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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Leadership is “Reaching Out”

One of the commonest trait that effective leaders are known to possess is ‘reaching out’— empathizing with team members, with subordinates, with even situations. Such ‘empathy’ is sure to beget win-win outcomes. It is in the human nature that people are often reluctant to approach someone in a position of “power”. It is also common that those who want to have a connection with the leader often wait patiently for the leader to make the contact with them. That’s why, perhaps, Sri Rama – The King of Ayodhya who is known as Purvabhashi – instead of waiting for his subjects to talk, himself would enquire as to what he could do for them. It is, therefore, in the interest of leaders that they should reach out to others. And relations won’t happen unless one goes all out for making them.

All of us at one stage or the other wish that those whom we follow see us, hear us, know us and value us. But all of this being seen, known, heard, or valued happens only when we have “relationship” and this relationship happens in the organization only when the leader initiates appropriate action for building it. In other words, the leader has to reach out to people on his own and once he exhibits that trait, no force on earth can stop “relationships” coming into existence.

You don’t believe this? Then look at this story:[1]

There was a lad called Gopalam.

He was illiterate. Stealing was his profession. Drinking was his leisure time avocation – in which he would doze off nights and days, till he ran out of money. On such occasions, he reverted to his profession – stealing. The beginning of his professional activity started with identification of a house worthy of stealing. Once the target was identified, his day would start with watching the movements of people in and around the house. It also included observing the behavior of the inmates of the house. He closely watched their movements and timings, the visitors and the times of their visits, their dinner timings, time to bed, etc. – all that mattered was his sneaking into the house and in the end walk away with the booty.

This time, he selected for his robbery, a house in which there lived only three people – husband, wife, and a child. Everyday, the husband – a compulsive gambler – would return home late in the night after playing cards at the local club. The housewife stayed all alone in the night with the kid till the husband returned around 2 a.m. Having decided to steal her jewelry, one night Gopalam pole-vaulted into the backyard of the house. It was dead silent except for the shrill noises of crickets. The compound was wrapped in darkness. From behind the banana plants and under the cover of green canopy, he cat walked to the kitchen room.

He slowly placed himself under the kitchen window and ensuring that no one was around, he tested the strength of the iron rods of the window by shaking them. Being satisfied, he carefully peeped through the window. He saw faint light coming from the bedroom. He also heard broken voices from inside the bedroom. Hearing the conversation, for a while he felt that his plan had come to naught. Meanwhile, the pitch of the conversation rose. He stayed glued to the wall hoping that the conversation would die down soon. The tone of the housewife that was tinged with fear and pang aroused Gopalam’s interest.

Involuntarily, he pulled out the iron rods of the window and silently sneaked into the kitchen. He tucked himself behind the door of the kitchen and peeped into the bedroom. There was this lady – the housewife – she was thin and cultured-looking with unkempt hair, wrapped in rags. Her poor pinched cheeks were drenched in tears. She could hardly be 22 to 25 years old. The entire world’s sorrow was reflected in her eyes. The child in her armpit was crying silently.

Unmindful of her crying, the husband again shouted: “Give me the chain”.

“No, I can’t”, replied the wife. She pleaded: “Please, I implore you, do not ruin everything in gambling. It is time you stopped throwing off good money in gambling. Do take care of the child, his education, his very future.”

Ignoring all her pleading, the husband in his usual macho voice again said: “Are you giving me the chain or not?”

The housewife sobbing profusely stammered: “This is the only asset of worth left with us. You have lost all the sense of good and bad; sense of responsibility to your child, your wife and even to yourself.”

Infuriated by her refusal, he caught hold of the lady’s neck and started beating her.

Struggling to wriggle out of his beating, she cried: “Why should I? Is it to bet in cards? You don’t even bother to bring medicine to your sick and coughing child? It doesn’t matter whether your wife and child are dead or alive? If I give this chain today, what option do I have to feed the child except to go begging on roads from tomorrow onwards?”

Reacting to her sobbing and crying, the husband said: “So it is for this tiny fellow that you don’t want to give me the chain? I will then kill him”, so saying, the husband rushed to her.

Shocked by the turn of events, the lady pulled up her wits at once and jumped away from him with the child in the armpit, like a hare hunted by the lion.

Witnessing all this, Gopalam could no longer remain a silent spectator in the kitchen. He instantaneously kicked the door open and jumped into the bedroom, while the wife was giving the chain to her husband pleading: “Please don’t harm my child”.

Putting the chain in his pocket the husband turned to the door. And seeing Gopalam amidst them, yelled: “Who are you?”

