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Socially Embedded Leadership

“He who lives in harmony with himself, lives in harmony with the universe” – Marcus Aurelius
Once upon a time, there was a gigantic 100-year-old tree that stood in the middle of a great old forest. Every day, there would be woodcutters who came to the forest to chop wood and earn their livelihood. When woodcutters came to chop the giant tree down, the tree said, “If you can please be patient, wait for the spring to pass, so that my flowers can feed the bees and butterflies, it would be nice”. Then the tree continued after a pause, “If you can please wait maybe for the summer to pass, so that my fruits can feed the bats and squirrels”. The woodcutters were spellbound. The tree then urged “When you do cut, cut me branch by branch, for there are birds who live on these branches, and monkeys too, and snakes near my roots”.

The tree finally declared “Make sure I do not fall where there are saplings germinating so that they do not die before they have had a chance to live. Yes, do take my wood, but with least problems to all those who depend on me.”The woodcutters who were earlier spellbound, were now impressed and inspired by the tree’s wisdom. They realized it was the Bodhisattva, the compassionate one, and left poorer for its wood but richer, for its wisdom.

The Leader who takes decisions focusing only on her job and her rules, without taking into consideration the vast network of dependencies that her decision will impact, is likely to be sorry, in the future. On the other hand, great is the “Socially embedded Leader”, who is alive, awake and alert to the fact that each decision must be made with the “highest good” of his people in mind. The Socially embedded Leader is part of an ecosystem.
Socially Embedded Leadership in Business: Cadbury’s Chocolate Village
The Measure of a Man is what he does with power – Plato

When the Bridge Street factory became too small, George Cadbury, the third son of the founder John Cadbury had a new vision of the future. ‘Why should an industrial area be squalid and depressing?’ he asked. His vision was shared by his brother Richard, and they began searching for a very special site for their new factory.

Cadbury were reliant on the canals for milk delivery, and on the railways for cocoa deliveries from the ports of London and Southampton. They therefore needed a site which was undeveloped and had easy access to both canal and rail. The location was chosen as it was regarded as cleaner, healthier and more amenable to longer-term expansion plans. The Cadburys named the area ‘Bournville’ after the Bourn Brook (now known as The Bourn); with ‘ville’ being French for ‘town’. Birmingham architect, George H. Gadd worked closely with George Cadbury to draw up plans for the factory. The first bricks were laid in January 1879 and 16 houses for foremen and senior employees were built on the site. In 1893, George Cadbury bought 120 acres of land close to the works and planned, at his own expense, a model village which would ‘alleviate the evils of modern more cramped living conditions’. By 1895, 143 cottages were built and it was called a ‘garden village’ as he wanted to keep the rural feel, by ensuring that gardens were not overshadowed. He said that a tenth of the estate should be ‘laid out and used as parks, recreation grounds and open space.’ Then Cadburys began to develop their factory in the new suburb. Loyal and hard-working workers were treated with great respect and relatively high wages and good working conditions. The organization also pioneered pension schemes, joint works committees and a full staff medical service. The Cadburys were particularly concerned with the health and fitness of their workforce, incorporating park and recreation areas into the Bournville village plans and encouraging swimming, walking and indeed all forms of outdoor sports. These designs became a blueprint for many other model village estates around Britain. But more importantly, the practices conceived and followed by Cadburys became the blueprint for many organizations in the future.
Socially Embedded Leadership for Nation: HoneyBee Network and GIAN Ecosystems
“He should allow unrestricted entrance to those (people) wishing to see him, in connection with their matters” – Chanakya, on Leadership

From England, we move to India. Many challenges and approaches are analysed in the book Grassroots Innovation: Minds on the Margin are not Marginal Minds, by Anil Gupta, professor at IIM Ahmedabad. The context of the book is the ‘shodhyatras’ or innovation-seeking journeys conducted by the author through villages in extremely scorching summer and harsh winters across vast stretches of India. Dozens of these journeys have been conducted from 1998 onwards, revealing a wealth of insights into innovation types, processes and diffusion. Such knowledge journeys or bridges are also places where ‘learning, living and loving intersect,’ according to Gupta. Gupta is a master of the innovation ecosystem in India.

More such rural engagement mechanisms need to be explored to harness and honour grassroots creativity. Some of his wisdom captured in the online magazine “Your Story” are as follows:

  1. Keep your eyes and ears–and minds–open to new ideas and acute problems

“Diversity is the essence of inclusiveness and creativity,” says Gupta. Quantity as well as quality of innovative ideas are important. Long-term experience should not come in the way of listening to new ideas and questioning the status quo. In terms of priority, it is important to focus on solutions for the most acute problems, e.g., challenges faced by rural women in rice cultivation, and their exclusion from carpentry and blacksmithing. Many innovation programmes tend to focus on working professionals, but creative idea flow should be encouraged from students and children as well.

