Published: 17th April 2019
Not everyone who has authority or power is a leader: Dr R Balasubramaniam
Development activist Dr Ramaswami Balasubramaniam speaks about how we can't always confuse leaders with today's politicians and sportspersons and how leadership is above and beyond
One day, the Founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM) and Grassroots Research And Advocacy Movement (GRAAM), a public policy think tank, Dr Ramaswami Balasubramaniam, along with his wife, were on their usual morning walk in a popular garden. Upon seeing a vendor selling fresh vegetables on the footpath day after day and creating a mini ruckus, Dr Balasubramaniam, keeping his sensitivity and social concerns aside, decided to confront him. Upon seeing the vendor backtrack, apologise and promise that he will continue his business by causing as little commotion as possible, Dr Balasubramaniam was surprised with his approach. Instead of fighting back, the vendor was trying to settle things.
At the age of 19, at which Dr Balasubramaniam started Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement
When the development activist shared this story through his column, he was introspecting and learning from the vendor about how one needs to keep aside battles of ego and focus on doing what needs to be done. And that is classic Dr Balasubramaniam — always observing, learning and reflecting. The former Frank H T Rhodes Professor at Cornell University was speaking at the Leadership Programme organised by India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS) at Ashoka University when we caught up with him.
The brains behind it all: Dr Balasubramaniam is inspired by the message of Swami Vivekananda | (Pic: ILSS)
Keeping in mind this story and the elections that are going on, we asked him how one identifies a leader in someone else or within themselves. He said that, “I believe that the concept of a ‘leader’ does not exist. I don’t think we should see the ‘leader’ as a person. On the other hand, I believe that one can express ‘leadership’ as an ‘activity of mobilising oneself and those around us for some societally constructive action amidst enormous uncertainty’. One doesn’t have to be a 24x7 leader, but one can choose to exercise leadership whenever the situation demands.” Needless to say that Dr Balasubramaniam, fondly known as Balu, has been in such situation many a times, whether as a special investigator for Lokayukta Karnataka (Anti-Corruption Commission) or holding membership and consulting positions in government bodies, academic boards and more, including the World Bank. So we ask him about leaders, leadership and all that it entails. Excerpts from an insightful conversation:
Dr Balasubramaniam is also a leadership trainer, a public policy advocate and social entrepreneur
Teaching, running SVYM and GRAAM and your other contributions to the society are commendable. But do you think the youth of today, through the social sector or their start-ups, are doing enough for the society and the country?
Each of us is a product of the times and we need to evaluate oneself in the context of where we are operating. Youth of today live in the context of increasing consumerism, lack of role models, disengaged parenting and flashy distractions. Keeping all this in mind, I would say that they are still doing well. Every year, I personally mentor tens of young people from around the country who reach out to me for guidance and support. I think once you provide them with options that benefit themselves and those around them, these young people do well. We need to understand that the context of today is about ‘private gains’ rather than ‘public good’. We need to excite our youth into seeing private gains in public good, then their participation in socially relevant initiatives will surely happen. And why do we only expect that our youth should focus on socially relevant activities? Isn’t it something that each Indian should be asking oneself? The only space that I would personally like our younger people to engage and participate is the world of electoral politics and policy making. Once that happens, a ‘New India’ will surely arise.
At the podium: Dr Balasubramaniam delivering a talk | (Pic: SVYM)
India has the power of the youth in their favour, but what do today's youth really need?
What they need is someone to excite them about their own potential. Someone who can give them the confidence to experiment, to innovate and keep raising their aspiration levels - not for themselves but for the entire nation. They are a restless lot seeking to find answers from outside. We need them to start looking inwards and find the courage to see their inner strength and fly with it. That is all that we need to do. That is what my work with them has been about.
He has written books like i, the citizen and Voices from the Grassroots
In a sense, we have all, especially the youth, grown to be disconnected from our roots, our very own community and the wealth of knowledge they possess. How do we get out of this rut that we are stuck in and start believing in our own knowledge systems and people?
