Reflections on Leadership

On Tuesday 5th February 2019, Radio Active 90.4 MHz had the opportunity to host Common Purpose’s Navigator Program on Leadership. Common Purpose is a leadership development organization that specializes in cross-boundary leadership. And the Navigator is a city-based modular leadership development programme for emerging leaders.

So when Munira Sen approached me to speak at that session, I suggested that we should do it in a panel format and I would invite my colleagues to speak about their journey.  The panel consisted of Urmila Chanam, a Menstrual Health Activist & Journalist, Radha Mani, Radio Jockey and Member of Bangalore HIV Forum, and Sandeep Anirudhan, a student of sustainability and a volunteer at multiple causes.

My first few questions were directed to the audience as I was curious about their thinking of a leader? The answers to my question, who according to you is a Leader, elicited responses like someone who inspires, someone who has a vision, and someone who can motivate- The standard responses that would receive an OK from a facilitator. To avoid dissecting the responses and with a disclaimer that the journey of Leadership is different for different people in different situations, I invited Urmila to talk about leadership from a “self” perspective or Self Leadership.

Urmila Chanam

It was not an Aha moment, when I discovered that I was a leader. It is essentially a paradigm shift when you realise that you have a role to play – in your own life, in other’s lives beyond just family, friends, loved ones and even immediate village, community or peers. We mistake people in high positions and authority to be entitled to opportunities of leadership like a company’s CEO, VP or a Principal Secretary of a government department, an elected representative or legislator while we think the common man has no right to exercise leadership. But we are wrong in this because leadership is not always related to rank, designation or socio-economic status. Even if a person has a solution to offer by way of example or recommendation to other people that constitutes true leadership. The level of leadership in a person can be seen as the number of people he/she influences ‘positively.’

She went on to share her story of being a survivor of domestic violence for eight years, before she made a decision to call out the façade of living in a happy marriage.  She said while it is easy to talk in conferences, the question is can you take a stand and live by it Quoting   Robert F. Kennedy – “ Each time one stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends fort a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”, she said even though my spirit was crushed, I knew I could stand  and I could talk.

She also shared other examples of her work from being a trainer, to being a community reporter and said leadership is about building voices at all levels, it cannot be top down, nor can it be possessive. For a leader to be successful, the belief in cross learning, partnerships and sharing is very important. Simply put it is like a relay race. Let the next runner run!

Radha Mani

“I grew up in a village and after marriage moved to Bengaluru. It was 1999, when my world came crashing down. I discovered that I was HIV+ and was 6 months pregnant. While at the first instance I did cross my mind, that I should commit suicide, without telling anyone , as I felt what’s the point, I refrained. I was in Badravathi, then and was sent to meet a counselor at St. Johns Hospital. Then I met doctors and they had a calming effect, as they were not judgmental. I had a flicker of hope that my child will not be born positive and that’s what happened. While I accepted my HIV status and moved on, my husband withdrew and went into depression for ten years.  I joined the garment industry in 2000 and then left in 2005, as I developed serve dust allergy and decided to take rest. In the same year, when I went for regular check-up, I met Malathi from Arunodhya, an NGO that works on issues of HIV/AIDS and she suggested that there is workshop on peer counseling. In 2006, I formally joined Arunodhya, and started counselling individuals who would come in discovering that they are HIV+ve. These sessions left me questioning the support system and I always felt that there was a need to do something more at a larger level. In 2010 I was working part time at World Vision. And two important things happened – first one my colleagues from Arunodhya and other NGOs came together and started the Bangalore HIV Task Force, initiated by the Lawyers Collective.  And second- I attended capacity building workshop for  Women Broadcasters, conducted by Radio Active, as part of the larger program plan by CEMCA, New Delhi. That’s when I knew I found my voice to speak up, and the essence of collaborative leadership made sense, as it is all about creating an ecosystem. An ecosystem that is essential to allow solutions to develop, a team approach to problem solving and information sharing and enabling voices from the ground”.

Sandeep, started off by asking the audience, “When do you acknowledge somebody as a leader?” The answers varied, from when someone who can command, or bring together people, or somebody with a designation, or passion. He went on to summarise that Most of us believe that a leader is somebody who transcends something, a crisis or a situation, a cause, and someone with passion, curiosity, will power or strong motivations. His next question was, “Is that choice? If I drop all barriers and stand up, to see some difference, can anyone be a leader for a cause?”

Sandeep then went on to share his story.

“While in college, I was always doing something or the other, including starting my own firm, I will not call that leadership. I then moved to Dubai, where I had a successful career. My father’s death shook me, for till then death was an abstract concept. I asked myself, if I had to die today, what should I do? Nothing made sense, none of the conventional culturing and conditioning of money and fame, nothing really mattered and nobody really teaches us. Deep inside I knew I was passionate about environment, and I wanted to be a part of sustainability tribe. But how can I do it, was the question that I battled with. Without money, how? The thing to remember is that when questions change, answers change.  

Sandeep makes a reference to Steve Job’s famous quote, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life”.  He says, “It is our internal conflicts that keep us from being a leader. We are all extremely capable; it is about exercising our role and conquering our mind”.  

So in March 2016, I started Aikyam, a platform that would discuss choices we make as an individual and provide pathways. It is only by coalition and collaborations we can move forward.

As we conclude, I can only reinforce the power of collaborative leadership, but to do so, it begins with the self. The self because it means moving away from silos, developing a new mindset, expanding the repertoire of skills, invest in relationships, and create an environment for an equal contribution of co-creation. I remember reading somewhere that knowing oneself is the foundation for leading others.

Pinky Chandran

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