A Million Leaders

(This article was first published at the IIMB Leadership Summit – IIMBue 2016)

As Manoj sat down for the interview, I could not help marvelling at his spotless and crisp attire, the pens neatly lined in his pocket along with the latest Samsung Edge phone. It didn’t fit the image of a small time civil contractor in my head, till I heard his life story.

He had arrived in Mumbai at the tender age of 17, leaving behind an impoverished life in village. He started out as a helper at a construction site, earning a pittance, living and working in extremely harsh conditions. However, he saw the possibilities of growth and was determined to better his life. He rigorously learned the skills, in time moving to better work to becoming a businessman and hiring his own workers. As he told me how well he is doing now, the glint in his eyes matched the gold chains he was wearing!

Manoj was not the only one. In rural India, smaller towns and urban slums this story keeps repeating. Call it forced entrepreneurship or the realities of thriving in our country – millions of leaders emerge just trying to better their lot.

Informal economy accounts for nearly 80 percent of the workforce in India producing almost half the output in the country. However, from the outset the odds are stacked against people working in the informal economy. They face constraints of education, training, financial resources or any public support structure. Only people with tremendous leadership skills are able to conquer the insurmountable challenges and climb the social and economic ladder. There are valuable leadership principles to be gleaned from them.

Collaboration over competition – Their network of people is all they have. We may term their ability to find solutions for everything as ‘Jugaad’ but it is actually the exchange of time and skills in their network that fuels this ability. The fluid, agile structure of work may well be the future of our workplaces as we move towards a highly networked knowledge economy.

Relationship over processes – We often receive the highest level of respect, attention and responsibility from the neighbourhood migrant shop owner or our trusted carpenter or our help. The contractor painting my house shifted my furniture from the old house without batting an eyelid! This is without any training on ‘soft skills’. One can wonder at the possibilities if a larger pool was actually trained and empowered.

Lifelong learning – Education and training are for the privileged in our country. For the rest it’s a steep learning curve, gargantuan effort all on their own. This is what millions of workers in the informal economy are doing. They learn skills on the job and have to keep learning to keep pace with the rapid changes happening all around.

So next time we look at that contractor, or the migrant shopkeeper or are lucky enough to meet a woman who starts a Self Help Group in a village – remember we have met a leader, one in a million!

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