A year at Harvard raises a lot of expectations. It is 4 days since I returned and people have been asking me about what I learnt, whether it was useful, how I would use this new-found knowledge and how it would impact my work. I kept telling people that the last year was both enriching and transforming. Or so I thought. At Harvard, I acquired the soft skills of persuasion, negotiation, communication; the quantitative skills required to present myself as a development expert & the basics of development economics; the nuances of public policy, governance, and politics. And most importantly, I got an understanding of the knowledge and practice of adaptive leadership. I learnt that the ‘context’ was the most important; I learnt to differentiate between ‘motivations’ and ‘perspectives’; I learnt to frame the ‘work at the center’; I also learnt ‘going to the balcony’ and ‘getting back to the dance floor’. I learnt how leadership could mobilize group resources and how the work had to be given back to the people. All this made me feel that I could make a difference and make this world a better place. I came back fresh and energized. I was determined to ‘listen’ and not ‘jump in’. I came back confident that I could now use my new-found knowledge, skills and competences for doing things better. I thought that I was ready for the next phase of my life.
Alas, I did not realize how strong my ‘default settings’ were. While at Harvard, I was warned how easy it would be for the world to pull my strings and push me towards being the way I always was. While I had learnt that it would be challenging to negotiate and manage the baggage that I was carrying, I had foolishly assumed that I could easily do it.
It took me just a minute to realize how strong the cultural DNA is. I had hardly settled down when I was told that the Parliament Committee on Social Justice & Empowerment was visiting SVYM on a study tour. They wanted to understand how Government of India’s programs were impacting tribal development and how the support of the Government was used by SVYM. The members were MPs from different constituencies across the country and SVYM was chosen as it was considered one of India’s leading NGOs. The senior management of SVYM wanted me to be present and participate in the discussions and play the ceremonial role of the founder. Hesitantly, I allowed myself to get sucked into it.
As the presentations and the discussions progressed, I found myself getting increasingly judgmental. I could watch myself becoming uneasy with the monologue of the presenter, the unintelligent conversations and the superficiality of the situation. I found myself getting angry at the hollowness of the questions that were being asked. And then a member commented that people in SVYM should be working honorarily and not drawing salaries. Some others added that we were not a truly committed NGO as people were being paid. It was then that I lost control of myself. I jumped in and gave the people there a piece of my mind. I explained how committed people here were and how each one was working amidst such difficult circumstances. I challenged them that they would not last a week here under the situation that we operated in. I forgot all about the context; I forgot that I had to look at the perspectives and not get carried away by my understanding of the motivations of these people. I forgot that I was so absorbed in the dance floor that I could never get on to the balcony and see the questions and comments dispassionately. I was so blinded that I could not see that I was being arrogant about the sacrifices that we had made over the last 2 decades. All I wanted was the affirmation and appreciation of the people around.
Looking back at the day’s events today, I feel disheartened and sad. Disheartened because I had missed this extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate ‘true leadership’ and actually apply what I had learnt. Sad because I had lost what I had learnt and experienced over the last one year, in just a minute. As I relive the day now, I am convinced that it is not just about knowledge, experience or skills. It is more about knowing oneself and the ability to remain equanimous at all times. Maybe, that is what being spiritual is all about. So much to learn and so little time…