Some of the more interesting experiences in life happen to you after you’ve said ‘No’ to them. I’ve observed this to be a trend in my case at least!
So, a couple of weeks ago a colleague spread the word about the Acumen Leadership Essentials
. The only requirement being that you needed to form a group with no less than two and no more than six members that would meet for two-three hours each week over a period of six weeks. Before I knew it, through some thread of simultaneous conversations that happened following that email I was enlisted for this course. Honestly, I considered getting my name off – after all I hadn’t signed up voluntarily (my colleague didn’t know that). But I decided to stick around. Here was an opportunity to get exposed to some thought provoking reading and videos that would lead to equally stimulating conversations in a domain that was not directly linked to the work we did.
Going into Week 1 and catching up on the pre-meeting reading, a line that really stood out for me was from the Acumen Manifesto: “…having the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to admit failure and the courage to start again…”
was the overview on the ‘foundations of leadership’ and understanding how that translated for each one of us.
As a part of our weekly group meet-up, we had to share life maps – milestone moments from our lives that determined the choices we made leading us to where we’d found ourselves in the present.It was interesting to note how everyone openly spoke out about early childhood and teenage year experiences: the ones that gave us confidence as well as the ones that humbled us. Most of us attributed some of the character building that happened to ‘traveling’ – some have lived or travelled to different parts of the globe, others within the country itself. Through this we’d met different people and each taught us different things about the world but more importantly ourselves.
Secondly we spoke of ‘choices’. We all seemed to agree with the notion that a choice always exists – whether someone exercises it or not is also a choice.
My key milestones were clearly the five years as an undergrad spent at Xavier’s followed by the decision to choose working in the development sector early on in life choosing to pursue my Masters
(and then a consequent MBA) allied to the same field leading to three years of working with a grassroot organization located right in the middle of a urban slum before getting to where I am today. In addition I’ve been traveling – sometimes being part of a mob of 400 unknown people on a train journey
around the country to sometimes taking off on solo trips
by myself or being a part of a group where I learnt about a new culture
and also made some new friends
Personally for me leadership has been more about the transformation along the way and less about an attribute or a set of attributes in particular. For some reason the idea of being the kingmaker rather than the king appeals way better to me as an individual.
was set around the theme of ‘how to do good’ itself.
We did have some interesting perspectives and takes shared within our group on whether inaction was preferred to good intentions? This arose in the context of how sometimes intentions being delivered in the wrong manner have the potential to then set things back a lot more – the dilemma of good intentions and unintended consequences.
We discussed the vices and virtues of ‘storytelling’ in the larger scheme of things and who’s was the narrative that got heard, that got more publicity – and was it all accurate?
Questions we asked each other were: How easily do we succumb to the trap of stereotyping people around us?
Was the cost of inaccurate representation much lower than the cost of no representation to unheard voices?
Are we sensitive and sensitized in very sense of the term possible about the people we claim to be a representative of? Or are we pardoning our paternalistic ways in the bargain of ‘doing good’?
Have we carried forward the idea of viewing end beneficiaries through the proverbial lens of “white man’s burden”?
The issue we realized gets further complicated when we deem it to be in the best interests of the people we represent to portray them as uni-dimensional characters in the greater scheme of things – of story telling and the responsibility.
And in being representative of the groups we work with are we undermining their capabilities to stand up for themselves?
How would we respond to a situation where our parents or a very close friend might act in our best interest without consulting us?
In understanding ‘Acumen in context’, for Week 3
we discussed the aid debate and how that dictates the balance of power as much at the global level as it does at the local level.
Thoughts were expressed regarding both ends of the spectrum where aid becomes critical say in the instance of a natural calamity and the locally available resources are just not enough to plug the requirements and where on the other hand, directing aid through the decades to nations that have now become aid providers to other nations (India for instance) doesn’t seem to be driving towards a explicitly stated end goal.
And in an ever complicated web like this one how does one limit the potential of being disrespectful towards a particular culture because they’ve now been stereotyped courtesy faulty narratives that they are incapable of reasoning a solution for themselves!
We spoke of ‘selfish altruism’ and the role of power.
We discussed development from the lens of ‘context’. This was felt because aid in the name of development has been huge – but then the question seldom asked and rarely heard when asked is this: Who’s development?
I recently met and interacted with some members of a local community during a holiday
and those conversations helped shaped much of the thought behind questions I was able to bring to our discussions.
And that brought us to Week 4
where the theme was ’empathy and everyday barriers’ – walking that mile in the shoes of the people we serve.
It was interesting how in our discussions we were able to talk about our experience of understanding ‘sympathy’ and how it seemed like a natural and easy thing to do – i.e. to feel pity towards another or sorry for someone, as being almost effortless. Effortless when your other alternative is to be able to empathize with them – to feel like they would feel; to take a step back from one’s high-handedness that may come with easing into the role of being the solution provider to then bridging the gap and being a partner with them in whatever be their endeavour.
How did I learn empathy? It was through many instances that I found myself at the receiving end of someone’s sympathy. Or worse when someone judged me without giving me the opportunity to state my point of view. It’s in moments like those that I wished someone had ‘empathized’ and understood me without making me feel small and insignificant.
But practicing empathy didn’t come easy. I’ve worked in an urban slum here in Mumbai for a while and at first I found myself unable to not give in to the temptation to provide a ready solution to the students or the women I used to interact with. I couldn’t ease into the role just like that – but what helped was literally walking that half mile with people and making the effort to see it through their lens and strip off every shred of prejudice. And empathy meant enabling the person at the other end to view circumstances through a fresh perspective without enforcing them with yours. It meant taking longer to build a rapport, gain trust, learn more about the circumstances rather than simply handing over the solution that would’ve be based on a half-baked diagnosis.
Wrapping it up was the final theme on ‘adaptive leadership’ during Week 5.
We discussed how we perceive leadership as being distinct from authority and the challenges around demonstrating leadership i.e., saying not what someone wants to hear but what they need to hear; of how sometimes being a leader isn’t about a designation you occupy or even around how adaptive leadership will almost necessitate the need to disrupt the status quo and disappoint peers.
To sum this experience, I’d say it’s been interesting understanding perspectives of my own colleagues – trying to see why they see it the way they do. And even more importantly sharing my own perspectives with them – provoking them to try seeing it the way I did.
Hadn’t it been for this chance opportunity, I hardly think any of us would have brought up these themes and had focused thought around it in spite of the exhaustion of a long day at work with deliverables due whilst balancing health, personal commitments and festivities.