Home > Musings > A year to learn and a minute to lose it!

A year to learn and a minute to lose it!

June 16, 2010

A year at Harvard raises a lot of expectations. It is 4 days since I returned and people have been asking me about what I learnt, whether it was useful, how I would use this new-found knowledge and how it would impact my work. I kept telling people that the last year was both enriching and transforming. Or so I thought. At Harvard, I acquired the soft skills of persuasion, negotiation, communication; the quantitative skills required to present myself as a development expert & the basics of development economics; the nuances of public policy, governance, and politics. And most importantly, I got an understanding of the knowledge and practice of adaptive leadership. I learnt that the ‘context’ was the most important; I learnt to differentiate between ‘motivations’ and ‘perspectives’; I learnt to frame the ‘work at the center’; I also learnt ‘going to the balcony’ and ‘getting back to the dance floor’. I learnt how leadership could mobilize group resources and how the work had to be given back to the people. All this made me feel that I could make a difference and make this world a better place. I came back fresh and energized. I was determined to ‘listen’ and not ‘jump in’. I came back confident that I could now use my new-found knowledge, skills and competences for doing things better. I thought that I was ready for the next phase of my life.

Alas, I did not realize how strong my ‘default settings’ were. While at Harvard, I was warned how easy it would be for the world to pull my strings and push me towards being the way I always was. While I had learnt that it would be challenging to negotiate and manage the baggage that I was carrying, I had foolishly assumed that I could easily do it.

It took me just a minute to realize how strong the cultural DNA is. I had hardly settled down when I was told that the Parliament Committee on Social Justice & Empowerment was visiting SVYM on a study tour. They wanted to understand how Government of India’s programs were impacting tribal development and how the support of the Government was used by SVYM. The members were MPs from different constituencies across the country and SVYM was chosen as it was considered one of India’s leading NGOs. The senior management of SVYM wanted me to be present and participate in the discussions and play the ceremonial role of the founder. Hesitantly, I allowed myself to get sucked into it.

As the presentations and the discussions progressed, I found myself getting increasingly judgmental. I could watch myself becoming uneasy with the monologue of the presenter, the unintelligent conversations and the superficiality of the situation. I found myself getting angry at the hollowness of the questions that were being asked. And then a member commented that people in SVYM should be working honorarily and not drawing salaries. Some others added that we were not a truly committed NGO as people were being paid. It was then that I lost control of myself. I jumped in and gave the people there a piece of my mind. I explained how committed people here were and how each one was working amidst such difficult circumstances. I challenged them that they would not last a week here under the situation that we operated in. I forgot all about the context; I forgot that I had to look at the perspectives and not get carried away by my understanding of the motivations of these people. I forgot that I was so absorbed in the dance floor that I could never get on to the balcony and see the questions and comments dispassionately. I was so blinded that I could not see that I was being arrogant about the sacrifices that we had made over the last 2 decades. All I wanted was the affirmation and appreciation of the people around.

Looking back at the day’s events today, I feel disheartened and sad. Disheartened because I had missed this extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate ‘true leadership’ and actually apply what I had learnt. Sad because I had lost what I had learnt and experienced over the last one year, in just a minute. As I relive the day now, I am convinced that it is not just about knowledge, experience or skills. It is more about knowing oneself and the ability to remain equanimous at all times. Maybe, that is what being spiritual is all about. So much to learn and so little time…


Categories: Musings
  1. Arun Karpur
    June 18, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Balu: As you demonstrated in your experience – theory is easier in class rooms but in reality it is not easy to apply it in the same manner as it is taught. On being judgmental of situation, I think the person raked your passion – a spot so tender and delicate that any one would cry out loud. Not to do so is a superhuman capacity and bringing analytical capacities at that moment is just unimaginable. I am not a student of leadership or public policy, but I say this for sure that your ability to look at this situation with honesty is the starting point of the superhuman manifestation. All these days you were running an NGO and now with Harvard education you are expected to run an idea of an academician running a practitioners’ world – tough it is. And this is the gap that you have been talking about – you are experiencing this first hand. Theory and practice and two different virtual systems, you are at the helm of both. But who better than an honest person like you. Your spiritual courage will help you smoothen this rough divide and you can enlighten the academic community about ‘the not so realistic theories.’ Academia can learn a lot from your experiences as you are transparent as water in your reflections that one can feel to have lived the same themselves. Continue the fabulous post-Harvard journey and let the world learn from your experiences about things one could not because of sheer lack of courage and sometimes the passion!

  2. MANSA
    June 17, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Hi Balu,
    You are being so honest. Every article that you present here, talks directly with our minds…asking the same questions!!! Can I ever balance this type of situation. Can we ever come out of our minds and see things with a clear mind. Your experiences are thought provoking lessons for all of us. You make us feel to think at our own levels… !!!

  3. Akhilesh Tiwari
    June 17, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for sharing your reflections Balu Sir. I see in your experience my own condition! Your reflection has strengthened my understanding that it is not merely intellectual ideals that we learn from the Shastras, – eastern or western that transform us but a radical change in consciousness. That is why the need for Yoga! Thank you once again for this wonderful piece! Akhilesh

  4. June 17, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Dear Dr.R.B, this is the tragedy/comedy of every self-tuning person.

    A lot of time and energy is lost in perfecting oneself and very marginal time becomes effectively useful- to one’s self as also to the target audience.

    Lucky are those who hardly introspect or bother to self-tune, they work on cannon-principle,fire and forget till next ignition!!

  5. Ashish
    June 17, 2010 at 7:37 am


    Heifetz would actually be proud right now of you and tell you – ‘You are making progress’. This ability to go to balcony and recognise problem at dance floor, feel the tension and ever evolving inconclusive debates in the mind are all essential part of our and community’s growth. I would like to believe that.

    Look forward to talking to you soon.


  6. June 16, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Thanks balu for sharing your thoughts with brutal honesty! I am learning..

  7. June 16, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    Dear Sir,

    Though on one hand we learn and preach several things, it does require a great deal of courage to look at ourselves and be brutally critical. And even more courage to make amends. Thanks for the post, could draw a few similarities in my experiences with GRID and IViL.


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