Leadership lessons I learnt from my illiterate father

Leadership is a fascinating idea. Stories and anecdotes about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, N.R. Narayana Murthy, Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa and several other greats have always inspired me. During my professional career and during this MBA program I learnt about businesses that were inspired by exemplary leadership. In my opinion no worthwhile change has ever come about without inspiring leadership.

On different occasions when my friends learnt about my personal journey, in varying degrees, they all said that I should be proud of what I achieved in my life. That comment always got me thinking. I worked hard to get where I am today, but what enabled me to become what I am?

One of the ideas I’ve practised in this MBA is, taking a step back, connecting seemingly unrelated dots to draw insights. Applying this to my personal journey, it occurred to me that a key factor is the influence of my father, and I realised that I picked up some key leadership lessons from him. Here is my version of it.

Marrivagu Narsimha is my father’s name. He was born to a poor farmer in a village, Tangutur, in India. He never went to school. He inherited no wealth, but as the only boy child, was responsible for his three sisters. To financially support my grandfather, he migrated to Hyderabad city in search of a better livelihood in his teens. He worked as a daily wage labourer. He set up his family in a slum because he could not afford a decent house elsewhere. He raised 3 children under these conditions.

When he stopped working in 2005, this is what he had accomplished:
• Eldest son: merit student, electronics engineer, employed with one of the top corporate houses in India
• Younger son: gold medalist, electronics engineer, employed with India’s second largest software exporter
• Daughter: pursuing graduation in science

His monthly income at that time was INR 2,000 ($31).

Taking an outsider perspective and looking back in time, four key elements of his approach stand out to me. These are my leadership lessons from him.

1. Vision: Must be a compelling idea of a better future
We grew up in poverty. As a family we had to choose between the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter on a daily basis. Several days in a month, eating three square meals was a luxury. Sanitary conditions included defecating in the public, clogged drainage systems and sewage streams in the locality. On several occasions, I was not allowed to sit in school because either my clothes were torn, or because I was barefooted, or because I had not paid the fee due for the month. Our relatives looked down upon us and there was very little support.

These circumstances notwithstanding, my father made education a basic necessity for us. He believed very strongly, and was totally convinced, that education is the only thing that will ensure his children will not lead the life of poverty that he lived. What he used to say whenever I was sent back from school or I asked for shoes is still fresh in my mind, “Your focus should not be on the shoes, your focus should be on your studies. If you don’t eat once or if you don’t wear shoes it will still be okay. But if you don’t study well it will not be okay. One day when you are well educated all these problems will be gone. Sometimes it may not happen on time, but I will somehow pay your school fees. All you should do is work hard to be the best (1st ranker) in your class”. He would relentlessly repeat this message whenever we children asked for anything that he deemed was unnecessary.

2. Execution: Must be a relentless pursuit
He dragged us through those circumstances for about two and a half decades never showing signs of giving up. I remember him waking up early in the morning at 4, taking a cold bath and leaving home to bring some bags of metal scrap, then quickly cleaning his hands, eating something real fast and going to the metal shop where he was working, then coming home for lunch around 2, and returning in the night around 9. And early morning during weekdays and on Sundays, he would work on separating useful metal pieces from those bags of scrap to make some additional money. This was his routine. He would do this without any complaints, with same energy, consistently through all those years. He would buy groceries on credit because his income was not enough to provide for everything the family needed. At other times he would default on payment of house rent. With three children to educate, at times he had to default on our school fee too. But he strove real hard to pay the school on time. That was always his top priority.

As for our studies, his emphasis was on “focus” and “excellence” right through. I have vivid memories of how he used to look at my progress report. The first thing he would look at is my class rank. If it was not “1st”, he would never be happy. Sometimes when I was 2nd or 3rd he would say “Not good enough. Why are you not the first in class? You are not studying well. You keep playing cricket and roaming on the streets all the time. Whenever I see you, you are always with your friends. Instead if you had studied you would have been the 1st ranker. You have to be the best in your class, the best among your friends, the best among all our neighbours.” He was very insistent on this, all through my school years.

