Friday, August 07, 2009

Diary: Leadership Training in India

I am still at it, working to create a leadership training programme to be developed for and delivered in India. One that fuses Western leadership thoughts to Indian realities, and gives the learners a balanced, open view of life and work. I see this as a goal where all my interests converge - cross cultural openness, a transformation enabled by seeing the possibilities in life and a wider view of what we should achieve in life. I know that India is in the middle of a hectic transformation to a modern, service oriented economy. Where it is falling short, and I know this by experience, is in terms of people - skills and attitudes - that is needed to power such a transformation. And, this, a structured leadership education offering, which meets the requirements of a modern economy but works with the ground realities of India, would surely be helpful.

Let me talk about the ground realities of India in the context of a modern economy. One special feature of the Indian economy which everyone must understand is that India is a deeply stratified society. It is not about the Hindu religion alone, though it starts from the varnashrama dharma. But, this stratification got into everything to do with India. Even the essentially egalitarian religions like Islam and Christianity have become stratified in India - I have heard the concepts of high caste Muslims and low caste Christians - and the various socio-religious movements which essentially developed as a reaction to the caste system, like the Sikhs in the medieval ages and the Brahmos in modern times, have later incorporated caste differences. In fact, the recent sikh violence in Vienna, which opened the world's eyes on this issue, was all about the caste differences inside the religion.

And, it is not just about religion. Everything in India eventually gets stratified. The reason why the British, a tiny island nation, could come from afar and rule India for nearly 200 years, is primarily because they worked these differences well. So, do modern Indian businesses, which structures its way around this system and build a system of patronage based on social status. It does help that usually the upper castes are educated and ready for the higher positions in the organization, but in case of an exception, there is always some strife which needs to be anticipated.

The only thing that while this system has worked so far, it can't get India to the next stage. The comfortable government protected age of patronage is over. The old demons are dying down and the new rage is reaching out to the villages. This calls for a small-scale cultural revolution, where the excluded must soon be called to arms, if India's growth engine is not to be stalled. This throws up a number of problems - how to come to terms with a new meritocratic world, to start with. But it is not just the withering of the privileges that is causing trouble; it is also the uneasiness to lead, where the uninitiated is being asked to take charge, without leaving the baggage out.

The key is that India needs a leadership model which is different from what's available on bookshelves. Contrast Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi and one starts to get it. It is almost a counter-intuitive model, though, arguably, Gandhi learnt much of it in England and practised it in South Africa. But, let's point out a few important differences that an Indian leadership model may have. First, in fact, it is actually difficult to lead in a stratified society than a more equal one. One has to merge the perspectives inherited from the society with the perspectives at work or in modern government. Besides, there are a number of unique dimensions, like family as an institution and in many cases, the supremely patriarchal nature of it, comes in the way as well. Further, also the treatment of weakling - the ones who do not do a great job - is bound to be different in India than in the Western perspective.

And, all that. The historic leadership in India was always to return to India rather than taking it to a different direction - imagine the Barrister Gandhi walking in loincloth to connect back to India not touched or stirred - and this time, our challenge is to reconnect back to the world, on our own terms, but also in harmony with other nations. This must be achieved with a deep respect for what is Indian, and with an active attempt to connect to the world.

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