Organizational Leadership

“Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well”-Dwight D. Eisenhower

Last week Prof David Peters from Johns Hopkins University (JHU) was in our institute, addressing our faculty members for a short while. As an established public health practitioner, overseeing his division of 140 plus researchers and academicians with research network and collaborations across most countries in the world, he took up an impromptu session on career building with our faculty members at a mere notice of 5 minutes.

Through an informal discussion, Dr Peters examined the current level of research engagement in each faculty, where they wished to see themselves in five years and the opportunities and support they would need to do so including self work. He also helped acknowledge the challenges in our systems and ways to deal with them. These are not aspects that our faculty is unaware of, and given that solutions in the context of JHU may be quite different from our own indigenous solutions, there is always a scope for deeper introspection. However, the leadership quality he demonstrated was impressive. For the two hours, he held everyone’s attention. The engagement was participatory and there was an element of mentorship without being patronizing. Nor did he express his mastery over any particular area. He was more facilitative than overbearing.

The next day, the new Director of our institute (another seasoned public health practitioner) sat down with all faculty members and helped them devise a personal research plan, based on each person’s training and expertise, interests and where they wished to reach in some year’s time. There was an accountability plan as well along with it, each faculty was asked to write milestones, deliverables albeit self assessed and self proposed. I have worked in many organizations, however, this was the first time I came across a true leadership driven activity where a career plan was being devised for individual member with an accountability framework. I certainly hope that a supporting and enabling environment is provided to fulfill these individual goals. Our institute is small with a small team of faculty, hence face to face meetings, individual plans may work. In bigger groups, especially where there are 140 researchers involved, a lot is derived by setting an example that trickles down from top to bottom. More like stewardship that has been explained in a number of journal articles.

It’s not always about salary increments and benefits. Sometimes employees stay back in an organization because of self and career development plans that override benefits. Leadership involves looking outside oneself, creating an atmosphere for team members to rise and also be accountable for their actions, while mentoring them throughout. Most importantly, a leader understands the practical realities of their team members, resources, limitations and designs future plans accordingly.

  • How important is it for organization leaders to have social interactions with their colleagues?

“Sometimes you have to take a break from being the kind of boss that’s always trying to teach people things. Sometimes you just have to be the boss of dancing”.-Michael Scott, The Office

The answer to some extent lies in a mutual attitude. From my personal experience, Directors of institutes who had a regular faculty and staff meeting with their colleagues over a cup of tea had greater commitment from employees to solve organizational issues in a collective way. Not just issues, but volunteering in organizational activities also rose.

  • How important is it to reiterate organization values amongst the employees?

“Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head”.- Euripedes

There is no harm in reiterating organizational values like quality, accountability and trust at employee meetings. However, the leadership should also demonstrate these values amply before harping about them. Sometimes honesty goes a long way, real life stories also help where the leadership may explain that they set out to achieve something and were unable to, however they learnt something more important in that process. Being a leader doesn’t mean 100% success rate, it just means that one is able to cope with life in a much better way.

  • People management vs time management

“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” –Theodore Roosevelt

The answer is in making an impact. Organizational leaders are hard pressed for time between internal, external engagements, overseeing all the activities within organization, making decisions and also traveling around the world. Yes there is a need for balance in everything, however, making an impact in everything one does, adding value to meetings, however small these are, would be one way to leave a lasting impression. While delegation is a part of management, even more important is to know who can accomplish what in the given time.

  • Being able to take risks

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. –Michael Scott, The Office

In spite of having a deep understanding of whether a team can accomplish a task, the leader is still open to taking risks and challenging the norms. Yes there is a line between taking an intelligent risk and stupidity, but the leader has a sixth sense in terms of understanding that their team would rise above their own comfort zones to achieve a certain goal. Sometimes trust and confidence go a long way. For the first time, our new Director is moving the academic section from paper copies of books to kindle/tab versions. This is not a new aspect in India. Most Indian Institutes of Technology’s have moved to e-books a long time ago. But someone had to come to our institute of 10 years and make that move.

