Bigger Than Me: Leaders who look beyond themselves to scale their ideas
What does it take for a leader's vision to reach its maximum potential?
Mahatma Gandhi didn’t kindle panic and fear in the mighty British empire only because he was a determined man on the march; it was also because swayed a massive, fragmented sub-continent of millions to march with him.
Every marcher he rallied was persistent and unafraid in the face a staunch oppressor. Without this growing strength and purpose inspired in each individual, there would have been no collective freedom struggle fought and won--only a lone man in a loincloth. We walked to freedom because Gandhi was one the most inspiring visionaries that the world has ever seen. And yet, Jawaharlal Nehru would describe Gandhi’s vision to be “delightfully vague” - he never planted a singular vision in the hearts of his followers.
Were they onto something here?
What if a leader’s comprehension and understanding of the problem only scratches the surface? Even as Gandhi was leading people in the Dandi March, their united front against the British was a collection of individual dreams of freedom. Like the little girl in front of Gandhi from the iconic sculpture in Delhi--what was she dreaming of? The call for Indian Independence situated many sub-visions within it. Without the richness of these, the freedom movement couldn’t have gained the full support and colour of the people that ultimately won India from the British.
Now picture a gritty social entrepreneur, someone that adeptly wields multiple strategies that work at directly solving a mountainous problem. However, we have seen time and again, and accepted, that social issues - especially the deeply entrenching ones that call for our maximum attention - are not issues humanly fixable by one person. So what role then, do these leaders play in engineering their fix?
Two social entrepreneurs musing on this like any other visionary, at pivotal points in their journey, arrived at a question: What if a leader’s understanding of the problem is only one dimension of it? Would that constricted worldview also constrict the solution to a massive problem? In which case the march towards change would suffer in its very infancy and we wouldn’t even know it.
Champions over Consultants
Gandhi is a particular favourite with recently- minted Ashoka Fellow Sriram Kuchimanchi, who began his transformational journey from a cubicled, glass-walled corporate office in the US. His company didn’t care much about sustainability and its people tossed plastic cups and spoons mindlessly into trash cans day after day. This bothered Sriram as an earnest young employee who wanted to actively do something about the environmentally unsustainable practices in his office. Sriram tried persuading people not to use plastic cutlery at events and organised meetings about this by the coffee machine - all to no avail. This puzzled him because he knew that his colleagues weren’t people who were blind to the media and academic mentions of the sweeping effects of climate change. They most definitely weren’t people that wanted to actively damage the environment. It then struck Sriram--it wasn’t enough for people to recognise something. They needed to understand it and shape their own unique perspective around it to want to change it.
So Sriram quit his 9-to-5 corporate role in the US to start Smarter Dharma in Bangalore. Smarter Dharma works with companies that have woken up to the existence of the ‘green movement’ and the benefits of adopting environment-friendly and ethical daily operations. The Smarter Dharma team, along with the client company, performs three different types of audits on the company: infrastructure, people, and processes. Instead of then creating a perfunctory list, the team works with a champion team from within the company to identify what their specific pain points and priorities are, and what they would like to see change first. Smarter Dharma’s team and the champion team then together outline a list of changes in all three arenas - infrastructural changes, behavioural changes and revamping processes altogether - that address the priorities of the company.
The champion team within the organisation then executes these changes and the process of arriving at them spreads them throughout the organisation - and in some cases even letting some changemaking seep into the consumers. Smarter Dharma’s involvement becomes minimal once the champion team takes complete ownership and makes the changes sustainable. Staff in companies have noticed their capital costs and maintenance costs decreasing, an increasing influx of business from green-conscious customers, more satisfied and productive workers.
India’s oldest builders, Mittal Builders, didn’t turn every one of their operations green with Sriram because turning green was a thing. They did it because they saw how it affected their business directly and wanted to do something about it. Sriram has also worked with Bangalore’s favourite mom-and-pop dosa chain Adigas, where “greening” wasn’t some opaque management decision. It happened because Kumar, a manager at one of the restaurants took the initiative to inform the senior management that the sustainability measures adopted by his champion branch team should spread across Adigas as a chain. What were some of these improvements? Like switching to power-efficient lights, changing the way trash is disposed or reducing water wastage in the outlets.