  1. Build innovation platforms

There are thousands of innovative ideas across India, and hundreds of projects in pilot stage. Connect them through offline activities and online platforms. Examples discussed in the book include Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network (GIAN was founded in 1997 to convert grassroots innovations into viable products), National Innovation Foundation (NIF was founded in 2000 to support traditional knowledge holders from the unorganised sector), and GTIAF (Grassroots Technological Innovation Acquisition Fund). Other examples include Techpedia from SRISTI, a platform connecting grassroots innovators with real-world problems. It also conducts workshops and summer camps, and gives awards to creative communities.

  1. Institutionalise strategies for innovation

Institutions studying and promoting grassroots innovation in India must provide ‘freedom, flexibility and fellowship.’ Examples in this regard include the approaches used by Society for Research and Initiatives for Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI), GIAN and NIF. There are thousands of unsung innovators in India, many of whom have shared their traditional and creative knowledge with no expectation of return. Their stories should be documented and celebrated, and they should receive recognition and opportunities for further co-creation. A ‘village knowledge management system’ is needed to document these innovation processes, creators, influencers and impacts. They apply to individual solutions, extracted heuristics, cross-sectoral ‘metaphorical’ applications, and even broader worldviews.

  1. Ecosystem learning: tap domain and customer knowledge

While much attention tends to focus on agricultural produce, products and processes, there are also lots of insights that farmers have about their customers. This includes growing crops which customers prefer, and knowing how to market them. The four teachers that we can learn from and be influenced by are ‘the teacher within, teachers among peers, the teacher in nature, and the teacher among common people.’ Scaling up grassroots innovation involves not just scientists and farmers but designers, artists, entrepreneurs and investors.

  1. Don’t just learn from users–co-create with them

Problem finding, solution discovery, and product creation should not be one-way streets, but two-way flows connecting local communities with development groups. Village knowledge systems can be a source of new ideas, but can also be fortified with a steady flow of inputs and collaborative experiments. Volunteers too play an important part in creating intermediary knowledge assets along the journey, e.g., The Honey Bee Newsletter. Poor people should not be treated as ‘a sink for aid, assistance and advice’ but as a source of ideas, innovations and enterprises.’
The Outcomes: Through the initiatives described in the book and covered in the media, more than 200,000 ideas have been received from 550 districts, 70 technologies have been commercialised, 700 patents have been filed, and 10,000 innovations placed in the public domain.
Tenets of Socially Embedded Leadership
“To understand the nature of people, one must be a prince; and to understand the nature of the prince, one must be of the people” – Machiavelli
Drawing on the experience of John Browne, former CEO of BP, and the insight of two McKinsey experts, the book “Connect” articulates and explores the recurring rift between big businesses and society, offering a practical manifesto for reconciliation.

The ability to connect with society is the new frontier of competitive advantage and profitability for those who are enlightened enough to go beyond philanthropy or ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’, declares the book. Breaking the centuries-old cycle of anti-business sentiment is possible, but it requires genuine leadership and a new way of thinking about commerce.  For many years Corporate Social Responsibility has been the accepted way for companies to ‘deal’ with society. The problem with CSR is that it’s fundamentally disconnected from a company’s real commercial activities.  A handful of companies like Tesla and Unilever broke the cycle of anti-business sentiment. It requires CEOs and founders to give enough time to this activity and recognise it as a commercial imperative. Those who understand this will become tomorrow’s leaders. The book identifies four tenets that companies can adopt to achieve connected leadership. Connected leadership is about integrating societal and environmental issues deeply into your core business model.

