Your Excellency, Hon’ble Chancellor of the Sambalpur University, acting Vice Chancellor, Shri D.V. Swami, Members of the Senate, Syndicate, respected teachers, parents, guests & above all, my dear graduating students.
I thank you for the honour of inviting me as the Chief Guest at your 51st Foundation Day & the 28th Convocation Ceremony. Today, I have chosen to speak to you about leadership.
To me, the best definition of a leader comes from American thinker, Joel Barker. He says, a leader is someone, others opt to follow to go someplace they would not go by themselves. There is a lot of merit in this simple but powerful definition. In the first part, he suggests that the leader is someone others “opt to follow”. This means, leadership, to be sustainable, cannot be pushed down. The Barker way of looking at the idea of leadership rules out dictators and oppressors of people who may be in a position of power, they get people to obey by force, coercion and fear. But that is ruling and not leading. We give our best only when we “opt to follow” a leader.
Today, I want to tell you about the lives of three great leaders of all times to explain the idea. One is the biblical Moses who liberated the Jewish people from the clutches of the tyrannical Pharaohs of Egypt who made them into slaves. The second leader I will tell you about is William Wallace, a fearless Scotsman who fought the English people and finally, closer home, I want to tell you about our very own Mahatma Gandhi.
Moses was born a Jew but was rescued and brought from the Nile river by a queen in the royal palace of the Pharaoh. He was destined to be the Pharaoh and no one knew his true identity, that at birth, he was a Jew and hence, only to be enslaved. As he grew up in the shadow of the Pharaoh, he was indeed to ascend to the throne but everything changed when one day, he took up the cause of the slaves. Along the way, people got to know his own identity. From then on, there was no looking back. Eventually, he led a revolt against the King and took the Jewish people away from Egypt and into freedom. The Pharaoh’s army went a er the fleeing slaves but Moses led them safely away. Legend has it that the sea parted for the fleeing populace and as the army of the tyrants came a er them the sea closed in on the Pharaoh’s men. Moses took his people through an extremely difficult journey across the desert to their Promised Land where, he received the Ten Commandments as an edict. The Jewish people lived as free men.
In the medieval times, the people of Scotland had a distinctly different identity. They were organized as freemen and women, who lived as tribes with great sense of autonomy. The English Lords subjugated the Scottish people and through sheer military might, they brought great misery unto them. They taxed the Scots, they even had an unimaginably cruel tax that every man entering wedlock had to pay before being allowed to marry his bride. A part of the “bride tax”, as it was heinously called, was a requirement for the bride-to-be, to stand a night of torture by an English Lord. The Scotsmen endured all this because, they were not united. They didn’t see themselves as one people and they felt quite helpless as they were ragtag, the English were affluent and armed.
Then came a man called William Wallace who revolted against the English, he was deeply affected by their cruelty on his own people. He had to deal with fear and cynicism among his fellowmen to eventually give the English a great fight and pushback; at the end, Scottish people got their self-respect, pride and glory but William Wallace was captured and killed. He wasn’t the only leader in history who paid the price for his conviction by laying down his own life. The other notable man was our Mahatma.
Mahatma Gandhi’s transformational moment of truth arrived when a racist train conductor threw him from a train because he was travelling first class in South Africa which was the epicenter of white supremacy; white people had colonized the country where the Mahatma had just arrived to become a barrister – meaning a practicing lawyer who had obtained his degree from London. In South Africa, non-whites weren’t allowed to travel by first-class. Gandhi didn’t hate the man who had just committed a hate crime. He realized that the world must be saved from the scourges of racial discrimination and from that point on began a lifetime of struggle. A er South Africa, where Gandhi learnt about and practiced non-violence, he returned to India where he took up the cause of millions of Indians who hadn’t been freemen for centuries. Gandhi led a prolonged non-violent movement against the British Empire that has made us a free people today.
What does it take to be a Moses, a Wallace or a Gandhi?
For starters, it takes the Power of Vision. Vision, or the ability to imagine a future that doesn’t exist today. But then, we must deeply believe in it, commit to it, be willing to fight for it against a bigger force to achieve the end-goal. It requires us to rally fellow beings around it, and sustain our energy for the long haul. Leaders are people who don’t get angry, excited, involved in a cause for just a day, a month or a year. True leaders are people who know that anything good, anything worthwhile, takes a long time to achieve or change. But what is this Vision? And must all vision be grand, and does the term “leader” mean only great people history remembers and we revere?
The word Vision has its origin in Latin. Latin is an ancient language from which many modern languages derive their origin. The word in Latin, from which Vision has originated Vidēre. From Vidēre came the French word vision and then the middle English word Vision, to denote an apparition. The term has been variedly used as the faculty to see, the ability to think or plan for the future with imagination and wisdom. So, we can see, creating an image of the future in our mind, could well be a deeply personal experience and then we need to ask the one big question: shouldn’t someone who can lead others, be first be able to lead her own self? What does it take to lead your own self? Character, ability to stay the course, capacity to receive? But in even larger measure, it is the ability to create a personal vision for yourself.