But once we got out of school, he never told us what to do. It was almost as if he had deliberately changed his strategy. He used to say “I am an illiterate, and I don’t know what is good and what is not when it comes to education. I sent you to school and fortunately you had good teachers who told you how to study. I could never help you with studies other than paying your fees and buying you books. You studied well so far and whatever you got was your hard work. From now on you have to make your own decisions. You decide what you want to study and how much to study. You just tell me how much money you need to study and I will try and arrange it somehow.

In retrospect, I see he led us holding hands when we were kids but once he realised we could take care of ourselves, he gave us freedom, the room to think, decide and execute what we thought was right for us, supporting us in every way we needed him to. He empowered us to think and act for ourselves.

3. Culture: Must emphasize values and foster excellence
The culture he built at home had “excellence” and “education” at its heart. He would let us do anything we wanted but only as long as it did not compromise the quality of or focus on our education. He would never stop me from playing cricket with my friends but as exams approached he would come looking for me at all places possible, take me home, sit me down and make me study. There were no excuses!

Other way around, whenever he or my mom needed us to do something, say buying vegetables or fetching water, we could always get excused if we said we had to study. Instead my father or my mother would go get the stuff. Whenever any one of us children had exams or were preparing for any competitive exam, that child would get decision rights to almost all things at home – how much sound others are allowed to make, whether doors and windows should be open, at what times and how long television would be turned on, when the lights would be turned off, whether my mother could sit down in front of the door and chat with neighbours, when the others should take bath, right to use all stationary, and exemption from all household work etc. It was almost as if that child had veto rights to every decision at home. My father would let us stay home instead of attending marriages etc., if the reason was studies. We could even excuse ourselves from spending time with visitors and relatives when we needed to study. Exceptions could always be made, if the reason was studies.

Given the latitude we were allowed, on the pretext of studies, it was a natural expectation that we were excellent in our studies. Sometimes during my school days, my father would even be angry with me because I was hanging out a lot with some friends who were not so bright in studies. He would let me play with them but would caution me whenever he sensed I was spending a lot of time with such friends.

4. Example: Must reflect simplicity, integrity and responsibility
All through those years he had been an unassuming person, full of integrity and responsibility. A striking example is this incident. At one time my father had left his job because of some differences with his employer. One of our relatives came to know of this and he visited us and offered my father a job in his shop. My father politely refused. The relative persisted and he tried to talk my father into his offer citing the difficulties we were facing, three children to take care of, rent to be paid and so on. My father did not budge. Later when the relative had left, my father explained to my mother that he refused the offer because that relative was not trustworthy, that his business methods were questionable, and that my father feared that if he joined that relative, he would be pressurized to help him in his dubious business methods, and that he was not willing to do such wrong things to run the family.

He was a person of absolute personal responsibility. He would never lay claim to anything that was not his. I remember him ordering me to return the extra money that the shopkeeper had given me by mistake. He would return the water to our neighbours before they reminded us. He never touched alcohol or tobacco in his life. He believed that these are addictive habits that render one irresponsible.

All through those years he stayed grounded and simple. After we had graduated and joined workforce our relatives would heap praises on him for persisting with his belief and investing the family’s future into our education. But he would never take credit for what we had become. He is not used to such praises and shows a bit of an embarrassment when people praise him. He would always reply “Whatever they have achieved is their hard work and their talent. I did not tell them that they should pursue engineering or anything like that. They chose their studies, I only paid their fees. In fact, since they started going to college they got scholarships and that helped their studies.

Thanks dad!

Cheers to Humanity

Last month I travelled back and forth between Hamburg and Berlin quite frequently. One common sight every time I reached Hamburg Hauptbahnhof (Main train Station) was the hordes of people travelling to the city from different parts of the conflict zones to seek refuse. More fascinating was the number of volunteers guiding them at station and taking them to a facility just outside station, providing free food and drinks. There was also a free bus service, possibly taking them to the official camp at Messenhalle in Hamburg. I saw the bewildered faces of very small kids and their mothers and fathers, tired from thousands of miles of journey on foot, boat, train and what not. The bustling big city was adding to the confusion and it looked like they had very little idea about what to do next.




However sight of volunteers carrying placards in four different languages and approaching them for help did bring a little smile on their faces in spite of all the thoughts about the uncertainty of the future. Some of these people, who travelled so far, had a good job and life until few months back. Now all has changed. I shuddered at the thought of putting myself in their shoes.

