Pulling those strings

The year was 2008. It was a cold winter in the heart of London. I was spending a lonely weekend in my hostel room. When suddenly the contents of an email warmed the cockles of my heart. It was Shashank- a young undergraduate student of mine. He had sent me the pdf version of the annual college students’ magazine Sushruta, as an email attachment.

Shashank was the Student Editor of the magazine that year. And I was the teacher incharge of the magazine. As circumstances turned out, my Fellowship in the UK meant that I couldn’t be in Sevagram on site to help with the Students’ Council activities that year. But Shashank and I continued to brainstorm and exchange ideas on email, and work on editing the proofs online. A few instructions about whom to contact for help with printing, editing and finance set the task on track. Shashank was brilliant and forever brimming with ideas. He had managed to put together a creative team of enthusiastic students, and the magazine could be released in record time. It was an extremely professional endeavour by the students. After the magazine release, I continued to get accolades from my colleagues about how attractive that year’s edition was. In all honesty, I there was not much I did.

As I read Shashank’s editorial in the magazine, I smiled. He wrote that as teacher incharge, I had given the student team what they needed most: freedom!

It is a line that stayed with me long after that day. It has served as a wake-up call on several occasions.

I have the tendency to be a perfectionist which keeps work piling on my desk. I cannot stand sub-standard shabby end products. And this quest for perfection often ended with my being unable to delegate work to subordinates.

I eventually learnt the hard way- reflecting on my many flaws- when the task of organizing a national conference fell on my inexperienced shoulders. Thankfully I had almost a year to prepare mentally for the task, when I was able to wipe out several cobwebs in my mind. Consciously learning to delegate, being forthright and clearly stating what I wanted, listening respectfully to opinions different from mine, and trusting people- these were some of the many lessons in team work that I learnt that year.

Delegation requires trusting someone’s competence. It doesn’t come easily, but needs conscious practice. I doubt if I would have given complete freedom to a student who I didn’t trust creatively. When working with beginners, there is a great deal more of hand-holding and more frequent nudging.  Another component which affects the final quality of the product is communication. When handing over a task, if the requirements are clearly spelled out at first instance, and if the communication lines are open, working is much easier.

I have had to work with several kinds of students on their dissertations. Not many have had an easy time with me. Communication gaps make the process painful. Two-way dialogues are not easy to establish. But there is one particular student I remember- Yvonne. She would be there at my door every week. With her work and her questions for me ready. Working together on her dissertation was a pleasure. I knew exactly where she was placed at each moment. With most others, even getting them to show up on designated dates is tough.

And then there is the issue of working with seniors of all kinds. Most cannot display trust. There is repeated interference, which kills the joy of working creatively. Micromanagers rule- apparently delegating, but then, relentlessly breathing over our necks. There is lack of communication and no chance at arriving at a consensus, and worse, mega ego hassles. The thin line between assertiveness and aggressiveness is often blurred.

I like the metaphor of a kite that my mentor often uses. Leadership is the art of knowing when to tug the kite strings and when to loosen them. And then savour the pleasure of seeing them fly high. Teams flourish when they are trusted, when individuality is respected. When responsibility to take decisions is handed down, it helps people grow and function independently. Else there is no fun in getting your toes trampled after burning the midnight oil. The fizz of working for bulls in china-shops dies down pretty fast.

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