Leaders are perhaps not born, but made through their experiences, ambitions and will to work hard. Mostly importantly leaders are made through their undying faith in others and their undying faith in their own strengths.

Summer Holiday!

This year during my daughter’s summer school break, we visited my parents in Kolkata, a city in the East of India. We were visiting the city after a gap of 4 years and were pleasantly surprised how much it has changed in the few years. For one, the city looks much cleaner and greener. The roads are wider and the parks near my parents home have been given a ‘facelift’ with fancy park benches, sculptors and lovely landscaping. The streets have decorative lamps and a lot is being done in terms of connecting the ends of the city through subways and roads. Kolkata reminds me of my own childhood, where my parents used to take me for every summer vacation. It reminds me of my grandmother’s home, where the kids used to have their fill of sweet juicy mangoes, tart tamarinds or homemade rice wafers during the lazy afternoons, while the adults religiously took their afternoon siestas. Kolkata is also the city where my father took me to see my first museums, planetarium and zoo.

This year, my dad took my daughter to visit some places in the city. I also realized (with a slight jealous pang) that my dad may well be my daughter’s favorite person on this planet. Unlike other cities of India where I grew up or worked, Kolkata is very unique in many ways. Everything can peacefully co exist in this city. Like the buildings from the 1800s and high rises, that may be neighbors and yet have managed to keep their places. From the first Chinese colonies in India to Armenian and Jewish heritage, people of every race, ethnicity, qualification, can find a place to co-exist here.

No wonder I liked New York City during the two years I spent there. It reminded me so much about India and particularly Kolkata. The sea of people of all races, the street carts selling gyros, dosas, biryani and the most wonderful Jackson Heights. With its rows of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian shops. In NYC, I also sampled international cuisines to my heart’s content. I think my heart is tied between a pho and a sushi, but still, I cannot turn down a warm toasty bagel with spinach cheese spread or a soft pretzel with apple almond dip!

The small street side independently owned shops in NYC are very similar to those in Kolkata. In Kolkata, people from different ethnicities have bonded well over food via their will to extend the boundaries of their cuisines, by way of flexibilities or through experimentation. I had my fill of traditional Bengali vegetables which I cannot cook or are unavailable in my city. One of my delectable is unripe green figs, which can be cooked with potatoes in tomato garlic gravy. I was fortunate enough that the lady who helps my mother at home brought us some young figs from her fig tree. Another dish that most Bengalis have tasted is a paste of Taro stems with fresh coconut. Traditional recipes that require more effort to cook are slowly being wiped out from our daily lives, but in Kolkata, many restaurants have begun to spring up which promise food from yesteryears which are now being replaced at home by quick fixes.

A book that I own named ‘The Calcutta Cookbook’ by Minakshi Dasgupta is quite a favorite and it covers recipes beyond all ethnicities that have now added to the Kolkata heritage. This year I had my fill of sweet mangoes and juicy litchis too. Of the 30 varieties of Mangoes available in India, Himsagar is my favourite. It is very sweet and has more flesh than other varieties. It is available only for 4 weeks in Kolkata, just like the litchis. The production of Himsagar is small, but to the Kolkata dweller, one Himsagar a day is a must while it is in season.

Below is a list of a few videos of Kolkata from the view point of a foodie-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLeEK2YjC4Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saIU-ahpsdE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHiLQYwZ0jo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJblfGmlsE4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KBXfV9NsGg

 

Mother’s day- How do we save our mothers?

We have recently celebrated the woman who has helped us cope with life not only during our childhood, but also adulthood. We showed our appreciation to the superwoman, who shields us from everything that could cause us pain, and sometimes, to our embarrassment and sometimes joy, tries to guard us even when we are supposed to have found our own footing in the big world outside home. She is universally revered across cultures, religions, countries or the n number of divisions we have made to segregate ourselves.

