Management Talk: The invisible leader

Long ago, during my summer internship at Girijan Co-operative (a firm involved in improving the living conditions of the indigenous communities in Andhra Pradesh by enhancing their agricultural produce and providing access to fair price shops) in Visakhapatnam, as part of the PGDM programme, I had to travel to the hinterland of Andhra Pradesh. It involved a bus journey deep into the hilly regions for several hours, and then a trek by foot for an hour before I would reach the designated place., B

16 May 2016 | By Suresh Ramakrishnan

I was expected to spend a fortnight in a small village there. The tiny hut I was allotted had palm leaves for roof – in summer the room was unbelievably cool – with friendly rodents for company, who were disciplined enough to avoid appearing on the surface all through my stay (They did freak me out in the first two days though.). I was asked to eat whatever the villagers gave me, which was usually rice with tamarind-based curry and a small portion of boiled vegetables. The entire village used the tube well and its surrounding area for a bath.

I was instructed to meet and be with this humble gentleman (around 28 years of age and part of the cooperative), who had passed out of a premier social institute and had chosen to work in the tribal habitat to help better their lives. He was smart, knowledgeable, exceedingly sharp and could have walked through any large corporate if he wanted to. I was bewildered initially and failed to understand why he chose this life and profession, until I came to the end of my two weeks in the hilly region.

He did not speak much about his activities. He just asked me to tag along with him wherever he went over the next two weeks. A typical morning would start at 6 am to beat the heat and we would be back by noon to the village and set off again at 4 pm until 8 pm in the evening.

A typical day would start with a long walk through neighbouring villages - pineapple and vegetable plants would line up the path stretching several kms. In every village we went to, there would be a small gathering discussing farming, market dates and other local issues. This gentleman, my guide would be welcomed with folded hands and he would hear, intervene, make a few suggestions and move on. The evenings would be spent in a local school, some games for children, loads of singing, and some general lessons. What I remember most is the smiles on the faces of the children when they saw my guide; many would just cling on to him.

He was not a part of the panchayat. He was not a local leader, but he made a difference to all the meetings because he earned respect through his intent and hard work. People genuinely sought him out. I learnt that he took pains to understand their issues. He would take the matters to the local collector and ensure he brings change.

With his help, the farmers saw their lives improving. They received better compensation for their produce. They received tips that helped them produce better. He helped them adopt vermiculture (a technique of producing compost by rearing earthworms) that reduced their dependence on pesticides and fertilisers, thus reducing their expenses. The children were motivated to come to school for the games he organised. I was told that even the Naxalites from the region respected him.

While the cooperative helped his stay in the village, the villagers took care of his needs because he ‘touched their lives’ and positively so. He was humble enough not to realise how important he had become; his cool demeanour  and being focused towards change helped him with a sense of fulfillment.

This is what an invisible leader does.

  • He understands issues at the grassroots and builds solutions ground upwards to bring change
  • He encourages people to think about change and helps them realise the potential they have in them
  • Walks the talk, with integrity and honesty that helps earn respect
  • They focus on the goal and their power, position is secondary
  • They measure their own growth by witnessing the growth in the people they work with

I had this experience early in life. I am sure there are millions of invisible leaders out there who are catalysing change. They do not come under media glare and may never ever come into the limelight. They choose to stay ‘invisible’.

Suresh Ramakrishnan is the publisher at Haymarket Media (India)