Mentoring the Mentors

Yogesh Pawar talks to Monica Sharma, Tata Chair Visiting Professor at TISS, about mentoring Nobel laureates, TISS' new course on Secular Ethics and her upcoming book

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Mentoring the Mentors
Monica Sharma


Don't let the motherly grace, lilting voice and grey hair mislead you. Under the multilple hats Monica Sharma wears, current Tata Chair Visiting Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences ticks an exceptionally sharp brain with a capacity to process mindbogglingly large number of diverse disciplines at once. It was a hence a task chasing this physician, epidemiologist, academic, mentor to Nobel laureates, teacher, leadership guru was difficult to talk about her upcoming book Radical Transformational Leadership: Strategic Action for Change Agents. But when she did she was sweetness personified, apologising profusely.

And when someone who has worked with the United Nations from 1988 to 2010 as director of Leadership and Capacity Development at the UN with additional responsibilities at the UNDP and the UNICEF (where she designed and facilitated implementation of programmes for whole systems transformation and leadership development) shows such humility one cannot, but be charmed.

She says her book speaks of sourcing inner capacities. "It is about the wisdom to manifest change that embodies universal values of dignity, compassion and fairness, and simultaneously transform unworkable systems and norms in order to solve problems," she says, adding, "Readers are likely to resonate with many of the stories and see the threads that weave all of us together. It deconstructs fallacies that societies continue to promote, related to self and the world around us that leads to complacency and non-action."

On the new course on Secular Ethics at TISS that she authored and designed, and was praised by the Dalai Lama, she underlines its relevance to our times. "Today's students are future leaders. They have to navigate complex situations. The course on secular ethics is designed to support them, design and implement ideas they have that honours the universality and diversity of life, the interdependence between life, people and the environment. This in turn, will create new narratives of prosperity and sufficiency that redefine success based on value for life and contentment, and ensure equality in access to resources."

Author, psychologist, and science journalist, Daniel Goleman mentions Sharma in his book Primal Leadership. Wasn't that a given considering she has mentored Nobel laureates? "It is not like I treated these Nobel laureates different. I've been happy to work with a spectrum of people. Whether ex-offenders in prisons or a construction worker's daughter who runs a labour union, they all make me feel equally proud just like the Nobel laureates do," she insists and goes talks fondly about Nobel awardee Jerry White, who won the Peace Prize for his international campaign to ban landmines, after he lost his leg in a landmine accident in Israel, in 1984. "He has been kind enough to accept that his work with me in 1997 on transformational leadership at the Mendoza Business School, Notre Dame University, Indiana, gave fillip to his campaign and work."

He was not the only Nobel awardee that Sharma has worked with. Nordic climate-change scholar and governmental advisor Karen O'Brien (currently Professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo), who was conferred the Nobel in 2007, has also worked closely with her on "transdisciplinary and integral approaches to global change to better understand how societies create and respond to change, and in particular, how beliefs, values and world views influence human responses to climate change."

According to Sharma, everyone can be a leader. "A leader is after all a person who creates new futures through strategic action even while keeping it all just and equitable." Yet world over, people are rejecting socialist, left-of-centre leadership for the far right, and seem attracted to exclusionist megalomaniacs, even actually championing them. Isn't that worrying? "As human beings we've created ideologies, which principally were about values, and yet, over years of socialisation we find ourselves completely distanced from those core principles. This is more about our need to dominate and create external power than anything else, neither Right nor Left. Labels and stereotypes then become a convenient tool in the hands of unethical leaders out to polarise and deflect from real issues and concerns," she says and cites an example, "Like some unethical leaders try to deflect from their own corruption being responsible for loss of jobs and employment by pinning the blame on constructed fallacies and telling the unemployed that migrants are taking their jobs."

She warns against brushing off all capitalism and corporates as evil. "Let's not forget it was the zeal of many visionary corporates that created employment and institutions, which still serve humanity. Bringing them to work on their own core values and principles will help. As for the voluntary sector, the leadership there too will have to re-orient itself to changing ground realities, adapt, re-strategise and go forward."

She admits being saddened by the friction between Dalit, tribal, women's or even LGBTQI rights movements. "Identity assertion by itself is not wrong, but we need to examine if this assertion and the clashes it is creating are not an engineered effort to frustrate actual concerns. We need to source our inner capacities and wisdom to manifest change that embodies universal values such as dignity, compassion, fairness, and courage beyond caste, class, gender and sexuality. Otherwise, before we know it we're using the same language and politics of hate and exclusion that we're opposed to."

While admitting not everything is ideal about the Indian democracy she is all praise for its own in-built checks and balances, which correct things. "I think we need to work on creating a more just, equitable and non-exclusionary society. And instead of waiting for leaders we can begin this through our actions in society, at home, and at work to create a new future through strategic action."

Words of wisdom indeed!

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