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The founder’s dilemma!

June 6, 2010

It is now more than a year since I laid down the office of the President and CEO at SVYM. When I founded SVYM in 1984, I had never imagined that it would shape into a leading development NGO in Karnataka. At that time, all that I was interested in was rural reconstruction and ensuring that millions of rural Indians have access to cost-effective, rational and ethical medical care. Over time, the organization grew into what it is today and we now work all over the state in a multitude of development projects.

Most of my thinking and action have been led by the inspiration that I drew from Swami Vivekananda and his teachings. Founding the organization was a personal journey for me – journey of trying to seek and find myself. The initial 15 years were one of the best in my life. I felt completely guided by a strong and powerful inner voice and was driven by faith and a sense of self-surrender. Rural and tribal development was at the center of my work and existence. All this gradually slipped away and ‘I’ came to occupy the center of my work. Suddenly it was not about people or about communities that I worked with; it was all about me. This was when I felt compelled to move away and let go. Vivekananda always spoke of leading with the attitude of a ‘servant’, but here I was, seeking so much affirmation from colleagues and society. My identity was all about my role and responsibility within the organizational context.

Over the last 5 years, I started to slowly let go and last year, after 25 years of being at the helm of affairs, I laid down the office of President & CEO. This meant that I no longer had any formal authority or role and had let go off all governance, operational, tactical and strategic responsibilities. All this seemed easy and I felt ‘superior’ that I could manage it. Little did I realize that it was easier said than done! After a few weeks, the restlessness began. I started to miss the everyday action – the crisis and the tensions, the little successes and the joys, the interaction with the community, the media glare and the sense of recognition that comes with it. And then there was the silence from the new team now leading and governing the organization. I felt so crushed, marginalized and irrelevant. Somehow, what should have been a proud moment for me turned into one of insecurity and feeling worthless.

It soon dawned on me that I was only fooling myself when I told the world that I had let go. I had only let go of the superficial titles that I had held. Deep down, I was still holding on. I had become so identified with my roles that I had no identity beyond them. This left me so empty and insecure that it terrified me. It also shook me and woke me to the reality of what a true ‘spiritual journey’ meant. I was so far away that it seemed like I had not yet taken the first step. This is when it dawned on me that leadership for me was not about leading or following; it was not even about living my dream. To me, it is all about finding my ‘true self’. It is about re-discovering what I set out to do 25 years ago. It is all about working with communities with no thought about the rewards or the risks. It is about keeping the community always at the center of my work and actions and fading away quietly at the appropriate time. It is all about surrendering myself to the ‘higher power’ guiding me and resting in the fact that I am only an instrument chosen to do my bit. And finally, it is about not taking myself too seriously!

As I now prepare myself for the uncertainty of my return to Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, I find it both joyous and strenuous to think about how it will all turn out to be. Many of my colleagues at the Hauser Center for Non-profits (at Harvard University) with whom I discussed these issues, seemed convinced that it would never work. They could not think of any NGO wherein a founder had laid down all formal office and started to work with them in a lesser operational role. As a dispassionate observer, I find myself vacillating between letting myself be completely guided and wanting to take control of my future. At times, the uncertainty of the future excites and challenges me and at other times, leaves me worried and anxious. There are times when I feel content with the knowledge that I am an instrument that will be ‘led’ to do what is needed, but there are also times when I feel the urge to go out there and feed the hunger of my ‘self’. How this journey will unfold is left to anybody’s guess but I am at least certain that it will be a great learning and possibly a humbling experience for me.


Categories: Musings
  1. chandra prakash
    June 7, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Dear Dr.Balu, I think full time teaching assignment, may be at VILD could be a way out. You have so much to share, if not [immediately] shape in the field of NGO promotion and governance.

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