Prem Chadha

PRIA celebrates its 20th birthday this year, and its partnership with the IIZ/DVV has lasted just as long. Prem Chadha, Chairperson of the PRIA Governing Board was involved from the start. He looks back and asks what accounts for the success of PRIA. He explores thoroughly the role and functions of leadership.  

Founder Leader – Externally a Brand, Internally a Role Model

The events organized by PRIA on the occasion of its 20th Anniversary were in many ways splendid experiences – reflective, educative, exhilarating and elevating! I was completely overwhelmed to see such an awesome, indeed august, gathering, so enthusiastically and spontaneously become a part of the entire process. It was a matter of great satisfaction – indeed fulfilment – to witness the true spirit of participation, camaraderie and solidarity of all gathered on the occasion.

As I mentioned even then, this was the true test of how “on course” PRIA is and has been. In the ultimate analysis, our partnerships – these relationships of trust – are our true gains; and the expression of such relationships by our stakeholders is the true reward that we immensely cherish. Building and sustaining our partnerships, over time, must be a priority but they must also be retained by us, as an important core competency.

I am proud to have been associated with PRIA from its inception. In fact, it is the actualization of my relationship with Rajesh. I find it hard to separate my memories of this 20-year association with PRIA from my friendship with Rajesh – as indeed many amongst PRIA’s other friends also will. However, what is significant is that while PRIA has changed beyond recognition over this period, our friendships have not. The secret of both of these is what I consider to be the second core competency of PRIA – its ability to confront – in an authentic way – issues and not egos. This, I believe has greatly sustained PRIA and helped it move forward. The credit for bearing with me is, of course, entirely with Rajesh!

Confronting is a word that can, perhaps, sum up PRIA’s history of 20 years! Unless we confront some deep-rooted ideas, we cannot enhance learning. Unless we ourselves learn, how can we create, or adapt, or even validate knowledge – which is a basic function of any support organization like PRIA? We have confronted our partners where we saw exploitation being practised within their organizations while fighting it elsewhere; we have challenged superficial interpretation of concepts like participation, the paradox of denying hierarchy while promoting leadership, the uncharitable attitude to managing in the process of running organizations, the contradictions inherent in disempowering people while working to empower constituencies.

All of this we have attempted to do during the course of our legitimate functions of training and facilitating change. We have not established any alternative stereotypes for the simple reason that in the shifting quicksand of our times, we thought it would be totally inappropriate to establish anything. All that we can do is unbind our mind-sets a bit, so that we are able to decide in an aware manner what is appropriate for us as responsible social organizations.

We have also had to confront internal stakeholders! Internal confrontations are a creative way of choosing new paths from an amazingly diverse variety that is open to us in a fast-changing world. The struggle essentially is between the traditional and the totally uncharted routes that beckon us at critical moments when we restructure our strategies, programmes and especially our roles.

When I spoke at the inaugural function of PRIA’s Anniversary celebrations, I briefly made a point on the continued value that a genuine founder leader of any voluntary development organization can, and invariably does, make to the identity of the organization. I would like to dwell on this point a little bit more. As I said, during PRIA’s span of 20 years, it initiated four major exercises in reflection that were led or significantly contributed to by many of its stakeholders. These processes were meaningful to PRIA, in terms of restructuring and lessons learned. Most of these reflections raised widely divergent issues relevant to PRIA’s concurrent needs. If my memory doesn’t fail me, there has been one issue that has come up repeatedly – that PRIA is Rajesh-centric. I must confess that on every such occasion I have failed to understand the concern underlying this fact; because in my experience and in the history of organizations, I have found an association between the organization and its founder’s name a fairly common phenomenon. While some organizations use their founders as their intrinsic brand, others recall them with great pride.

Branding refers to conferring a distinctive identity on the services offered by an organization that helps distinguish them from those of the other similar organizations – commensals or competitors. The concept of a brand is conveyed in a variety of ways, including approaches, methodologies or even staff attitudes. Though these must be periodically modified, through self-reflection, in appropriate response to societal trends, the distinguishing stamp or brand remains the same. Branding bestows a number of benefits on the organization, on the services it offers as well as on the impact of its stakeholders. For instance, the stakeholders can assess and compare the services of one organization with those of another. This process helps them to crystallize the options before them and exercise the relevant choices in fulfilling the needs of their organization. The confidence factor is the greatest advantage that stakeholders gain from a well-known brand, particularly when they do not have enough information to make wellresearched choices. Such stakeholder confidence and the resultant commitment provide the organization with a stable platform to develop other products or services. It certainly creates pressure on the organization to consistently maintain the high standards of its services in order to sustain stakeholder commitment and support. When the organization’s leader is also its brand, the pressure to achieve and retain brand-leadership becomes even higher. Quality-conscious organizations have recognised the power of brands for many years. Even the most valuable brands can stumble if they cease to remain sensitive to stakeholder needs. This is particularly so in the present era of globalization.

As role models, leaders have an almost conclusive effect on the internal organizational values, norms and culture, and on the behaviour of the organization’s staff. Ganesh1 believes that “Leadership is the ability to mobilize a team that creates, develops, and shares a common vision. A leader should work with the team to ensure that it is on track in good and bad times alike, pitching in whenever one can, encouraging and setting an example, creating an environment where each member is happy, motivated, and is able to give her best.” Leaders, he says, develop “their own inimitable style”, based on their success experiences. A key influence is the “impact of a role model”, for which it is highly useful to study and understand successful leaders in their own unique situations.