But something isn’t right. Why are our mothers dying and why haven’t we been able to curtail this, even in 2017?  Maternal death is a serious issue especially in developing countries. Although we have brought down global maternal mortality by 47% since the 90s, as per the World Health Organization (WHO), about 830 women die due to pregnancy/delivery related problems around the world each day. These are mostly preventable. 99% of these deaths occur in the developing countries.  The odds of a 15 year old dying due to pregnancy/delivery related issue in developed countries is 1 in 4,990. In the developing nations, it is 1 in 180. Sadly most of these deaths occur due to reasons that are within our control.

Severe blood loss during pregnancy and post delivery is the main reason, followed closely by infections. In most cases of severe hemorrhage, injections of Oxytocin are enough to slow down blood loss. The many reasons for maternal death are health inequities, aka, basic services are not available to those who cannot pay for care. Distance to the nearest health care facility, availability of medicines in the facility, inadequate services are also key reasons adding up to the issue. A UNICEF led project in 6 states in India based on verbal autopsy of family members and community members of mothers who had lost their lives during child delivery, showed that cost for transport to the nearest health facility, literacy level of the mother, community awareness were leading cause of maternal deaths.

Personally I find the lack of awareness and non adherence to hygienic practices during childbirth and subsequent death of mothers due to infections, is most unsettling. Sepsis is a major problem, both in maternal as well as neonatal death. These defy all norms for extent of negligence. Additionally, through our incessant use of antibiotics we have successfully created microbes which are now resistant to most drugs, hence can easily compromise an infected mother and her newborn.

The WHO has recently adopted a resolution on sepsis that urges member nations to be more cognizant regarding causes, prevention and treatment of sepsis and tighten policies and regulations of activities leading to Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), to develop AMR stewardship activities and strengthen hygienic practices, clean childbirth practices and improvement in sanitation and nutrition.

Some of the basic things that we could do at our levels would be to create awareness amongst everyone we come in contact with. Every time we visit a clinic or a hospital, we could inquire about guidelines followed in infection management, waste management and AMR. We could also remind the health practitioners about hand hygiene and seek their advice in ways to prevent infections at our homes.

Every family needs a mother and every mother deserves a good healthy life, especially one that can be met by a few prevention steps

 

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A weekend of Gulzar

This weekend my phone was abuzz with messages from every whattsapp group and friends possible. And surprisingly all of them sent in lines from Gulzar’s poetry. As though, it was the most ‘in’ thing now, to send a few of his couplets. The fact that Gulzar has written poems on every emotion and circumstance possible in human life and penned the most memorable songs in the history of Indian cinema, was used quite conveniently by my friends, to depict their moods, or the weather, or what they were hoping for. The man is a genius. Not only has he mastered a subtle way of depicting life through his poetry, he has written plays, scripted films and directed some too.

His poems make me thank my Hindi teachers at school, for letting me learn and understand, one of the several languages that he writes in to reach the masses. There is a rich regional literature treasure in India, each state has its own language and often writers have used regional languages to communicate. However, Hindi and English are spoken throughout the country and taught at schools, in addition to the local state language in some states. Although there are some good translations of regional literature into Hindi and English medium, much of these remain unknown and unread in other parts of the country. Personally, I am not fond of translated literature, since I always feel that the original author’s perspectives are lost or dulled by the translator.

But I am grateful to those who take time in researching, understanding and translating, otherwise, we would never have known about the epics from all over the world, Coelho would sadly be absent from our lives, Love in the Times of Cholera would not have reached the girl growing up in Southern India and Tagore would have not won his Nobel in literature.

Here are a few of Gulzar’s couplets that I have attempted to translate. Hope that these convey his thoughts as closely as possible (courtesy: Rekhta)

  1. From ‘The Melting snow’

When the snow will melt on the mountain

And fog will lift its veil from the valley

The seeds would stretch their limbs

And open their sleepy lazy eyes

And even though,

the new young grass, will begin to green the mountain slopes

Notice carefully, the new spring

Would still have memories of the past season

For even now there would be remnants of tears of yesteryears,

In the melancholy eyes of the new buds that sprout.

