“It often intrigues me to think of how much it takes to be known as a good leader and a trusted role model!”, I wondered aloud in front my confidante who had a habit of reading my mind without my permission many a times. “You don’t have to go far…look at everything you’ve done in your own life till now, and see all that it has taught you”, he said before I could drift off into my own world of thought.
He was right indeed. Had I not had the experiences of the Girl Guides, the hardships behind the attainment of the International Award for Young People (I.A.Y.P) Gold medal, the Contingent leader opportunity in College, Volunteer for the International Student Association (V.I.S.A) Leader training and the prestigious title of the Event Coordinator for the Indian Student Association (ISA) at the Georgia State University, I would not be what I am today. Life would have been so disastrously different that it almost makes me cringe when I think of the possible alternative life that I steered away from.
This might be a long read, but I promise you wont regret it by the time you reach the end. It was a long thought process that was triggered in my head, and in order to do justice to it, I had to give it a justifiable lexical illustration. My leadership experience dates back to 1999 when I was appointed as the Patrol Leader for Girl Guides. At the age of 10, there was little that I knew about handling teams and being responsible for the work delegated to the 4 different teams under my leadership. Being one amongst the eldest girls in the Girlguiding group, who held a proficiency grade in academics, I fell bait to the teachers for this position.
My duties translated into talking with my teams and coming to an agreement of how we were going to present at the chart making competitions; deciding collectively on the recipes for field cooking; assigning small tasks to each one to ensure that everybody was working towards the same results simultaneously; instilling the feeling of competition with the other teams, and one of the most responsible duties – bridging the gap between the supervisor and the teams. Every team had to devise a different way of working and because I was required to ensure a smooth running of this process, I found myself being pulled into each team’s group discussion.
Besides being guided by my supervisor I used to engage in long conversations with my parents at the dinner table regarding my plan of action. Having had the experience of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides behind them, they were able to guide me brilliantly and taught me a lot of invaluable lessons for life such as the importance of time management, effective delegation of work, multi-tasking and enhanced communication skills. I learnt the pragmatic effects of these teachings through my experiences, of course, but the knowledge of these concepts helped me become more methodical and independent.
After the exemplary performance of my teams in the Girl Guide camps, I was re-elected as a Patrol leader in 2000 to own this title till 2002. This gave me ample time to improve on my shortcomings and discover my latent talent of leadership that I carried in my genes.The International Award for Young People (I.A.Y.P.) under the guidance of the Duke of Edinburgh came as a pleasant opportunity my way in 2004. The achievement of this award demanded an enthusiastic commitment in social work, physical activity, outstanding skill, physical sport, outdoor adventure activities, and an additional residential project, for the completion of the advance gold medal. Read more about this program here.
All the camps that were included in this program instilled a strong sense of teamwork, camaraderie between strangers, cooperation and coordination, presentations, and the like. The stress-related activities were undertaken after heavy doses of motivational speeches and stories of great leaders. Even though I was not assigned the title of a leader, this experience helped me to shape my personality, become a tolerant member of the team, work with others of different calibers and work my way up to being the only winner of the Gold medal of I.A.Y.P in my high school. Having had the prior experience of working with other students as the Patrol Leader of Girl Guides, I always had an upper hand in teams because of the insightful stories and lessons I could share with my team members.
Well versed with all the tasks and duties that a responsible leadership must entail and be characterized with, I was ready to accept the position of the Cultural Secretary of the Sophia College of Women in India in 2009. The main duties that this post brought along with it included the handling of 15 odd teams in each of the fields of Fine Arts, Liberal Arts and Performing Arts. It was through the methodical planning of the Cultural Secretary and her committee of 3 others that the college was represented in the cultural festivals of other colleges.
My responsibilities comprised of safeguarding the college’s name and reputation, preparing a competitive contingent to ensure the best performance from the college, coordinating the activities of various teams for smooth running of the festival and effective stress management amongst my team members to keep them calm and optimistic in the face of defeat. I would often find myself caught between too many ideas provided by my committee and was required to make a decision that worked best for all. These times were perhaps the worst of all duties since even though the majority rejoiced; there was always a minority that was not happy with certain decisions.
The Volunteer for International Students Association (V.I.S.A) leadership experience, in August 2012 introduced a new set of challenges. Click here to know more. Likewise, I was responsible for 20 international students who joined the Georgia State University in Fall 2012. I was the face of Georgia State University (GSU) and their first friend from college. While I carried the reputation of the college on my shoulders, I had also agreed to make each one of them feel important and needed in this new country. We were 16 V.I.S.A leaders who had to take care of 350 new international students from across the world.
The opportunity to deal with multicultural backgrounds was overwhelming at times. Even though we had received initial training about the hows, whys and whats that the new students generally wonder about, there were certain challenges like the linguistic barrier, which had to be faced at the moment. Time management was the key here, as I had to keep pace with my 15 other leader peers to ensure the easy going of the procedures.
Not only was it important to engage in communication between the students and myself, but it was also my duty to encourage friendship between them. A new international student myself, I was aware of the apprehensions that many students carry with them. It was sometimes stressful to break certain notions about America that they had brought along with them and introduce them to the new way of life in Atlanta, which was to serve as their home for the next few years.
