Lesson 4: Courage Is Overrated
I recently spent a week in the middle of India facilitating an extraordinary leadership immersion programme created by The Hunger Project. Instead of attending courses at Harvard or INSEAD, twenty leaders from a large financial services company went to India to learn about leadership from women elected to serve on their local village councils (‘gram panchayat’).
I learned a lot from these women but to my surprise the most impacting was what the world needs most from me as a man. There were seven lessons in total. This article is the fourth in a series.
I never thought running a crèche for pre-schoolers could be dangerous. But then we heard a chilling story from an elected woman representative called Paldati.
In the crèche in her village every child is entitled to a free cooked lunch. Paldati’s mother-in-law is in charge. She ensures the mid-day meal is nutritious and distributed fairly. Budgets are tight so she keeps a careful watch over the supplies.
She recently noticed a number of over-age kids, who should have moved on to primary school, were still coming to the crèche for a free lunch. As a result, children entitled to the mid-day meal were being deprived. For some it is the only meal of the day.
She notified Paldati, who, as the elected representative took it upon herself to visit the parents of the ineligible children to sort things out. She expected a difficult conversation but was met with a ‘violent confrontation’ in her words. Then one of the men threatened to kill children at the school if his kids could not keep receiving a free lunch.
Paldati was horrified. But instead of reacting or retreating, she stood firm and calmly explained everyone has to follow the rules. The men shouted and harangued her, but got the message. The free riding stopped.
Her next story was almost as shocking. Paldati recently advised a woman to take her severely malnourished child to the Nutrition Centre in the nearest big town for emergency treatment. The child’s survival was at stake, but the husband refused to allow his wife to be away for two weeks, asking, ‘Who will cook the chapattis?’
Such cultural issues run deep in India. Paldati chose not to try to tackle this one head on. Instead she offered to look after both the woman’s family and her own for a fortnight. Fortunately, the baby lived.
We visitors who had never faced such trials could only describe her as courageous and resilient.
But Paldati insisted she is no more courageous or resilient than the next person. She still experiences fear, lack of confidence and has concerns she is not up to the task. The only difference is she took a stand to end malnutrition in her village. An impossible sounding goal but it changed her life.
Paldati’s stand has nothing to do with her personal wants or happiness. It’s on behalf of the wider community, something much bigger than herself.
She is able to go beyond her fears simply by asking herself what is the next action she must take to end malnutrition, and taking it. How it will end she does not know but step by step she makes progress.
The Hunger Project train elected women representatives in taking a stand. They begin by envisioning what their village would be like if it was free from hunger. Some can hardly imagine such a possibility. But from deep inside each woman a vision eventually emerges: education for girls, clean water, no child marriages, working toilets, a crèche, no more alcohol-fueled violence, etc.
Then they are asked, ‘Who will make your vision a reality?’ It is confronting because, like the rest of us, these women all think someone else is responsible, like the government. But they soon face the fact no one is coming to the rescue. It is up to them.
This is a huge mindset shift for the women, allowing the positive things they can do to emerge.
Each one then seals her commitment by declaring her stand in front of her sisters.
We visitors were all mightily impressed. Our ambitions are so often self-serving rather than for the greater good. We water down a bold commitment with phrases like ‘to the best of my ability’ or ‘make reasonable efforts’. We dislike being held accountable for doing what we’ve said.
On the return bus ride one of the execs summed up his thoughts from the day, “I’ve always assumed doing the right thing and being fair are enough to redress the wrongs in the world. But then I came to India. If we want an equal society we men have to be wiling to lose something. I realize now I have to make a decision on the end state I am committed to. Then do what I need to do to get there.”
We were all ready to work on our stands. But many of us were wondering, ‘What should I stand for?’ In a way it’s easy for the Indian women because there are so many urgent issues confronting them.
We reflected silently on some questions, scribbling in our journals:
We then asked each person to get up in front of the group and declare their stand publicly, following this format:
Doing this work had me become clear about my stand: for boys and men to thrive. For years I have led father and son weekends, facilitated men’s groups and run ‘rites of passage’ in the desert. But articulating my stand pulled it all together. It is what I want to spend my life doing.
How exciting! But also challenging. I don’t feel a surge of courage inside me to see this through. But like Paldati, I am confident my stand will pull me into action no matter how I feel.
What is your stand? I’d love to hear it.
Next week Lesson #5: Men Must Stand Up for Women
The Hunger Project is a global NGO committed to the end of hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable, grassroots, women-centred strategies and advocating for their widespread adoption in countries throughout the world. In India they coordinate the training and development of the most marginalized elected women leaders for the entire five years of their tenure in office, enabling them to be effective in ending hunger and poverty in their villages.