My short understanding from the above- Dang! The memories….they never fade. Although we transform from one year to another, one goal to the other, who can forget the past? For as human, we carry our past into our present (maybe that’s a gift?).

  1. From ‘Books’

The books steal glances from within their unopened book case

Sometimes with a lonely, longing gaze

For we haven’t met in months

The evenings that were once spent in each other’s company

Are now used up viewing the computer screen

The books have begin to get restless

For they have now learnt to sleep walk

The books look on with a lonely, longing gaze

 

The values that they once narrated

With their endless passion

Those values don’t live in my house anymore

The relationships they had once proposed

They seem unstitched, undone, incomplete to me now

 

When I turn their pages, I begin to sigh

For many of their words have lost their meaning

For many of their words remain unused now

Terminologies forgotten, meaningless

 

The crystal utensils have made the earthen pots obsolete

For once a turn of a page would vet my appetite

And now at a click of a finger and in an instance

So many pages, pages within pages open by themselves

 

The bond with books has been forgotten

For sometimes they would rest on my heart as I lay,

Or sometimes carried possessively on my lap

Sometimes I would face them on my book stand of knees

Sometimes I would read them like a holy book

And touch them to my forehead in a prayer

 

Perhaps their contents are still accessible

But those dried flowers hidden within pages,

Those fragrant messages from companions

Those relationships forged by an excuse of lifting a fallen book for another…

What would happen to those?

Would those be now forgotten as well?

My two bits- Although we now depend on e books and audiobooks, how can we forget the emotions of reading a thriller….. page by page, so many of those nights in our younger years, of being unable to sleep till we could finish a book?

Books were more than paper pages, they were ways to disappear into an imaginary land, of forging new relationships and being inspired….

Ahh! Gulzar….you made my weekend!

Regrets

I have come to realize that the only regret I will ever have when there is a loss in communication with people whom I had once known in the past, would be the inability to share my happiness or sorrow when I need to, in the present time. Relationships change and distance, death, differences of opinion create gaps, hollow vacuums. New people, new circumstances slowly reinstate the balance. But it is difficult to let go of familiarity, of knowing that someone who is no longer with you could have understood your view, understood you exactly the way you wanted to relay it.

This wall you have built around you,

That which now exiles you,

Does sunshine pass through on its way?

For, the same sunshine has warmed my heart,

Before it passed to you, through your wall

Hence, we are bonded in some way

Sometimes, little thoughts of delight

And sometimes, those that I try and fight

Stop me in my steps, midway

And then I wish I could share

These small things with those gone by

With whom I had traveled once

This road of life, for a short while….

MD

Summer or Simmer!

It is hot in my city, absolutely scorching and I miss my walks through the office garden. I feel my skin burn everytime I have to be in the open and the tap waters are perpetually hot, be it early morning or late evening. This dry kind of heat penetrates my soul and dehydrates it to the core. I am snappy and irritating to be around and always dreaming of ice creams and popsicles, so yes, when I am in office meetings, I am really not listening, my notes are usually full of doodles of ice cream cones and faces transform to chocolaty glaciers. I am not used to extreme temperatures and every summer, I suffer a heat stroke. My family members have gently advised me that it’s only a state of mind; that I need to shut myself off to the surrounding heat. Is that really possible? Would imagining myself in an igloo solve the problem? I don’t think so. The constant ice cream images dont help either.

And I am humbled by everyone who has to work outdoors during this peak heat, especially those indulging in physical labor. Yesterday, my daughter’s homework (she is in grade III) was on interviewing the person who cooks at home and find out their struggles and how she could support them in their work.

I had tried pushing myself as the cook at home, as a potential interviewee, which she quickly ‘shooed’ away as ‘you are not the official cook, only the weekender experimenter’ and I clearly heard the Thank God! in her expressions that the household did not have to bear my recipes during most of the week. Instead she interviewed Manju who makes dinner for us at home every night. Manju is the representative of a quintessential Indian support system for working mothers like me. I am only blessed to give her full independence of my kitchen on weekdays, so that I don’t have another ‘to do’ item on my never ending list. And gratefully, my daughter likes Manju’s culinary skills, so I am fine with it too.

