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A Great Leadership Experience: Dr. Rachid Yazami, Inventor of the Lithium Battery

yazami1Leadership has become a usual term often misunderstood by many people even those holding the status of a leader. There is no doubt that everyone can be a leader, but not everyone can be a genius leader. Leadership is far limited to prestige, a high status, or to financial abundance; it is neither about authority nor power. Leadership starts when you go beyond the self to serve and empower others.

This article is not for a purpose to redefine leadership with its different aspects, but it is simply about a great example of leadership that mirrors outstanding performance and remarkable human qualities. Dr. Rachid Yazami is an eminent scientist and best known for his research on lithium ion batteries. This technology is used by billions of people worldwide for their cell phones, cameras, tablets, laptops, power tools, and many other devices. Dr. Yazami started his career from scratch to build an empire based on the battery technology. My main interest is not to make a compilation of his achievements and honors, but to tap into his personality traits and characteristics; to discuss the main qualities that enabled him to succeed as a scientist, a researcher, and a leader of his field. My purpose is to understand also the sources of his inspirations and the secret behind his motivations and limitless resilience. His unique path is a textbook of insightful lessons that I aim to summarize and share with you based on a set of interviews with him.

yazami2Let me first introduce Dr. Rachid Razami, who is a native of Fez, Morocco. He began his career at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, where he later became the research director in 1998.  He also served as a visiting associate at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in collaboration with JPL/NASA, for 10 years. Currently, he is working as a researcher and visiting professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. He is also listed as an inventor of more than 140 patents in relation to battery technology. He is the co-author of more than 250 papers on batteries and their related fields and systems. He has received many scientific awards from NASA, NATO, IBA, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and IEEE, and many among others. In recognition to his outstanding work in regards to rechargeable lithium batteries, he was awarded in Washington, at the prestigious Charles Stark Draper 2014 prize by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). This price is the equivalence of a Nobel Prize of engineering.  During the same year, he was appointed by MH the King of Morocco as a Corresponding Member of the Hassan II Academy of Sciences and Technologies of Morocco.

yazami3His inventions and researches revolutionized the daily life of billions, and have reshaped many technological aspects. Most and not least, his batteries are also used in many types of equipment regarding disabled people, and enhanced the life of many humans using lithium for their medical tools. “Despite the risks of explosion, lithium-ion batteries remain the best on the market. “Without them, there would be no Smartphone or electric vehicle,” Dr. Yazami.

It was not easy to summarize his journey in few paragraphs. This part was really the most challenging to me as the list of his achievements, and awards cannot be wrapped up in one article. His answers to my questions were always full of anecdotes and life lessons that were of great value. Most important, his sense of humor, his engaging and positive personality made this experience a unique learning lesson.

yazami4What is the main thing that characterizes you?

“I have always relied on my instincts to take decisions. In my field, taking good decisions is crucial to understand the next right move. Generally, I can say that I made more right choices than wrong ones during my entire professional path. Mistakes and failures are not my concerns as I know how to fit in different situations. I like comparing this aspect to the Brownian movement as, in my context, it allows me a constant renewal and adaptation. This is what enables me to spring back quickly and develop resilience to keep moving forward.”

What is the secret behind your great determination?

“I was born in a family where hard work was a daily habit. I participated as a small child in helping both my mother and father in accomplishing their own tasks. At a very early age, I made a promise towards myself, a commitment to work hard on my dreams. Since then I never stopped working on these dreams. Nothing about my life was luck. I believed only in hard work.  Hunger of new achievements and enhanced ones have been my daily concern for many years. I often don’t consider what has been done as I am always eager to go for what should be done to enhance it. Sometimes it is unconscious as my mind is in a constant search of what can better serve people and humanity.”

What are your sources of your inspirations?

“I am much known for being sociable as I enjoy talking to people and like sharing experiences. But I often need solitude and some distance to think, meditate to be able to recover and nurture my inner resources. Many important aspects of batteries remain to be improved or solved. My unsatisfaction, great desire for continuous improvement coupled with my curiosity are enough elements that trigger my inspiration and keep me self-motivated. I still have many dreams that I want to accomplish.  One of them is to be able to explore this technology and apply it for cars and motorcycles, which will create a clean environment and impact the economy.” 

What are the things people don’t know about you?