As an example, Khanna2 presents N. R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys Technologies as a role-model leader thus: “He’s neither a transactional leader nor a transformational one. He leads neither by visionary inspiration nor by iron control. Yet, he has turned Infosys not only into a nimble star of software development, but also one of India’s most respected corporations… He leads with the subtlest of weapons: personal example.”

 “What were choices earlier are compulsions now,” asserts Murthy. This statement reveals the kind of pressures that the CEO has to bear on becoming an organization’s role model – or, for that matter, its brand. I am aware that some people may be tempted to say, yes – but he’s not an NGO leader. To them, I would recommend two things. Firstly, to hold back their judgement for a while. And secondly, to pick up only on that which they believe to be appropriate to their respective situations. Learning is usually not an all or nothing kind of a package. It can come from the most unexpected quarters and very often in the most unexpected ways – only if we can keep our minds open!

Some leadership lessons from Murthy’s style that Khanna picks out are:

  • Provide personal examples as benchmarks of behaviour

 

  • Establish a corporate philosophy to govern all strategies

 

  • Raise ethical standards for individuals and the company

 

  • Embed a learning culture to draw lessons from the past

 

  • Provide everything your people need, then set the target

Some of Murthy’s philosophy could well be applied to the voluntary sector. He commends “a multi-dimensional view of paradigms” and says that the organization’s perspective on its mission and environment come from multiple vantage points, which ensures that the organizational strategy is “synthesised not from a narrow vision, but from a wide-angle lens.” He believes from his experience that strategies distilled from “a multi-pronged understanding of the environment… – for all possible indicators – going beyond the obvious – to spin a multitude of what-if scenarios” most certainly expedite mission achievement through “stretch[ing] targets, setting distant goals and working backwards to get to them”. The company’s strategic and action plans drill down to the specifics to diagnose bottlenecks, problem and unproductive areas. There is no area that is considered unimportant.

As Infosys approaches the 21st Century, it is obvious that Murthy’s leadership will have to set ever-improving role models for his everlearning company. After all, men grow old; companies shouldn’t.

In the case of PRIA, I was quite taken aback when Rajesh decided to dump his corporate career-path, and start an NGO. With someone his age, it seemed all right to momentarily romance with idealism. Given his academic background, I thought his doing doctoral work The photo is taken from: “1982–2002 – 20 Years PRIA – Our Journey” in an NGO, or playing around with concepts like adult education or participatory research were good ways to overhaul some rather conventional approaches to corporate management. His decision to give up an almost assured corporate career and sit in a place like Sainik Farms with less than half a dozen others really hit me as weird.

In retrospect I can only admire his vision, and his courage. I value his concern that every person should have the right to say, as does the Urdu poet Jigar Muradabadi in one of his verses, “I have full right to the crop of spring”, meaning the best; though this is high idealism, the legitimate domain of a poet.

If we may, let us attempt an answer to the question: why does anyone start an organization? A simple explanation may be that the person has some concrete ideas that she or he wants to try out through the medium of such an instrument; and that the individual has a vision, which she or he wants to passionately work towards, for which an organization may be useful if not necessary. One of the concerns often voiced is that of maintaining the continuity and consistency of the organization. I presume this concern includes continuity and consistency not only of the economic or financial sustainability of the physical organization, but more importantly of its soul – the founder’s vision.

If this is true, then during the life-time of a founder there is no better guarantee than to ensure that the founder stays at the helm of the organization’s affairs. If in the process of doing so, the leader becomes a brand – like in a Gandhian organization – the sustainability of the founder’s mission can be extended even beyond her or his lifetime. This is a matter which, in my view, requires serious deliberation by all those who have a stake in the effective functioning of not-for-profit development organizations.

Often one is also confronted with what is almost flaunted as a value: countering the right of the owner to her or his vision. In many exercises, ostensibly to ensure organizational vitality, stakeholders subject the societal vision of the founder to open debate, in the name of participation. We need to examine the desirability of this. If an individual vision was the starting motive of the founder in setting up the organization, is it too much to ask that at least this vision be reserved as the founder leader’s domain? Is it not necessary to retain the leader’s motivation and stake in the well-being of the organization at a high level? What I am suggesting is that the founder’s vision may not be played around with in the name of participation. I am not suggesting that the vision must be frozen for ever, which loses its dynamism.

In the event that the vision needs to be reviewed, the onus for receiving inputs and revising it must be squarely on the leader. She or he should be able to decide, without any external coercion or pressure whatsoever, whose inputs she or he needs, and in what way the input provided is to be adapted and used. This is another matter which, in my view, needs to be deliberated upon so that some explicit consensus can be arrived at. In saying all this, I assume that the conduct of the leader is always such that she or he is seen as truly qualified to stay as the organization’s leader in the first place.

Notes

1  Ganesh, K. Follow Good Role Models, in BT leadership secrets, Business Today, August 19 2001, page 122.
2  Khanna, Sundeep. The Role Model CEO. Business Today. July 22-August 6, 1997.