Lesson Seven: It’s Not About Me
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 last in the series.
We returned to our hotel in Khajuraho one afternoon to see dozens of staff members outdoors preparing for a big event. One group was putting together a spectacular entrance arch made entirely of pink balloons. The audio-visual guys were blasting Bollywood videos over a giant screen and speaker tower. Another team was laying down a dance floor the size of a tennis court. Women staff were festooning dining tables with pink ribbons and garlands of flowers. Others were assembling a buffet stretching the full length of the hotel swimming pool.
We spied our favourite waiter pushing a trolley piled high with metal steam trays and asked him what was happening. A wedding? A corporate function? A state banquet?
No. A local tycoon was celebrating his daughter’s first birthday.
What a waste, I thought. How could a child that age have any idea what was happening?
But I was fascinated and watched the preparations from the bar like it was some kind of performance. At nine o’clock around two hundred guests arrived en masse. The parking lot filled with the latest Toyotas and Nissans. Prosperous men from the most privileged castes chatted in small groups. The women gathered to talk and admire each other’s saris. Children were chasing each other through a wonderful fantasy world. Everyone was having fun. There were speeches, music, dancing and masses of food.
This party could have been in a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles or Sydney instead of one of the poorest parts of India.
That’s when I got upset.
We’d spent most of the day in a dirt poor village meeting women elected to serve as representatives on their local councils. The contrast between then and now was brutal.
Few of these women can afford a bicycle, let alone a car. They come from the most marginalised castes. Many were mothers by the age of fourteen and never received an education.
Yet as elected representatives they’ve taken on the big issues facing their communities, like poor sanitation, girls’ education, child marriage and domestic violence. It is hard, grinding work that would rarely trouble these party goers.
I wondered what the others in my group were thinking, but the music drowned out all conversation. I went to my room in disgust.
On my way, however, memories of my daughter Lily’s birthday parties began flooding back: the excited children; the magicians, entertainers, makeup artists and even a chef; the skating rinks, bowling alleys, wave pools, climbing centres and cinemas. Not to mention the piles of food, cake and decorations. They were such fun.
Then there were her friends’ birthday parties, over eighty before she was fourteen. The most memorable involved a limo taking a dozen girls in ball gowns for a photo shoot!
Yet just down the road from where we lived was one of London’s most deprived neighbourhoods. We never invited any of those children to attend our daughter’s parties. Neither did our friends. Our lives simply did not intersect.
Now I was in turmoil. Of course it was right to celebrate Lily’s birthdays. The joyful memories will stay with me forever. But maybe I was as thoughtless as the wealthy man throwing this huge party.
The next day our group discussed the birthday event. Some others felt as confused as me.
We needed a mindset shift. The person to do it was Pana-bai, an elected woman representative we’d recently met. Her approach to children’s birthdays (and everything else) challenged our fixed way of thinking.
She’d taken us to visit a brand new crèche in her village. As we arrived a little girl was being presented with a birthday cake, for the first time ever in her life. All the village children under six were invited. We sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and everyone got a little piece of cake. To us it seemed like any normal birthday celebration.
But the girl’s mother was moved to tears. Pana-bai explained this little party was not normal at all. Usually only boys’ birthdays are celebrated. Publicly acknowledging a little girl as a valuable, treasured human being is rare.
Just as uncommon is the idea of including every child in the village. Pana-bai and her colleagues have shifted their mindset from ‘there is not enough to go around’ to ‘no one is left out’. They believe their own poverty shouldn’t stop them from sharing what little they have. Pana-bai does not say, “I’ll wait until I have enough and then I’ll help.” She makes whatever she has go around.
As elected representatives she and her colleagues are role models for generosity. Instead of directing it to themselves (like other politicians), they ensure the most marginalised benefit first from new infrastructure like electricity, roads and street lights. School places go to those who most need them. Pensions, free school meals and government assistance are directed to the deserving poor - the widows, the disabled and the desperate - not those who can cheat the system.
Some elected women have even prospered but they never forget where they come from. Instead of protecting and enlarging their wealth they are more generous. They feel their duty is to help others.
The Hunger Project’s training reinforces their innate generosity: Unless everyone wins, no one wins. These women have learned to trust that, in giving, their needs will be taken care of.
Years ago I was out of work and ‘on the bones of my arse’ financially. Earlier we’d made a large commitment to The Hunger Project, who were now asking for the money. I could have backed out but chose instead to increase our mortgage. I finally understood what it was like to be on the outside. Life wasn’t all about me. I had to trust.
This is counter cultural for us Westerners. When I started earning again it was easy to be magnanimous. But life became all about me again.
Now, years later, I’m not working. I could get a job but want to create something new. And also be generous. I need to remind myself what life is really about. And learn again how to trust.
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 marginalised elected women leaders for the entire five years of their tenure in Life was all about me office, enabling them to be effective in ending hunger and poverty in their villages.