A couple of months ago, some friends and I were debating what distinguishes a “manager” from a “leader”. Were the two could be synonymous? If yes, then under what circumstances? Needless to say, we never arrived at a conclusion.
Cut the chase to January 2015 when I was in Bihar meeting NGOs as a Himsagar Fellow. The sole purpose of me being in a state that is allegedly infamous1 was to see how technology could impact the lives of people at the grassroots. As I met with close to 50 NGOs over 5 weeks, I realized that right there was a crash course on leadership. Here’s what I learned.
#1. A leader is guided by a bigger vision
I struggled trying to explain to well-wishers why I chose to quit my job and the security that came along with it, to swap places with Mumbai and live out of nothing but a backpack and a suitcase (all of which is also known as the Himsagar Fellowship). This in spite of the fact that in my head (and heart) I knew it was the right thing for me. Period. So in a chance conversation on choices, I was first curious and then impressed with how some times it’s best to let actions speak for themselves.
“We are not a big NGO by any standard. Some time ago, a funding NGO had sent its representative to our office. He went through our reports and remarked that it looked good on paper. We invited him to our project centers and he was stumped – everything was just as he had read about it. We run our programs on a small scale and do not make an attempt to gloss it over.” This is what the founder Mr. Naresh Chandra Verma of Bureau of Obligate and Accompanier for Rural Development (BOARD), an NGO that works on the outskirts of Patna, had to say. Prior to setting up this non-profit, Mr. Verma used to be an auditor for over 50 companies and had only recently downsized them to a negligible number because he wanted to make a difference.
#2. A leader is comfortable taking tough decisions
I realized that quite often the environment within Bihar wasn’t one enabled for technology. Be it uninterrupted electricity or 3G connectivity (or the lack thereof quite often), I found myself constantly struggling to find a way to be productive. This challenge got further magnified outside of Patna. I kid you not when I say that at times I had to lean out of a balcony so that my 3G dongle would let me connect!
That got me thinking about why an organization like Ghoghardiha Prakhand Swarajya Vikas Sangh (GPSVS) had both its head office and program office in Madhubani district, about one hour’s drive away from the Nepal border, in spite of the difficulties. It isn’t unusual for NGOs to have their head office in a city that has better connectivity – of transport and technology – while their programs are in areas where interventions are required.
“It’s a conscious decision to have our office within the community we work with. It’s challenging, no doubt, as we struggle without electricity and uninterrupted access to the internet to be able to keep pace ourselves with what’s happening elsewhere in Bihar and even across India. But there’s fulfillment in being accessible to the community. For instance, I could go and attend a meeting of SHGs today even though I have other things to attend to because of the proximity. If we had our office in Patna, I’d have to separately plan such trips out”, was what Mr. Ramesh Kumar, GPSVS’s chief functionary had to say.
#3. A leader is solution-oriented
From atrocities against members belonging to a certain caste or gender to children being trafficked from within vulnerable communities to devastation caused by floods, the NGOs I met with worked on a myriad of issues. Needless to say, the issues are complex and the scale immense. Against such a backdrop, it is one thing to constantly be driven yourself and it’s another thing to constantly drive and motivate those around you. Quite the Herculean task. It’s refreshing then when you meet a leader with a perspective on figuring this out.
“Through our work, we’ve seen that too much energy is expended in finding fault and blaming the government for what’s not working. It’s true that not everything is perfect, but if you’re going to approach it from a ‘nothing-is-working’ perspective, it will not help anyone achieve anything” was what Mr. Rakesh Kumar Sinha from Bureau of Rural Economical and Agriculture Development (BREAD) had to say. Elaborating further, he said, “We work in communities to educate and inform people about the different schemes that are already available and how they should be accessing them. Once people are aware of what they can and should be availing, they are able to approach issues in a more constructive manner. After all sustainable change can be achieved through dialogue.”
#4. A leader understands that you must empower yourself to empower the community
As with anything new, there will always be early adopters and not-so-early-adopters. Some of the NGOs I’d met with expressed concerns about being able to make that transition at an organization-wide level. After all, behavior change takes time.
In the same vein, though, I learned that technology does have the potential of being an equalizer in many ways. While sharing his thoughts, Mr Uday Kumar from Dalit Association for Social and Human Rights Awareness (DASHRA) said, “We (as an NGO) have for long remained recipients of services that have been doled out, just like the communities we work with. It’s about time that we step up and bring ourselves up to speed on what’s happening around us. Who knows this may change the way we work with the community and in turn the way they are empowered!”
#5. A leader leverages the power of the network
We live in a day and age where some of us struggle to recall our own 10-digit mobile numbers; that we rely on our mobile phones for everyone else’s phone numbers is hardly news. But that meant nothing to Mr. Y K Gautam of Jan Jagran Sansthan, who could recollect contact numbers with such ease that I was almost embarrassed to be sitting in front of him. But it was more than good memory. My ability to reach out to a maximum number of NGOs in Bihar was simply possible because many recommended I reach out to their peers and networks.
“Relationships are pivotal within families and even outside of them. They need to be nurtured throughout their lifespan. We (as individuals and organizations) operate in silos and can achieve very little if we work by ourselves. It is through our network of partners that we deliver impact on the ground. It is through these relationships that we have sustained the network.”
Demonstrating what it means to be a true leader, however, does not always mean saying it in so many words. Leaders are charismatic because of their simple gestures, such as sitting on the floor with the team or sharing a meal with them. Needless to say, these too can be an equally humbling for someone observing from afar.
City-bred myself, I realize that in our chase to meet deadlines and achieve targets, we’ve not only forgotten the little things but have turned into skeptics too. Then I’m reminded of Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has”.
1 P.S. Bihar deserves much more credit than it’s been given.