Value Systems : Time to be a Leader

From Victim-speak to Leader-speak

This past year has been a difficult one for me personally and for most of the people I know.  In my case, it was not just the deaths of those close to me, but – as I have a special bond with Nepal - it was followed up by the regicide in Nepal and the events of September 11th.  Nothing can be the same again we are being told.  Things have changed.  That is fine and well and we all agree about it, but what are we to do about it?

I think that we need to think very hard about what it is that has caused people to be so very angry at the West and the USA that they would not only kill themselves, but take others – innocent people – with them.  In their eyes, there must be some horrendous wrong that must be set right.  What might it be?  We can only guess at present.  We should be talking to them instead of making assumptions.  But, I am willing to give it a try.

There is of course the issue of the ‘Haves’ vs. the ‘Have Nots’.  It is true that in general, we have far more than those in developing countries do (enough to eat for a start).  But that is far too simple.  I think there is a more fundamental problem behind this and that is that we show those in developing countries no respect and we casually, without thinking, rob them of their dignity.

For the past nine years a part of my work has been in Asia and on the Indian Subcontinent, working with the poor and poorest of the poor as well as many of the agencies and organisations set up to help them.  In that time I have seen many examples of how ‘aid’ denigrates and strips people of their dignity.  I have seen many projects that will have achieved the targets set them by their donors (‘spend $xx and prove you’ve done it’), where the individuals involved and receiving the aid never had any say in what they were being ‘helped’ with.

I’ve also seen a few small-scale development projects – usually the work of local people – that work.  The problem seems to be in making it duplicable.  What works in one instance and with one group of people does not necessarily work with another.  And there is no guarantee that just because it is local it will work.  In Nepal the villagers call most of the ‘local’ (i.e. Nepali) development workers ‘Kathmandu Walla’s’.  They are educated; usually live in Kathmandu – not the villages - and come to tell the villagers ‘how to do it’ when they may never have lived in a village, been a subsistence level farmer or been poor in their lives.  They repeat the lack of respect that they see others showing.

For example, many of the aid agencies I studied in the early ‘90s insisted on the villagers building latrines.  They would only provide further aid if latrines were built.  So the villagers built the latrines and the aid agencies found that the people were not using the latrines, animals were being kept there.  When I enquired further I discovered the reason: in the local context, defecating where someone else had done so earlier was indescribably dirty and unclean.  One needed to be in the open air, on ‘virgin’ ground, with – if possible – running water so one could clean oneself.  They did not understand (and it was not explained to them) how this could be unhygienic.

In another case, the Chinese government was building a road so that they would have additional access by road to Nepal and India.  They built the road with a total disregard for the villagers in the area.  In one place, it was clear that the way the road was being built would encourage a landslide during the following monsoon.  With help and translators, friends approached the project foreman.  His answer?  ‘We are providing the funding for this project, we’ll put the road where we damn well please’.  The cost?  When the landslide occurred, his company got another contract to repair the damage.  The cost to the villagers in lost livelihood because the fields were destroyed and unusable was never even considered.

It is now time for foreigners to stop dictating what will happen and the order in which it will happen

And it is time for the individuals in the villages and communities to take responsibility themselves to do what they can, not just hold out their hands for yet another dollop of aid.  Each village or community is different and each will have a preferred way of working and a preferred order in which they would like to address their issues.  They would like to choose the issues to work on themselves.  It is time for aid agencies to work together on integrated programmes, not just telling people, ‘we do health (or education, or adult literacy), so you will get that or nothing else.’

It is possible, it does work and it is wonderful to see the people in a community engage with the projects they have chosen and do all that is in their power to make things happen.  They regain their self-esteem, their belief in their ability to achieve change within the community context.  They stop being dependent and become independent and interdependent.  My experience shows that they know what has to be done, but their choices regarding what is most important and therefore needs to happen first, may not be what the agencies and donors have in mind.

For instance, they may prefer to repair a temple or a chautara (resting-place) before they work on a village school.  We have found that adult literacy is on the list too, but it is usually not the first thing they want to achieve.  With literacy comes the understanding of the importance of hygiene and health, and it is only then that the interest in latrines comes.  Once they understand the reasons behind it, the why. they will overcome the habits of generations.

So, when it works, what makes it work?  In every single case, what made it work was leadership

Leadership from those proposing an idea or methodology (we can call them the ‘donors’) and leadership from those implementing it.  This is perhaps a different definition of leadership than most people use.  Our definition of a leader is ‘one who develops other leaders’.  This definition has many consequences. The main consequence is that in developing others, we may not tell them what to do, but must instead facilitate their discovery of where they feel they need to go.  This is really hard to do.  It means biting your tongue when you know you have the answer.  It means letting go and not trying to take control of the outcome.  The thing is, it is your answer, not theirs.  And to respect others and grant them dignity and self-respect, it must be their answer.

  • We need to harness the hidden potential in each and every one of us. 
  • We are all (and must be) leaders in these times of complexity and ‘perpetual white water’.  Managers try to control things, but we are already past the point of being able to control things. Leaders liberate others to be the best they can be.  When we travel through white water, we need to be liberated to do what needs doing immediately.
  • We need to inspire others too.  Inspiration means to ‘fill [people] with spirit’.  It means helping them to find the meaning in complex situations for them.

We each need to take responsibility for ourselves.  This means not falling victim to the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (everyone is responsible, so I needn’t do anything as I know someone else will).  If each and every one of us takes responsibility for leading ourselves, for doing what is right in the larger context (instead of just what is right for ‘me’) and in taking that first step, perhaps we might start to make a difference.

So, in order to make change work (and this is organisational change as well as community development and change) we need to:

  • Respect others and grant them the dignity and self respect that they deserve.  Let them come up with their own answer in their own way.
  • Harness the hidden potential of each one of us:  inspire others to lead.
  • Take responsibility to lead yourself and do all that you can.

And, in making that difference, in developing the leadership skills in others, in showing proper respect and each taking responsibility, we may begin to address and right some of the wrongs (perceived or otherwise) that have led to the events of September 11th 2001 and other similar incidents.  It is to be hoped that we can do this for it is time.

Patricia Lustig is a freelance consultant working in Europe, Asia and the US in the area of organisational improvement and individual development.  She has been working in Nepal since 1993 and can be reached at

Tricia's website address is

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