Lesson 6: How to Lead by Example
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 impactful was what the world needs most from me as a man. There were seven lessons in total. This article is the sixth in a series.
People living in rural India face a bewildering array of complex challenges. The myriad of interwoven causes, like gender, culture, politics and religion, defy simplistic solutions. Even the most experienced leaders find it difficult to choose the most important priorities and then make any noticeable difference.
But the elected women representatives we were visiting are expected to do exactly that.
As soon as they take their place on the council, the representatives are besieged by villagers and family members, each knocking on the door to plead, and sometimes demand, his or her issue is fixed first.
As a manager I often faced the same dilemma. Admittedly, there were times I avoided making tough choices so as not to make people unhappy. Unfortunately, this meant important things did not get done. And people ended up unhappy anyway!
But in India the women representatives have been trained by The Hunger Project how to work together to align on the top priorities for their villages. Part of the deal is learning to withstand the inevitable backlash from men who don’t like women making decisions.
The one priority all the elected women we spoke to agreed on is the problem of poor sanitation. Most rural people in India have no access to toilets and must defecate in the fields. The untreated waste gets into the water supply, causing massive public health problems like dysentery. As a result, tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths occur every year.
Men in the villages don’t make things any easier, jeering at women and girls as they go out to do their business. Even worse, if there is no street lighting (as is often the case) women become vulnerable to sexual assault in the fields at night.
The good news is the government has also prioritised sanitation. Prime Minister Modi is promising 1.2 million new toilets in rural areas by 2019, the one hundredth anniversary of Ghandi’s birth. Problem sorted, right?
Not really. In India, as elsewhere, just because the government says something is going to happen does not mean it will. From the elected women’s perspective there are huge obstacles to overcome to make the Prime Minister’s plan a reality.
For example, the standard government design - a flush toilet - is inappropriate for most of this drought stricken nation. Alternatives like composting toilets do not seem to be part of the plan, despite being simpler and waterless, producing useful fertilizer as an added benefit.
Even worse, dodgy contractors sometimes do not connect toilets once constructed. Or they don’t dig an underground soak for the waste. Or there is no plan for street lights to keep women safe when they use the toilets at night.
How the toilets are to be cleaned and maintained is also unclear. In India, the Dalit caste, formerly known as the ‘Untouchables’, used to be responsible for this kind of work. But they don’t want to clean up people’s shit anymore!
As I listened I was reminded of all the unsuccessful, top-down driven initiatives I’d experienced both in corporate life and my consulting work. The root cause of each failure always pointed back to ineffective leadership.
There have also been countless initiatives in the developing world that never delivered, in spite of spending billions of dollars. Western leaders have failed to understand both the context and the needs of the people they’ve been trying to help.
In India the elected women representatives experience the effects of such poorly implemented initiatives at first hand every day. But to our delight, instead of being resigned about the toilet programme they are leading by example to bring proper sanitation to their villages. Their stories were inspiring.
For example, one representative I’ll call Sita told us in her village it was people’s religious beliefs preventing them from allowing toilets near their homes. If the household gods protecting one’s home smelled the toilet they might flee, bringing misfortune upon the family.
Sita took the bold step of declaring her home would be the first in the village to build a toilet, right in middle of the family compound. But her husband and in-laws resisted fiercely. They too were frightened of displeasing the gods. Sita did not give up, however, persuading her family with a mixture of facts, appeals to public spiritedness and promises the toilet would be kept immaculately clean. She even offered to contribute towards the cost with some money she’d earned. She won the family over, and soon the whole village.
Another representative, Rajkumari, told us her council received funding to build toilets, but some rich people in the village would not allow delivery of the construction materials to the site. There was no explanation given and nothing the women could do.
Rajkumari agreed with some other elected women representatives to do what they could at odd hours to prepare the site. Carrying building materials on their own backs, they made progress, little by little. They gradually wore down the resistance of the rich neighbours, who let them begin construction. Hundreds were eventually built across a number of villages.
Rajkumari then entered the village in a government-sponsored contest called ‘Open Defecation Free’, offering any ‘gram panchayat’ a reward of 500,000 rupees if they are able to demonstrate the entire village is committed to using toilets.
She discovered old habits and attitudes die very hard. She and the other women representatives took it upon themselves to be role models for using toilets, which meant regular demonstrations for villagers unsure about the new way of doing things. The women also needed to devise flexible solutions for regular cleaning and maintenance. With a lot of effort, followed by a twenty-day assessment by government inspectors, Rajkamuri’s council won the award.
I learned from these elected women representatives how important it is for a leader to risk unpopularity by being clear about priorities. Even then, it’s not enough simply to tell others what to do. Sometimes as a leader you must get on the pot and show them how it’s done!
Watch out for the last article in this series: It’s Not About Me
The Hunger Project is a global NGO committed to the end of hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable, grassroots, women-centered strategies and advocating for their widespread adoption in countries throughout the world. In India they coordinate the training and development of the most marginalised 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.