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BW Businessworld

Analysis: Learning From Muruga

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I happened to watch muruga speak on TEDTalks. He is truly gifted. His curiosity and simplicity come out so clearly when he describes his visit to a local shop to buy a sanitary napkin for his wife. He insists on going to the shop dspite  his wife, Shanthi, telling him that it is way beyond the family budget and that they will have to give up milk, which is clearly not an option for her. The shopkeeper furtively looks left and then right and quickly wraps the product in a newspaper. Disarmingly, Muruga wonders why this man needs to be so scared.

There are some fascinating leadership traits that stand out in this man. Let’s see what they are and what they mean in the context of India and, indeed, the world.

To what extent do our schools and, indeed, our families encourage curiosity? It will be very instructive to see the early Muruga in his family. How did his family or his school respond to his questioning and wondering mind? The natural instinct is there in all of us but it needs an environment that fosters it. It appears that Muruga does not accept convention blindly. He is, in fact, troubled by it, in some ways. He seems to want to question things and set them right. He appears to have a ‘reformer’ like stance of someone who is driven to change the unquestioning collective mind of unthinking acceptance, refusing to be cowed down by convention. This kind of thing is inspiring, it provides the ‘permission’ for others to follow suit.

Sincerity: Sincerity is the absence of pretence, deceit or hypocrisy. One can see this in the way Muruga chooses to speak in his own way; he clearly has nothing to hide. He does not bother about how others see him and acts on the strength of his own idea or conviction. He approaches the shopkeeper to purchase sanitary napkins without the slightest hesitation. It is not about how others will see him but about what he has to do in that moment, which is, buy his wife something which will stop her from feeling the need to hide. We live in a larger social milieu in India which strangely prompts us to hide the most obvious of things because of ‘what others will say’! The perceived larger society is like an inner critic from which one can only try and protect oneself from. And this blunts our natural abilities. Sadly.

Empathy: He clearly feels for his wife, to start with, and then, for women at large. He is deeply (and really) bothered by this whole plight of womankind, who have no choice but to use the most unhygienic and secretive means to deal with their period. His empathy is so real in the way he creates a device which he wears to simulate the experience of a period. He is clearly horrified at what women have to go through. Do we even know what women in Indian society go through let alone being aware of what do we do with it? As with curiosity, we slowly kill this quality, this ability to empathise, turning away from the pain of others.

Awareness: Muruga is intensely aware that the chase for money and fame will not result in the appropriate response to the needs that women in much of the world have. He clearly sees that in many ways, we are so dependent on big business with the attendant high costs that he chooses to tackle it differently: he is aware that the focus on money can change everything. Interestingly, he says, “If everyone runs after money, their life will not have any beauty!”

Courage And Perseverance:
His clarity gives Muruga a single focus of what he needs to achieve. Even the ‘loss’ of his wife and then mother does not stop him from what he knows he has to get to the bottom of because he can see what they have to go through even if others do not. The idea that takes birth is painstakingly converted into a practical reality. How much time and energy must have gone into this pursuit!

Implications for India and the World: The kind of leadership displayed by this ‘half educated’ (in his own words) man underlines what is missing in today’s education. Can we imbibe the lessons of leadership that are so clearly embedded in this single person’s victorious march, so reminiscent of one daring Indian barrister nearly one hundred years ago in South Africa!

How about if, to start with, we encouraged our schools to find ways to be able to reinforce these traits that Muruga so beautifully embodies?    

The writer looks after the coaching practice for the APAC region at the Centre for Creative Leadership. He is currently based in Singapore
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 11-08-2014)