For exploring the idea of leading the self, I want you to meet some of my heroes from my new world of skill development. They are ordinary people who are extra-ordinary exemplars in our midst. Consider Muni Tiga, born in a remote tribal village of Odisha to a family of seven siblings. She grew up tending cattle. But when the cattle grazed, Muni Tiga would take her books out of her bag and study under the shade of a tree. Fellow villagers ridiculed her. Why should she be reading books? She was another tribal girl. Muni persisted. As she grew up, she had to attend high school that was good thirty kilometers away from her village. This meant she had to wake up early and leave home by 7 in the morning, riding her bicycle along the forest paths. This got the village folks’ tongues wagging. What kind of a girl was she that risked her and the village’s reputation, going to a faraway school all by herself? Amidst all this, her father died. Muni Tiga decided to take charge. For this, first she needed to take charge of her own destiny. Someone told her about a government Industrial Training Institute in Bargarh. Muni went on to study there, she completed a 2-years course in electronics and joined the Indian Railways where today, she hauls the Shatabdi Express as a locomotive pilot.
Like Muni Tiga, I have another great example for you. Anima M was given away in marriage when she was all of 18 and a year later, misfortune struck. Her husband died. For a widowed girl that young, losing a husband is not enough, sometimes she is blamed as the harbinger of a bad omen, the one whose stars wrought misfortune for the boy’s family. Be that as may, the biggest problem for a young woman who becomes a widow is that she loses her identity in a society where it stems from being someone’s wife. When you lose your husband, you neither belong to your husband’s family, nor to your parents’. Anima decided that the only way she could carve out a new identity for herself was by acquiring a skill. She enrolled at an Industrial Technical Institute in Berhampur and learnt dress design. Then she decided to set up a small tailoring business. Today, Anima employs 9 people and whenever she can take the time off, she goes to teach at the ITI that gave her a new life.
Amidst the inspiring conversation on leadership, a lone thought, almost as a whisper, crosses the mind. Why lead? Why must everyone think in terms of leading? Why carry the burden that may hurt my shoulders? Why not just follow? Let us dwell on that very important thought now. For that, we need to look at the sky.
Winter birds from the Himalayas & beyond migrate over thousands of miles, as far as Lake Chilika in the east as annual visitors. They tell us a marvelous lesson in shared leadership. When the journey is long and arduous, the responsibility of leading cannot be entrusted to just one bird. What if the bird falls or loses the way? Singularity in leadership can damage singularity of the mission at hand. So, what do these birds do? If you see them cross the sky, from one part of the horizon to the other, you would notice something fascinating. The birds fly in a disciplined formation, like an arrow, with a lead bird. But every now and then, quietly, the lead changes position and for the next segment of the flight, another bird comes from behind and takes the lead. In this fascinating example of how the birds achieve their mission, year a er year, generation a er generation, we have a very important leadership lesson. Every leader must be a follower and every follower must take on the role of a leader. Great people are those who can effortlessly switch roles without disappointment, dismay or hurt in the ego.
While we are discussing the idea of followership, we need to be very careful about blind faith and embrace the responsibility a follower who must point out when a leader may be wrong. The follower must then help the leader to correct the path. If the leader refuses to listen, he becomes a risk to the larger good. In times like those, the follower must raise a voice and save people from a destructive leader. Despite the hero-worship we all do to leaders, history is replete with examples of leaders who have wrought unimaginable hardship and distress. An example of a leader gone astray is Adolf Hitler who was singularly responsible for creating a message of hate that killed six million Jewish people. Similar would be religious leaders who teach bigotry and divisiveness, ask their followers to pursue the path of violence. In moments of difficulty, a follower must not shift the burden and the responsibility to make sense of what is right versus what may be wrong onto someone else, far less, to the leader. The follower must listen to the voice of his own conscience and follow its call.
This may mean expressing one’s responsibility of dissent. This could mean disengaging from the leader. Such a decision is not without risk. In a perilous moment, that single individual may risk isolation, others may ridicule him and in the worst situation, the dissenting voice can put the individual’s life at risk. But in exercising the responsibility of dissent, in that Rubicon moment, it is the follower who becomes the true leader.
We live in times where the world is seeing never-before possibilities for the good of the greater humanity. Yet, in every sphere of life, we are beset with serious challenges. The possibility of goodness is evident even though there is rising tension among nations, we are beset with climate change issues, there is inequality among people that makes the rich-poor divide a cause for serious concern. Yet, for the first time in the history of humanity, average life span across countries has improved, violence is at a historic low and thanks to science, technology and humanism, solution to an increasing number of problems are within our reach. Yet, our progress towards building a better planet depends hugely on the quality of leadership we build. More than ever before, we need great leaders who look at humanity before nations and nations before narrow self-interest. What qualities must such leaders develop and practice? There is no scientific answer. In different leadership moments and challenges, a leader must fall back on different qualities. Sometimes, it is the ability to inspire.
Sometimes it is the ability to question the state of the present.
Sometimes, it is the ability to go against conventional wisdom and popular opinion. Sometimes, it is charting a course and in other times, to seek greater wisdom that followers may have but may be unaware of it. Yet, in other times, a leader must be able to listen to others and listen deeper to the voices that no one hears. This asks the leader to practice humility. Humility helps us to open the mind. An open mind leads to an open heart. And an open heart, helps us to create the will to change the course of things.
In closing, I urge all those graduating today to look at yourself as lifelong students of leadership. May you become great leaders and followers and may you find leadership lessons in people big & small. May you be inspired, every step of the way, and may you be an inspiration to countless others.
Thank you, Your Excellency & thank you everyone here today.
Material for the speech was excerpted from “The Children’s Book of Truths” by Hachette India, to be released in February 2018.