I am not opinionated about the current refugee crisis. I don’t know if welcoming refugees is wrong or right.  If there is a conflict back home then I would definitely like my family to move to a safer place. But we are not talking about 10 or 100 people. Looking at the sheer number I definitely felt the extent and impact of this crisis. On one hand there are people and countries that excused themselves from taking any responsibility. On the other, the support and tolerance that is shown by some, across different countries, was indeed hearting.  None of them is wrong. None of these is a long term solution. Education teaches us to take an objective view of things but this increases the dilemma in your mind.

Surely countries such as Germany that are helping are showing a great deal of responsible leadership. ESMT has also come up with some exclusive scholarships to support victims of global conflict. True, conflict brings out the best and worst in humanity.

I didn’t personally get affected by the crisis (except for selectively being asked for my ticket and ID multiple times during my train travels because of my skin color).  But if crisis deepens each one of us will be affected sooner or later. For now let’s hope things get better and nobody has to deal with the kind of ordeal faced by the people who travelled or are still stuck.

This is a big man made crisis and no one but the man has to find a solution.

Summer Grill, July 3rd 2015

As planned, on July 3rd ESMT hosted a BBQ in the garden to honor the Kofi Annan Fellows and to present this year’s RLFs (Responsible Leadership Fellows) who have just returned from their 6-months mission. Apart from the Kofis (Kofi Annan Fellows) and RLFs, Friends of ESMT, ESMT professors and the Ambassador of Nepal also attended. The event was initiated and hosted by Prof. Wulff Plinke and his colleagues in ESMT.

Overview of the Summer Grill

Overview of the Summer Grill

Meet and Greet

Meet and Greet

After some casual greetings, Prof. Plinke started by telling a brief history of KABSF and the birth of the RLF. In a nutshell, KABSF (Kofi Annan Business School Foundation) was established to give a chance to talented students from under-developed countries to pursue higher education in leading six business schools in Europe. The RFL (Responsible Leaders Fellowship) is a program initiated to give ESMT graduates the opportunity to give back to the society through skills-based volunteering. The selected fellows are to provide a 6 months service to a deserving organization depends on mutual agreement between both parties.

This year’s RLF graduates are Mariana Helguera, Sergey Ten and Sherzod Abdujabborov who volunteered their services at TSiBA Education in Cape Town. Another fellow, Rahul Jain, worked with Welthungerhilfe in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique. The four fellows shared their experiences, challenges, highlights and the priceless life lessons they learned with the crowd.

Left to Right: Rahul, Sergey, Sherzod, Prof. Plinke, and Mariana

Left to Right: Rahul, Sergey, Sherzod, Prof. Plinke, and Mariana

Next on the agenda, Prof. Plinke introduced the current Kofis who were present on the day. Due to the short notice of the event and different locations of KABSF business schools, there were only fellows from ESMT represent, but we strongly hope that the next event will be able to host Kofis from the other five business schools. Prof. Plinke, who is a leading factor in the formation of the Kofi Annan Alumni Association (KAAA) and who had drafted the KABSF First Years Report, introduced the six current fellows who are from MBA and MIM class. Each of them shared their experiences of being a Kofi, and how they expect their education in Europe to impact their future endeavours.

Left to Right: Prof. Plinke and ESMT MBA Kofis: Siyabonga Gobingca and Adeola Olatunji

Left to Right: Prof. Plinke, Siyabonga Gobingca and Adeola Olatunji

Ana Desiwijaya, another ESMT MBA Kofi, introduced herself and shared her experiences as a Kofi

Ana Desiwijaya, another ESMT MBA Kofi, introduced herself and shared her experiences as a Kofi

Left to Right: Prof. Plink and ESMT MIM Kofis: Matida Ndlovu, Sopha Nem, and Nelly Ogonda

Left to Right: Prof. Plinke, Matida Ndlovu, Sopha Nem, and Nelly Ogonda of the MIM class

It was a beautiful summer afternoon with good wine, good food, and good spirits. It had been a few months since we had last met up (as MIM students are doing internships), and everyone was delighted to see one another again. Old friends were reunited, new friends made, and endless laughter echoed until late evening.

Once again, we sincerely would like to thank KABSF, Prof. Plinke, Friends of ESMT, and others who are not mentioned here for providing us the opportunity to receive such a distinguished education and learning experience.