Giving a nice slap on the cheek, Gopalam, with one hand snatched the chain from the husband and with the other pinned him to the ground and yelled into his face: “You scoundrel, you hit the lady? Dare to snatch away the chain from her? Are you to play cards? You look educated. You want to take away your wife’s jewelry, to play cards? You thief?”

Taken aback by this sudden development, the husband lay silent on the floor. Keeping his foot on his chest, Gopalam returned the gold chain to the wife.

The lady, taking the chain into her hands stood shell-shocked at the unexpected development.

Gopalam, the thief, then warned the husband – “If I come to know ever of your attempting to take away her jewelry, or beating that poor female, I shall kill you at once. Beware and behave.”

Warning thus, he started for the door.

With a streak of indescribable innocence on her face, and overweighed by the beneficence of the stranger, the wife asked in a feeble voice: “Who are you babu?”

At this dramatic question, Gopalam was startled. He muttered, “…. me, me, I am called Gopalam”, and hurriedly walked away into the darkness.

This is, of course, a story.

But it makes a nice statement: Leadership is dormant in every human being. It only needs an event to trigger it into action. To be more precise, it just needs Spandana to those inner urges and allow them to flow freely to reflect in the ultimate behavior. And even a thief is no exception to such a trigger; he only needs an event to kindle his ‘empathy’.

In our story, Gopalam came for stealing the same jewelry which the husband was demanding from his wife for gambling. But the pleading of the housewife, her concern for the welfare of the child, her very haplessness, all turned Gopalam – a thief – into a maverick-leader and generated just the opposite action from him. Hearing the pleadings of the poor housewife, he instantaneously took control of the situation; as though to uphold her righteous behavior and demands, he thrashed the husband, snatched the chain from him and returned it to the wife. That’s not the end – Gopalam even warned the husband that, if he ever dared to ask for her jewelry or to beat her, he would even kill him. That is the true leadership that emerged from nowhere. And his reaching out is quite in proportion to the situation, besides being quite appropriate to the occasion. So, even the thief who came to steal the same jewelry could exercise leadership and walk away with it.

What is the prime element behind all this? ‘Empathy’ – the inner skill that enables an individual to understand what a person is feeling and why that person is feeling as he does – is the essential element in reaching out to the people and build relations. Simply put, empathy enables a person to see an event “feelingfully”. It is that survey of the scene, particularly the plight of the poor housewife, more “feelingly” that made Gopalam to forget his objective of stealing and instead made him identify himself with her cause and, driven by that, he pinned down the husband, snatched the chain back from him and passed it on to the housewife. And while all this was happening, neither the husband nor the wife ever felt like shouting: “Thief! Thief! Help!”

Gopalam’s act of “reaching out” to the scene looked so normal to the housewife that she, unconsciously, turned an appreciative look at him. No wonder if even the husband had seen the “right” in Gopalam’s action and would have felt that he was wrong. And what else could be a better win-win outcome? Empathy, thus, made all the difference. As Daniel Goleman said, empathy is the sine qua non of all social effectiveness in working life. Empathic people are just good at recognizing and meeting the needs of others. Others perceive them as approachable. This is what is reflected in the housewife’s behavior: She does not react to him as a thief but more as a savior. Empathic people are good listeners and obviously respond well to the occasion. As Gopalam proved, empathy helps leaders generate results.

Gopalam, taking up the cause of the housewife, also proves that leadership is not permanent but becomes evident in those moments, when people get connected to each other either by a ‘value system’ or by even a ‘common feeling’. Gopalam’s act of forgetting the purpose for which he entered into the house and, instead, espousing the cause of the housewife reminds us of what Abraham Maslow said in Farther Reaches of Human Nature: “There is a self, and what I have sometimes referred to as ‘listening to the impulse voices’ means letting the self emerge. Most of us, most of the time (and especially does this apply to children, and young people), listen not to ourselves but to Mommy’s interjected voice or Daddy’s voice or to the voice of the  establishment, of the elders, of authority or of tradition.” And according to Warren Bennis, “letting the self emerge” is the essential task of leaders. And that is precisely what Gopalam did, when he ignored his objective of late night visit to the house and took up the cause of the housewife. Such acts are a near shift from ‘being’to ‘doing’, more in the spirit of ‘expressing’, than ‘providing’.

[1] Source: Adapted from a Telugu Story – “Donga”, from Tilak Kathalu, by Devarakonda Balagangadhar Tilak, Visalandhra Publications.


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