Most of us are products of a system that has constantly shaped us to believe that everything traditional and ancient is to be disregarded as useless and irrelevant. We have all been brought up on the westernised narrative that India, and therefore anything Indian, is useless and that the West has all the solutions for us. This is the farthest from the truth that one can get. There is so much wisdom and strength in India and in the wisdom of our people. If you go through my books, you will see this expression of extraordinary wisdom of ordinary people coming from every page. Whether it is human development, public policy, politics, Sciences, Medicine, education and so on, there is so much that we can learn from our history. All we need is an open mind and the willingness to experiment. Having said this, we also need to be cautious about not romanticising everything that existed. We have had our share of filth and that is to be discarded without hesitation. But then, we should learn not to throw out the baby with the bath water.
In his element: Dr Balasubramaniam talking in a village | (Pic: SVYM)
Do you think India is going through a leadership crisis in all aspects today? Why or why not?
In India today, we seem to be equating ‘leadership’ with ‘authority’. We consider people in positions of power and authority as leaders. That is the flaw in our understanding of leadership itself. While I am not saying that people holding positions of power will not be exercising leadership, all I am saying is that we cannot presume that people holding authority positions will also exercise leadership. We are going through times where we seem to make our political personalities, sportspersons and corporate heads into ‘leaders’. We need to evaluate them and filter their actions based on the definition that I mentioned earlier. If we see it from that perspective, several of them are exercising counterfeit leadership. A person exercising good leadership constantly explores to give the work back to people where it rightfully belongs. What matters to such a person is the work at the centre and not putting himself at the centre all the time. Today in India, we seem to have a plethora of people who are constantly putting themselves at the centre with complete disregard to empowering those around them to seek solutions to the problems on their own.
At the ILSS workshop, he spoke about non-profit management and if it can be taught, the specific skill sets that can help the social sector in creating a better impact and so
How do you think initiatives like ILSS contribute towards the understanding of leadership?
I think it addresses a critical component, especially if you subscribe to my definition of leadership. It enables people working in the corporate sector to discover how leadership is all about bringing about constructive societal value and this can be done through any sector not just the social sector. Once those who are able to understand and internalise this will be change makers wherever they go. And that is what I believe programmes like ILSS do.
On his way: Dr Balasubramaniam is a man with a purpose | (Pic: SVYM)
What does the future look like for you? Any new projects or initiatives?
I get this question a lot. People want to know if I see myself in politics or what my next steps in life will be. Today, I see myself continuing my work in the space of leadership - in training others, in teaching both here in India and outside and in coaching people from all sectors. I work with corporate leaders, ministers, and in academia and I’m trying to build a cohort of value driven people who understand how to exercise enlightened leadership. One initiative that I am toying with is to set up a Institute of Public leadership and Policy, but that can happen when I meet someone who has faith in my abilities and is willing to put his money into it.
Three to go
When we ask Dr Balasubramaniam about the three policy-level changes in the country he would like to see with immediate effect, this is what he had to say:
Getting more women into the workplace. We are having a crisis that no one is addressing. In the last decade or so, more than 10 per cent of our competent and qualified women have moved out of the workplace. We cannot simply blame biology or society, we need policies that will provide socio-cultural and other systemic support to enable them to manage their personal, familial and professional lives. The nation will stand to lose if we keep ignoring this issue.
Faith in private sectors
The next policy is to explore how to promote the private sector with suitable regulation and adequate checks and balances. I feel that jobs for young people and the investment that one requires for R&D is today mostly in the private sector. But an unregulated private sector can be disastrous and we need to promote a private sector which is ethical, socially conscious and environmentally responsible. Once we have these regulations in place, jobs for our young people could happen. Otherwise, we will be saddled with the problem that exists today. Governments around the world can no longer create jobs in the public sector and even if they create some of them, there is no assurance that their services will either be efficient or ethical. We live in a situation where we are neither able to shut down an inefficient airline like Air India nor sell it. At the same time, our regulations and political climate wants to keep private airlines like Jet Airways flying. We need to have the courage in all market forces to determine survival and keep the focus on efficiency enabling competition. A well-regulated private sector would not have examples like that of Vijay Mallya or Nirav Modi.
Education and health first
The third policy is to ensure quality services in the public sector, in the space of education and health. Every Indian should have the confidence that they can receive the highest quality of education and health services in the public sector. The government should get out of the other useless operations and focus on building the human capital of its citizens. Once their services improve, the private sector will not see as much revenues in this space and begin to focus on other infrastructural areas.
For more on him, click on drrbalu.com