We are proud to be Kofis and RLFs!


from www.kaaablog.wordpress.com

Moments With My Mentor

Scepticism. That was my gut reaction when Nick Barniville first sent the Allianz scholarship holders an e-mail with the offer of arranging a personal mentor who was an ESMT alumnus and Allianz employee. I’d been down this road before, and it had been riddled with potholes. As part of a DAX30 company’s corporate programme to support young women pursuing a MINT degree, I had been assigned a mentor. Although excited about the opportunity at first, it hadn’t quite worked out the way I had envisioned it, and so I had come to view arranged mentorships with the same scepticism as arranged marriages.

What is a mentor? In Greek mythology, Mentor was put in charge of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, while Odysseus fought in the Trojan war. Because of Mentor’s relationship with Telemachus, the personal name Mentor has been adopted in English as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague. [1]

So a day before I started my internship at Allianz, I called PA [2] and boldly introduced myself as his mentee. The strangest feeling ever. How do you just call up a stranger and say, “Hi, this is Matida – your mentee!”?
A meeting was arranged, and a couple of hours later we chatted over dinner near the English Garden in Munich. The first 30 minutes were a fast-paced sort of interview: Where are you from? What did you study? Why the ESMT? If you had €20,000 what stocks would you buy at the moment on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange? What would be your expected returns after six months? If you had no budget constraints, what business would you start today?
Be early for work, be reliable, look smart and sharp, do more than what is expected of you – that was the take-away message of that first meeting. With a firm handshake, the deal was sealed to meet up once a month, to give regular internship progress feedback, and to feel free to ask for advice.

This past Friday, during our third meeting over dinner, PA said something that gave me a big AHA! moment. I turned 25 a couple of months ago, and have been musing on life in general and my life in particular. If I am lucky to be conscious when I take my last breath, what are the things that will make me be able to say I ran a good race and fought a good fight? What will be my ‘KPIs’, as defined by me, that will make me say, “Oh wow…..oh wow…”? Quarter-life crisis? Nah, just reflecting and projecting.
PA then said, “Success is not accomplishment. Success is preparedness.” My furrowed brow must have indicated that I wasn’t buying it – not just yet.
Then he broke it down: In life, when you set rigid goals, you limit yourself. Don’t let your goals cage you in. What you should be doing is preparing for when life’s occasions and opportunities arise; when they do, let them find you prepared. Let reading expand your horizons, be inquisitive about the world, surround yourself with people smarter than you. That way, you’re preparing and opening yourself up for something even bigger than your wildest dreams.
“And when the occasion doesn’t arise?” I asked.
He shrugged, “That’s life. But then you’ll know you did everything possible – you did your part.”
By that time, I’d grabbed a pen and had jotted those lines onto my serviette, as I so often do when inspired.
Looking back, I just remembered that my Girl Guides motto was also, “Be prepared!” Hmmm….now it makes bigger sense than just making sure you have your pocket knife on you when you go on 5th grade field trip.

Today, I have FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out) to thank for taking up Nick’s offer :) I’m grateful to all those who organized this mentorship opportunity. A big “Thank you!” also goes out to my mentor for taking time out of his busy schedule to impart his wisdom and to share his knowledge with me. May I be a worthy student.

Signing off,

Mentorship: “Indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili” – A Ndebele proverb that can be loosely translated to mean that the twists and turns of life’s road ahead of you are best asked about from those who have already trodden it.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mentor

[2] I have only given my mentor’s initials, as I have not asked for permission to use his name in this blog post. I could just write to him and ask, but by the time I get a reply, I may not be as inspired to share this post.

A journey to the end of a River

Rivers are most majestic when they are about to meet the ocean. And that couldn’t be less true for the mighty Zambezi River, which touches nine African countries before it flows into the Indian Ocean on the east of Mozambique.

Zambezi River in some of its mightiness

Zambezi River in some of its mightiness

However this region is also a highly disaster prone and extremely vulnerable to natural calamities such as floods and cyclone.  Welthungerhilfe, the organization I am volunteering with under RLF, is running a project in some of the districts in Zambezia and Nampula provinces of Mozambique to increase the disaster resilience as part of Disaster preparedness program of European Commission (DIPECHO).