In effect, to be green is now Adiga’s own personal commitment. Smarter Dharma understands that the only way to create long-term sustainable change is to make the company a changemaker company so that they take it up on their own. “You cannot give this process to us; you will have to internalise it; that’s that only way it will become sustainable and scalable” Sriram would say to his clients. And they followed suit.
Citizens as Entrepreneurs
Old Bangaloreans often miss their city. It’s not because they moved out. It’s because in a constant choke-hold of bad traffic, over-population and lakes frothing to their brim, they can barely recognise it. Meera K is one of them, who knew that she couldn’t launch a campaign of cleaning every lake in the city and stopping every illegal construction by herself. How could she even begin to know about every transgression in the city, when individually conducting investigations wasn’t a feasible option.
Newspapers focused on national news on their front pages, events that an average citizen had no direct control over. She knew there were other people like her, that were craving to dig out local news and problems that she alone couldn’t discover. Meera also knew that these people that were like her wanted to bring these problems to everyone’s attention and draw others in to help solve them. And so began Citizen Matters, a community news platform for and by citizens, that provides them with the critical information they need to drive change in their communities. Even as a local problem rears its head, a concerned citizen pulls it out from the roots, reaches out to Citizen Matters and finds that there are more like her wanting to tackle this problem.
They raise the funds for an investigative and analytic operation on the problem, execute it through Citizen Matters that then publishes the information through well-written articles. Citizens read these news items with their morning coffee and realise that they’ve seen these problems around them too and that now someone’s done something about them. Someone like them. A critical few put down their coffee tumbler and set out to build their team of changemakers towards a solution. Their success stories make their way back into Citizen Matters.
Meera speaks of three concentric circles in a city. There are those people in the first circle - the inner circle that sees problems and is intent on doing something to solve them. A woman saw a lake gradually choking and dying outside her window and she set to work immediately. Citizen Matters enabled her to not just solve the problem she saw, but bring in people from circle two into circle one. Circle two has citizens that would want to do something about existing problems, but haven’t done anything yet. Other citizens in Bangalore were equally frustrated and indignant at how the lakes were clogging and spluttering but didn’t know where to start. They didn’t realise that there were people just like them who were contributing to the solution in a specific way.
Citizen Matters helped them spot and get answers and contributions to these issues, propelling them into circle one. A flurry of articles came out, one after another - on how citizens could work together on reviving their local lakes, on how the Bangalore Municipality was being defunct in this regard and so on. In circle three, however, there are people that neither see or feel these problems - they have become numb to them. Yet, the community around Citizen Matters hopes that the next time people from Circle three walk past their local lake that’s frothing over from years of abuse and neglect, they will feel compelled to journey to Circle two, or even one, empowered by the platform to actually impact their surroundings.
“We do not publish campaigns or take sides.” Meera said, when asked what their opinion was on the construction of a new flyover - a heated debate in the city then. No one person possesses complete information and so no one person can or should pass the verdict on what should be done to our city, she believes. It really is only in the city, in each of its citizens, to recognise its collective pain points and find a joint vision to eliminate them.
It’s up to EACH of us
Our leaders of the new, complex world still need to be visionaries. We need these visionaries to inspire crowds to be an army of visionaries themselves.
Sriram could have been telling clueless companies off for their shoddy environmental practices, or the ‘ten right ways to go green’. Instead, he had companies define their why and how to sustainability. He now has companies and their staff from all ranks, understanding and spreading processes and behaviours that are more sustainable, to as many companies across the country as they can. Meera could have advocated for fourteen lake clean-ups, stopped five illegal and non-zonal-compliant constructions and called it a day for her city. Instead, she had citizens weed out their own problems -- not five or fourteen, but multitudes-- and gather other citizens, while inspiring groups from other cities in the country to do so as well.
Gandhi could have written out eloquent memorandums to the British Raj, defining his powerful vision for freedom and negotiated terms from a perhaps influential position for decades. Instead, he rallied a subcontinent of second-class citizens to demand their collective freedom.
People that change the world - the people we need more than ever now, are envisioning a world that changes itself. And they know exactly who to count on.