirit, grit and the will to win. People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care! Caring is treating people with empathy, compassion and kindness - and creating an atmosphere of safety, protection, belonging and comfort. Generate a feeling that people are cared for and valued and that they are not just a statistical head count, but a heart count. Leaders first touch the people’s heart and then seek their hand.

Performance: The one word I focus on for performance is DARING. Daring is about accomplishing missions and achieving goals. When people feel cared for - they are then inspired to embrace challenges, take on stretch goals, risks, exploration and discovery without the ‘fear of failure’, but with an attitude of ‘relaxed efficiency’. 

Legacy: ‘There is no success without a successor’. While the goal is to always look forward, at times as leaders, we need to look into the rear-view mirror and ask the questions. What will my legacy be? What will people remember about my leadership once I have moved on? What will my employees, family and friends say? Legacy lives in people not things. We have a choice about what legacy we will leave and we must be intentional to leave the legacy we want. Someday people will summarize your life in one sentence. Pick that sentence now. So ‘know’ the legacy you want to leave and ‘live’ your legacy. 

With the interplay of these four cornerstones: Passion – People – Performance – Legacy, there is energy and inspiration that unleashes the potential of people, and thus, missions, visions and goals are accomplished.

I believe in this adage:

“Leaders dream more than what others think as practical. Expect more than what others think as possible. And care for people more than what others think as wise.” 

Post serving for 15 years in the corporate, I asked myself the following powerful and thought-provoking questions:

As I reflected on my professional journey, I realized the most satisfying aspect of my career has been participating in the transition of rising leaders from success to significance. And as I answered these questions personally - the responses enabled me to listen to the gentle whisper to follow my calling in the third phase of my career as a Leadership and Executive Coach - to realize my passion, share my leadership experiences and learnings over the past four decades and train, coach, equip and empower leaders to optimize their potential - and thus fulfill the calling and purpose in my life.

Finding the Passion-fuelled Purpose: 

I crafted my purpose statement which is reproduced below. This exercise was convergent on the two journeys of the head (what should I do?) and the heart (who will I become?) – of which the outcome brings me fulfillment, joy, impact and balance. 

I have experienced that military leadership principles are highly relevant to both individual and corporate settings. There are more similarities than differences - because with all the layers peeled off, at the core of it are people.

There is, however, one unique difference between the corporate and combat space. Combat leaders in the military lead troops into battle without any extraneous motivation - no material incentives or performance bonuses whatsoever. They lead by sheer, unadulterated inspirational leadership and by developing and leveraging the spirit of a soldier. This indomitable spirit inspires soldiers to even make the supreme sacrifice and lay down their lives for the sake of a mission.

This spirit, I believe, springs from the imprinting and tattooing of three undying and timeless tenets on the hearts and minds of all soldiers. These very tenets are the foundation and bedrock on which military laurels are won and accomplished. These are best described as MVP: Mission – Values – Pride.

I have experienced and strongly believe that these three tenets translate powerfully into both individual and corporate settings. I desire to infuse this same indomitable spirit into leaders in the corporate and entrepreneurial space. As a leadership and executive coach, I impress the following upon individuals and organizations:

Changing lives with Forward Consulting:

At the outset of a coaching engagement, it is the key to develop rapport with the individual/ leaders - and in this process establish trust. They need to be acknowledged for their past experience and their willingness to engage and invest time which demonstrates their being conscious learners.

In the coaching process, we engage in powerful conversations to know what the leaders/ individuals want to achieve and in a supportive, yet challenging manner help them along the path towards fulfilling their goals and dreams.

The process I adopt is typically an:

●      Inside-out journey: Reflection tools that help individuals / leaders to reflect on their journey, beliefs, assumptions and blind spots. I also focus on their reflection as a ‘whole person’ for holistic development, as well as expanding their inner resources, as the outside is a mere reflection of the inside.

○    Mind: To learn - career, business and personal growth.

○    Body: To live - health and finances.

○    Heart: To love - personal and professional relationships.

○    Spirit: To leave a legacy by leading a life of meaning and contribution.

●      Outside-in journey: Requesting for and seeking stakeholders' feedback and perception, as they provide the most accurate perspective. I believe that perception is co-pilot to reality! 

The above leads to crystallizing their leadership growth objectives, most typically around the Leadership Triad of Being: Connecting: Doing:

●      Being: I - subjective - leading self - developing the individual’s inner resources.

●      Connecting: WE - interpersonal - leading others.

●      Doing: IT - objective - leading businesses. 

Once the objectives are individually crafted, we then specifically work on developing the individuals / leaders’ Mindset and Skill set, as related to the respective objectives.

Additionally, I am in the process of writing a book titled ‘Fear Demystified’ - the book will be a transformative guide to break through fear to realize your highest potential. This is the first of the books I intend to write in order to reach a wider audience.

Sources of Powerful Lessons:

I consider the following to have been my mentors:

●      Army Career - Lt General (Retd) Ajai Singh, PVSM, AVSM and erstwhile Governor of Assam.

●      Corporate Career - Mr. RS Pawar, Chairman, NIIT Ltd.

With the mentorship of these two leaders, coupled with my personal experience and passion, I decided my legacy to lead and live to be: ‘People First - Mission Always’. These four words have held me in good stead through my over four decades of leadership in the military, corporate spaces - and presently through my engagement with individuals and leaders as a Leadership and Executive Coach.

To continue reading timeless literary works with powerful inspiring stories and people, check out these top pride stories.