By Dr. R. Balasubramaniam
In a world obsessed with sports, politics and the economy, it is easy to see why most of us view and describe successful people in these sectors as ‘leaders’ today. The default understanding is that such people are ‘special’ and endowed with qualities that make them successful leaders. It is such pre-occupation that sometimes blinds us from seeing the leadership exercised by people who are traditionally described as ‘ordinary’. And it is the amplified and visible narratives of successful industrialists, politicians, movie stars or sportsmen that are likely to prevent us from recognising leadership around us in everyday life. Recently, I had an experience that showed me how easily one gets into this groove and how such ‘ordinary’ people quietly go about exercising leadership.
As part of our morning exercise, my wife and I walk on the sidewalk around a popular park in the city of Mysuru. An enterprising street vendor had also decided to make this footpath his ‘vegetable shop’ and would be there each morning selling fresh vegetables. Naturally, the footpath would get crowded with his customers making walking on it an obstacle course.
Throwing aside my social concerns and sensitivity to street vendors, I confronted him angrily demanding that he organise himself in such a way that his vegetables and customers did not block us pedestrians from using the footpath. Going by my own experience in the past, I anticipated an angry show down and exchange of words. Undeterred by my outburst, Shivanna (name changed) calmly apologised to me for my discomfort and for being a nuisance to early morning walkers like me. He went on to politely explain to me that he will ensure that pedestrians continue to have their right of way. He was also clear that he would continue to sell his wares with minimal disruption to other users of the footpath.
What touched me was the manner in which he approached a potential conflict. He had the humility to be apologetic while at the same time was gently persuasive and ensured that he continued to vend. I was reminded of courses like ‘Persuasion’ and ‘Negotiation’ that are taught in Business Schools around the world. Here was a simple street entrepreneur vending leadership skills in his own experiential way to me. This incident left me impressed with the manner in which he managed to diffuse the tension while at the same time responding to my perspective too. I continue to see him every morning when I walk by his ‘enterprise’, but now I have a new-found respect for him, his leadership and his negotiation prowess.
In a world where we interpret life and its demands from the narrow lens of our own experience, expertise and perspective, Shivanna had taught me how leadership is about keeping your focus on the work on hand, on what you need to accomplish and avoid the distraction of meaningless ego battles. This can happen only when you do not make yourself bigger than what you really are and keep your sight on the final outcomes of what you have set out to do. There is so much that our so-called leaders from the arena of politics, business and other sectors can learn from people like Shivanna.
[Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, the founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM), teaches leadership at Cornell University and IIT-Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]]