At The Helm

by | Nov 22, 2021

When Anupama, the India Fellow program’s Co-Founder, asked for someone to volunteer to be the group leader before we head to a village, I did what I always do—immediately smiled at someone else and gave them an encouraging nod. We were standing outside our hostel at Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Udaipur, huddled in small groups of five for our first rural immersion opportunity. I don’t tend to typically volunteer first; if I volunteer at all, it is after observing others perform the task first to grasp more fully what is expected of me.

But after the smile-and-nod routine with everybody in the group, I realised that nobody was coming forward. In a split-second decision, I found myself stepping ahead. I was going to be the leader for my co-fellows’ and I’s first day in Kadaar*, a small village near Udaipur. 

The expectations were quickly outlined: taking care of everyone’s well-being, sticking to the brief for the day, budgeting expenses and keeping track of our time. As soon as the money as per our daily budget was handed to us, we were off, understandably excited for this day out.

Our first conversation in the auto-rickshaw as we rattled towards our destination helped establish that all of us, in some capacity or another, had been to a village before. This was not going to be our first time in rural India, but most definitely our first time in Kadaar. This information made me feel like we were all on a relatively equal footing when it came to navigating this experience – but it was with pleasant surprise that it was a far more humbling time. 

I was equating an equal footing with a degree of sameness, I realised. Instead, I was being presented with an opportunity to constantly learn from my co-fellows, not just to learn with them. Someone on the team was able to find a groove of conversations better with the people in Kadaar because he could comprehend and speak basic Marwari, a skill he’d picked up by listening to his grandmothers as a child.

Another fellow processed written information around us quickly, marrying it with her existing knowledge of rural governance and organisation. One was able to draw on his vast educational and personal knowledge of land and farming to talk to us about the kind of crops that were growing in front of us, helped us navigate canals to find larger lakes, grinding up some soapstone and roasting bhutta along the way.

Another fellow broadened what I was looking at, by commenting on the varied architectural styles we saw in the homes, shops and temples that lined the winding village roads. And upon this realisation, I began to feel comfortable expressing ignorance around them.

I realised that my knowledge resources don’t just have to be people in authority, whether a professor in class or a researcher in a book—I was being offered so many perspectives, mine to lap up.

In turn, they helped create an incredibly patient and warm learning atmosphere. I was happy to take a step back, let others lead in situations where they showed more familiarity and ease, and in turn ask them questions about their processes instead—trying to understand the whys as much as the whats. 

The question of what leadership looks like has remained. My initial conceptualisation of a leader was someone who, if not making all the final calls, was at least at the forefront of decision-making. The role I found myself wanting to play, though, was different. As a leader, I was happy to take on the load of logistics—keeping track of our expenses, bus schedules, our deadline—so that other people didn’t have to keep checking their phones for the time or worry about missing the last bus. 

Another role I found myself playing was reminding people that decisions needed to be made, inviting dialogue and coming to a conclusion that has everyone on the same page. If we knew the last bus to ran from the main chowrah in Kadaar between 4 and 4:30, I made it a point to check with everybody at 3:30 what we’d like to do—whether that involved walking back to the chowrah, waiting for a bus at a stop that saw more infrequent buses, trying to arrange for shared auto or asking for a lift. It was to ensue that we were all able to decide together depending on everyone’s degrees of tiredness, desire to stay in the village longer and other such factors.

I found this to be a more effective way to both understand and resolve conflicting interests within the group—like whether or not to stay at one lake, walk to the other, or spend some time in the village itself; or asking ourselves what each of us made of the idea of “chilling”.

But the role I enjoyed playing the most in my version of leadership was holding forum. I wanted us, from time to time, to take stock of what we were thinking, observing and feeling throughout the day to build on the kinds of questions we had begun to explore in the classroom itself—what were the stereotypes we had carried into this visit? What were the ways this village was unlike the ones we’ve visited before in our lives? What are some social norms that we can see around us? What were we thinking and feeling about this day?

The goal of these open-ended questions was not that I was holding some kind of correct answer that I was interrogating my team on. I asked questions to invite answers, to hold that reflective space for all of us. I am unsure if there can be a one-size-fits-all kind of approach to leadership. But challenging myself this time paid off. It was gratifying to hear, in feedback from my team, that this was a format that seemed to work at large for all of us, at least on this first day in Kadaar.

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality

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