GSU also blessed me with the opportunity to become the Event Co- coordinator of the Indian Student Association (ISA) in 2012. Passionate about India’s rich culture, I was determined to showcase as much of India as I could to those who knew little or nothing about my home country. This excitement and determination brought along a ceaseless list of duties with it, and as the event coordinator for the organization, I had to shape a lot of my ideas according to the resources available. Visit our official ISA website through this link.
As a student run and governed organization, it was my moral duty to make sure that the different departments such as those of funding, advertising, marketing, etc. were on good terms with each other to facilitate a smooth running of the plans and ideas. The prior experience of being a volunteer for the events the previous year worked to my advantage and also assigned me the importance as “the-one-who-knows-best”. Since the events were culture-based, there were multiple definitions of the same. There were numerous sessions of brainstorming with the ISA committee, which fostered harmony and goodwill between us despite our differences. Allocation of resources and delegation of duties was one of the most challenging parts of this position as there was no room for mistakes.
This experience brought along a silver lining to my interests and also helped me discover my interest in event planning, which I had not indulged into till now. It helped me learn about my strengths and weaknesses, and also taught me the true meaning of team spirit.
Lessons I learnt on the way…
From the wide range of experiences that I have been fortunate enough to learn from, my leadership style best follows the participative style as proposed by Yetton and Vroom (as cited by Boleman and Deal, 2008). I am more of a team worker rather than an independent leader. I strongly believe in two heads being better than one, thus, resulting in the best when there is contribution from more than one person. According to me, treating the subordinates with equality, frank yet sensitive conversations, and striking goodwill with all are the key elements in working harmoniously towards a common goal. It is thus very important to make those, who work under the leader and for the leader, feel respected and important for their invaluable efforts. It is only once the workforce feels one with the leader, can it strive to attain the best results.
As important as it is to keep the internal structure strong with one’s effective leadership skills, I also believe that it is equally important to keep the public happy externally. This stems from my personal experiences catering to public at all times. As a leader, I prefer to consult extensively with my sub-ordinates, colleagues, peers, seniors, supervisors and/ or managers before making important decisions. I personally believe that when a leader strives to work for a group of people, it is very important that he/she treats the target audience as priority. This not only ensures a good quality and well-informed output but also helps the leader to win the hearts of his/her people.
The other reason that I prefer the participative style is because of the information flow from different directions. I am taking the liberty to equate a leader with a decision maker and hence feel that it is very important that a decision is made with full research done on the part of the decision-maker. The different inputs provided by the subordinates can add a new meaning to the project at hand, and, generate and nurture a group identity amongst members. It was while I was getting trained for my Girl Guide camp that I realized the importance of group activities like these. In order to serve a population that outnumbers the number of people making a decision, it is almost mandatory to consider all the possible ways in which the public psyche can shape itself with respect to the decision made. There is no way better than a good brainstorming session with a few people, who can sit and focus their thoughts on one subject at hand. With the various different backgrounds that people hail from, each one imbibes his/her own lessons from their experiences, which can enhance the reservoir of knowledge and resources when a well-informed decision is to be made.
The experience of the Cultural Secretary and the Event Coordinator, for example, taught me that participation of the subordinates is not needed in all the small decisions that the committee is required to make, and that a recurrent and repeated dependence on them, might lead them to question the role of the leader. It is hence important to draw a line between a group decision and group consultation process. As much of collaborative decision-making that may be advocated, these experiences also made me realize how important it is to be able to show independence of thought and action, in order to respect each other’s position in the organization and be understood as a leader with a spine. The participation of the peripheral influences definitely depends on the situation and a good leader should be able to make that distinction. I learnt this lesson the hard way when in retrospection; I realized that my leadership had been compromised a little to favor friends. Better late than never, relationships tread a sensitive path and this is yet another challenge for a leader to keep the personal and professional lives separate from each other.
Just like every coin has two sides, with all the good points and advantages, comes a set of disadvantages exclusive to the chosen approach of working. Similarly, the adoption of the participative style revealed its own weaknesses to me over time. As time involving as this approach is, it also taught me that those included in the process sometimes feel burdened to devote so much time to issues that they care little for. This approach also spelt out that I surrender some of my control in order to let the others take the floor and be assertive in their views. It was definitely helpful to get insights into every ones mind and learn from their contributions, but a group of people with contradictions can be a noisy affair with unnecessary cacophony – a frequent occurring during the planning of events, which translated into distractions from the main focus, people losing their temper and misunderstanding my intentions when I took a call against some ideas. Efforts to reconcile teams with a fair and just decision put me in a fix where in I was divided between two or more contradicting views, displaying a leaders weakness.
On a more positive note, these sessions taught me how to prepare myself in advance for such meetings. It took me about 4-5 meetings to learn the right way to handle such situations and at time be assertive as a leader. It helped to lay down some ground rules at the beginning of the meetings, do some initial communication with each member to get an idea of their mindset, justifiably take decisions independently when the participation of everyone was redundant. Answerability and legitimate explanations for a decision won me the goodwill of many of my team members, which made it easy to work through a plan. In-detail information was collected prior to any brainstorming sessions to avoid loose ends in conversations. Being methodical and calculative is what I learnt out of every unruly situation.
Success comes to those who know how to manage the power of their position is what I learnt from my experiences and effective management is one of the most challenging tasks that a leader must get right. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but in order to be worthy of that crown, the head has to truly deserve it – a beautiful achievement that I carry with my name!