“Despite my scientific background, I am a great consumer and have a great passion of literature and poetry. I have always been a great adept of the romantic school of poetry since I was 13 years old. I used to read books and pieces of the Lebanese writer, Gibran Khalil Gibran, Moustapha Lutfi al-Manfaluti, the Egyptian poet; and other pieces of Victor Hugo, Baudelaire and many others.  I also have a great interest of football, which remains my favorite sport despite my advanced age.  I have many other hobbies like playing music, cooking and eating.” A statement that ended up with a great laughter.

yazami5What are the key rules behind your success?

Creativity:

“As a scientist and researcher, creativity has been the essence of all my activity that enables be to serve people across the globe. Creative ideas often percolate after confusions in my mind. But these confusions often have a sense as it reveals great results after many tests and experiments. The preliminary work is often unconscious as in a dream but with a certain rationality. Condensation of ideas occurs naturally; it sometimes takes time, but eventually emerges and turns the confusion into a meaningful insight.”

“I believe that the disorder is a fundamental state of the universe because it contributes to its harmony.” – Dr. Rachid Yazami

Hard Work:

“It took me a lot of hard work, determination and persistence to get where I am today. My honors and achievements are just the apparent part of the iceberg. Since 1978, I have been completely immersed in research on the battery technology. Hard work was crucial to my success, but it has not been the most determinant aspect in my path. In many occasions I had to think outside the box, try new experiments and go beyond the norms to attain distinguished achievements. I had also to say no to certain people and missions that were not aligned with my values and vision.   My first challenge was when I was offered to go for applied mathematics. I said no as I wanted to choose chemistry because in Morocco there were phosphates. I said no when I was in California and the president Bush cut off all the investments on lithium basic research, then I decided to come back to France. I also said no when the CEO of my own company started to perform beyond the vision that I set up, and so other examples where I had to stay firm on my position.

Commitment and Passion:

“I could not be able to persevere in my field if I did not have a great passion for what I was doing. Passion is the fuel that still keeps me moving even in the absence of tangible results. My commitment and great passion enabled me to go beyond all obstacles and hurdles to carry on the battery technology, which impacts today billions of people worldwide.”

“If the statue of liberty was a prominent symbol of freedom since the 19th century, the lithium battery becomes the one of the 21st century.” - Dr. Rachid Yazami

Tolerance:

“To succeed in one’s career, we also need to be tolerant towards others. Tolerance was something nurtured at a very early age. My best examples of tolerance have always been my parents. Their acceptance of people’s differences is outstanding.  Today, tolerance is a key element in my career as I have to handle great relations from different cultures on a daily basis. After Morocco, I studied and worked for many years in Europe, then the US, Japan, and now I am settled at Singapore. This cultural wealth that I developed throughout my career is a great blessing and valuable attribute that enabled me to look at things from different cultural perspectives, build trust and great relations.

Confidence:

yazami6“I was a shy person when I was young. I reached a high level of confidence not with age but through hard work and mastery. I believe confidence is not something we are born with but an inner skill that we need to develop and nurture. My discovery was made in late 1979, early 1980. It was a determinant moment in my career but unfortunately at that time, no one believed in it, neither the CNRS nor the French industry, but I never gave up.”

Positive Attitude:

“Sometimes, it takes courage to stay positive when things go wrong but this is the only way I managed to persevere in my field. It is crucial to nurture a positive attitude on a daily basis to overcome people’s bad misconceptions, and many other challenges.”

Can you describe your style of leadership?

I cannot deny the fact that sometimes I can be strict and even tough with my team. In my field, there is nothing left to coincidence as it has to do with the security of billions of people. This does not imply an authoritative style of leadership. My goal is not to build a team that is limited to execute a vision, but to encourage and empower them to become inventors in their own fields; it is already the case.

In a nutshell, my daily concern is the team’s involvement as I always valued their inputs. Building trust through clear communication is very important in my field to overcome biases.”

It is true that Dr. Rachid Yazami showcased many great achievements after many years of hard work and persistence, but the best ones have to do with his humility, and generosity. His simplicity is a striking fact about his personality; his positive attitude and sense of humor are commendable and even contagious. Most and not least, his motivation to succeed and outperform have never been financially driven, but guided by an inner willingness to better serve people and humanity.

About Hanane Anoua

Based in Morocco, Hanane Anoua, MBA, is a multicultural mindset Marketing Consultant with more than 13 years experience in different marketing fields. She is passionate about change and self-improvement. You can connect with Hanane on LinkedIn here.

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