Few day back I got to visit one of the districts called Chinde (pronounced Shin-Day), which lies right at the mouth of the Zambezi river. First of all this district is so remote that it is only reachable by boat. A quick look at the google map might give an idea.

Chinde's location on map

Chinde’s location on map

One has to take a long and tiring three hours boat ride (on a fast motor boat) to this place. Bigger boats or a big vessel can take more than ten hours. BTW the winds were so strong the that I lost my cap twice (the boatman was kind enough to do a turn to pick it up)

District has a remarkable small town, also called Chinde, where the district administration has its office. The population of town is just over 16,000 although the total population of the district is around 150,000 people. The town has only about 5 cars (there was only 1 till few years back). Even electricity is also a fairly new addition to the district, introduced just 2 or 3 years back. There are some colonial buildings in the town housing government officials. Plus a couple of houses were used earlier by sugar trading company called Sena, now dysfunctional. Unsurprisingly, the largest building in the town was a Church.

Some of the administrative buildings in Chinde

Some of the administrative buildings in Chinde

Main avenue in Chinde

Main avenue in Chinde

The Church

The Church

I saw some peculiar looking (though aesthetically pleasing) houses. These houses had wooden frames filled with rubbles from old rundown buildings. On enquiring I got to know that the building material is scares and expensive so people reuse material from the old buildings destroyed at the time of civil war.

A frugal architecture?

A frugal architecture?

Town also had an FM Radio Station of its own. I couldn’t resist visiting it. I was very thrilled (for some strange reason) at the sheer pleasure of listening to the lone channel on my mobile right outside the station with earphone in one ear and other ear tuned into the voice of RJ / music from inside the station.

Chinde FM

100.6 Chinde FM

I also got to be part of one of the rituals in the town. Every morning there is a flag hosting and the guard whistles. I was on my way to beach at 6 in the morning when I happen to cross the place. I saw everyone stop. Out of confusion and respect for local tradition I did too. After the hosting was complete guard whistled again and everyone moved on. Now it feels like time did stop for those 10 seconds or so.

The project sites are spread across many islands that are only reachable by boat. Those were some of the most beautiful places I ever visited. At one of these places the scenery around the backwaters was nothing less than breathtaking.

Backwaters at one of the Islands

Backwaters at one of the Islands

On one of these islands I observed that all women on the island had these little marks spanning across their arms and chest. We asked some of the women and no one knew why they had them. Looked like it was a custom. They were etched when women reached puberty. It’s possibly a way to show that they are ready for marriage. I didn’t want to be judgemental about their practices.

In the name of tradition!

A woman with marks around her chest line

Oh yes and on another island the village leaders were slickly dressed. Although they didn’t belong to any military establishment, they wore uniforms.  This was tradition from the time of Portuguese and still prevalent though more than four decades have passed since independence. Quite interesting how power dynamics could change but traditions can stay.

In the name of tradition!

In the name of tradition!

There was also a fort like structure at one such place. Turned out it was a prison at the time of Portuguese. New administration couldn’t find a use for the place thus it has been abandoned now. Looked like they were lucky enough not to need a prison.

The abondoned prison

The abandoned prison

I can’t sign-off without talking about food. Whereas all my colleagues relished fishes, I fall in love with Matapa and peri-peri. Matapa is a local Mozambican speciality made from Cassava leaves and coconut (with few other things added sometimes). I was eating Matapa day and night. So much so that the people who ran the eatery remembered me as “The Matapa Guy”, when someone asked them to call me from the guesthouse once. Our Project director joked about naming a cassava plantation against me at a conservation agriculture farm.  Peri-peri is a hot sauce (pickled sometimes) that is a must have with food in Mozambique (and many other African countries). I generously ate it, sometimes just peri-peri and rice or ncima (local dish made from Maize). My love for peri-peri was so conspicuous that the owner of the hotel we ate at decided to gift me a jar filled with peri-peri.

Matapa on left and Cassava plant on right

Matapa and Cassava plant

The Peri Peri :)

The Peri Peri :)

The whole experience was nothing less than astonishing. I was soon back to utilitarian life of cities. But my three days at Zambezi river estuary were a crash course in culture, food, people and a life so different. A journey to the end of a river and a memory till the end of a life.