Manju was very amused with my daugther’s questions and it came as no surprise that her main struggle was to tolerate the kitchen heat, the hot stoves in the several households she sustains with the food she makes everyday. As to the support she requires from my daughter, it was a measly glass of cold drinking water after her chore at our home. Even though Manju and I share ups and downs in our otherwise healthy relationship, my appreciation and respect for her and for all those champion support system reps like her, did increase after yesterday. It also helped my daughter be more cognizant about everyone around. Though she is a better and far more empathetic person than I am and I hope this trait stays with her as she grows older.

As a public health research enthusiast, I am glad that several cities have a ‘heat action plan’ this year and are attempting to generate awareness amongst community on ways to beat the heat, in addition to capacity build care givers on responding to heat related illness.

Temperature tolerating clothing based on chemical and electrical principals is also in the market. These can bear extreme temperature shifts and are suitable both for cold and hot weather. Some of these are being tested in soldiers who are posted at extreme weather conditions. I look forward to a day when cheaper versions can be worn by construction workers, road repair men, community care givers and the Manjus at every home. Here’s to innovations for community health and to a safe summer everyone!

Strength of Prayer, of wanting nothing

When I was sixteen years old, I traveled on my own on a train for 2 days to see my relatives in another city. Even though I grew up in a very protective environment, my parents did give me the independence to discover myself from time to time. And although my parents called every day during that particular trip and came to take me home after two weeks of what was originally planned to be a full month of ‘independent’ vacation; at the end, I did get to stay with all my cousins for a good enough time and had a great summer that year.

On that train journey when I was greatly enjoying being on my own, I chatted up with some of my co passengers. It was the age of bewilderment and innocence. Not even for a moment did I feel nervous about talking with total strangers. I remember some of them bought me snacks and tea and I accepted gratefully. If it was today, I would have thought multiple times about accepting things from strangers. I have also killed the innocent urge to strike up conversations with people I don’t know.

On this trip for at least a part of the journey; one of my co passenger was a young yogi who would probably be in his early twenties. He had a pointed beard and knotted his hair on top of his head in a bun. He wore orange garments, sat straight and had ear phones in both ears. He would open his eyes from time to time and look outside the window, not to gaze at anything particularly but probably to add meaning to whatever he was listening. At some point, we had started talking. He was on his way to North India to help people devastated by a recent flood. He worked with Bharat Sevashram and seemed very happy with his life.

We were talking about God and divine presence and he had asked me if I prayed. I have never been overtly religious. My parents are practicing Hindus, actually quite orthodox, but have never forced me to abide by or follow any practice. As a result, my faith has been an evolution, metamorphosing over the years with my own life’s experiences, changing with my perceptions of the divine. At sixteen, I had laughed and told the Yogi that I prayed before exam results came out. He had asked me not to request for anything the next time I prayed.

I had been amused, how could one not ask for anything while praying. Wasn’t this the sole purpose of believing in a greater presence, of having an assurance that the most powerful can fulfill every need?

I did not understand him then, but now, over time, I have realized how powerful it is to pray and not ask, but thank. I find a deep peace in my daily prayers and praying for others. It has allowed me to overcome the biggest obstacle in my own life; my own self. One does not have to follow any religion to pray. You could think of the universe, the strength of the cosmos as being the most powerful and pray keeping that strength in mind. It is wonderfully satisfying to think of oneself as the tiniest dot amongst the vastness and that one doesn’t have control over everything.

Like many conundrums in my life, I am a partial atheist. An unusual believer. I did study science, but have never felt a need to give up my faith in both the divine and in science. Cant they co exist? I understand how Darwin would have felt, while learning to be a clergyman and discovering that evolution was the key to life forms. However, he may have been an unusual believer himself.

Like my parents, I do not expect my daughter to practice any particular faith, however, I do not think I could bear the thought of her traveling on her own, away from home, not at sixteen and perhaps not even at twenty!