Leadership: Doing the Right Thing When Nobody is Watching

Posted on May 2, 2012

By Tarun Cherukuri:

Muralidhar Devdas Amte, fondly called Baba Amte, was born in a wealthy family and educated to be an advocate in Warora. When the sweepers of Warora challenged him to clean the gutters, he did so facing his worst fears. But the same Baba who was named ‘Abhay Sadhak’, the fearless student by Gandhiji, quivered in fright when he saw the living corpse of Tulshiram, no fingers, no clothes, with maggots all over. He went on to say, “I took up leprosy work not to help anyone, but to overcome that fear in my life. That it worked out good for others was a by-product. But the fact is I did it to overcome fear.”

Baba Amte’s life is a paragon of excellence in social service. A guiding light for those seeking purity of life filled with empathy and compassion. But more importantly, his life story brings to fore the moral courage that is very rarely found and highlighted in our world which is inundated with success stories in business, entertainment, sports and politics.

The story of CNN Hero of the year 2010, Anuradha Koirala, whose group ‘Maiti Nepal’ has rescued more than 12,000 women and girls from sex slavery, immediately reminded me of Baba Amte. Her life is also a shining example of moral courage and mental fortitude. It is commendable that CNN has taken the initiative to identify and honour such acts of selfless social service. In a world where success is mostly measured by monetary and positional achievement and leadership is lionized in fields like business, sports and politics it is indeed heartening to see recognition of leaders like Anuradha, who are working tirelessly and anonymously for social change.

These two stories of exceptional public service also raises fundamental questions on what is the DNA of exceptional leadership and at what level should young Indians bring about change in their societies?

I have always struggled to articulate my own theory of leadership. What does it mean to be a leader? Is it measured on scales of success in your professional field? Is it measured by your standing on the leadership competency models in your organization? How do we then calibrate the leadership of all the freedom fighters whose virtues of service and sacrifice hardly fit into the consulting models?

After much thought and reflection of the stories of Baba Amte and Anuradha Koirala, I would define leadership as having a strong sense of integrity to do the right thing with no personal attachment to the end result. There is no dearth of avoidable suffering and unfulfilled potential in the world around us. But very few of us possess the rare virtue, the moral courage to be true to the feeling which calls us to act in the service of those suffering and lacking opportunities to fulfil their potential.

Secondly, to everyone out there like me wondering about the nature of impact you want to make — micro or macro, take time to reflect on the life stories of Baba Amte and Anuradha Koirala. Our life will not be evaluated by the bank balances or the press coverage we accumulate. Instead, it will be evaluated by the power of eulogy written for you by those nameless and voiceless brothers and sisters you have served through your work.

I will end by quoting Baba Amte himself on his search for truth,

“I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see;
I sought my god, but my god eluded me;
And then I sought my sisters and brothers, and in then I found all three”
And I ask myself the question, “Do I have the moral courage to stand up and act for others?”

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