The identified four tenets of connected leadership can revolutionise a company’s standing in society and significantly improve profitability:

  1. Map your world
  2. Define your contribution
  3. Apply world-class management
  4. Engage radically 

Connected Leadership is a subset of Socially Embedded Leadership. A fifth tenet is recommended by me for Socially Embedded Leadership, this precedes the four stated above

  1. Define your purpose around “Maximising the good”

The credo of K-F-D: What is most admirable about Prof Gupta’s approach towards Innovation (mentioned earlier) are also the values. He talks about the source of Innovation being ‘Samvedna’ that is roughly translated as compassionate empathy. Samvedna is the ability to feel the pain of others so that you realize the need for a solution. And hence work towards building a solution. He repeatedly talks about KFD: the relationship between knowing, feeling and doing. Knowledge is not enough, one needs to Feel much more and then, Do the Maximum (for the good of all)

As we know, stakeholders vary in influence, expectations, and interests and all have the potential to impact the outcomes.  The Leader’s goal is to leverage stakeholder relationships and build coalitions that foster success of all involved. The Leader has to create and leverage a structure to ensure communications are shared, roadblocks are removed, and stakeholder behaviors are monitored and reinforced. Needless to say, the Leader has to be very active and visible in governance, especially to help keep all stakeholders focused on the common goal. To understand, socially embedded Leadership, let’s consider this example –
Social Embedded Leadership in Action: Purpose, Execution  and Growth
“He who exercises government by means of his virtue may be compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it.” – Confucius
Jaipur Living started from a humble place, and now, 38 years later, it sells hand-knotted rugs in more than 45 countries, employs nearly 40,000 artisans in India, and brings in more than INR 200 crores a year. The owner N.K. Gupta set out to improve the lives of rural villagers living in extreme poverty, and that desire unexpectedly led to connecting them to global markets.
The bedrock principles of Jaipur Living:

  1. Advocacy of for-profit solutions to social issues
  2. Give people a way to make a living, not just charity. In this way, your efforts are sustainable, and so are the livelihoods of all the people you touch
  3. Empowerment of every stakeholder
  4. Sustain the ecosystem and then scale it
  5. Preserve the core values at all costs

Here’s how Jaipur Living got its start: In 1978, Gupta borrowed INR 13,000 (about $200) from his father, bought two looms, got an old bicycle and started travelling to the villages of the state of Rajasthan, living, working, and sharing his time with people in India’s most neglected communities. Even though was looked down upon for doing this and faced a lot of resistance from family and neighbours, he kept asking, “How could these people—the so-called downtrodden in Indian society—be any different than you and me?” The answer was clear: They’re not. And these individuals, like me, were in need of jobs, a way to make a living.
Soon he learned how to weave, and shared the skills with these communities. When he saw that even after villagers perfected the art of rug weaving, they were still compelled to sell their rugs to middlemen (who would pay them only a meagre wage—and then turn around and sell the rugs for a premium for export) he decided to become that middleman, but with a critical difference. Rather than exploit the artisans, they would be paid more for their work and the work was sold directly to customers in Europe and the United States. There were many, many hurdles, along the way – learning how to scale a business model with a highly decentralized workforce, building a management infrastructure to match, training employees, and financing growth. But having surmounted them, now the company is run by his children: son, Yogesh, who oversees the India office in Jaipur; two daughters in the United States, Asha and Archana, the CEO and COO, who run the US and international operations; and the youngest daughter, Kavita, the creative expert, who lives in Jaipur and travels regularly.

Knowing: In 1990, after he set up more than 200 looms in Rajasthan, he moved southwards to the state of Gujarat, to work with tribal populations. Their customs, way of life, and even language differed vastly and so at first, it was hard for him to penetrate these communities. But persisting continuously, the work was seen succeeding slowly. By 1999, they had trained more than 10,000 tribal weavers and set up approximately 2,000 looms in the state. The success in Gujarat validated a model that could be replicated in new cultures and communities throughout India. But doing so meant building a management infrastructure with multiple layers of accountability. To do that, 22 branches in six states were set up. In this way, they could reach remote villages, some of which are far from paved roads and major highways. These branch offices are led by managers who’ve been with the company for more than a decade and started out as weavers. They’re supported by local area commanders who travel to and from our weaver communities and generally live in the same village or nearby. Each commander oversees about 200 looms and reports to the branch managers. Another key ingredient in the model is “motivators”. Their aim is to recruit new weavers, help with weaver training programs in the villages, and inform weavers about programs that can help them (such as health insurance, education, and financial literacy). These individuals often work part-time to supplement their income from other jobs. The weavers do not have to travel to get the raw materials (mostly yarn and weaving templates). Rather, they have staff that travel to them, as needed, and deliver the materials. Because distances are vast in India and travel options for the poor are limited, many weavers could not sustain a home-based operation if they had to travel to obtain raw materials.

Feeling: Gupta was never interested in building factories or workshops that would require people to travel away from their families, but believed in the Gandhian philosophy of nurturing cottage industries rooted in the villages of India. Living in traditional rural Indian households, women were, and still are, discouraged from stepping outside for employment. And so to tap their potential, the business had to be sensitive to their needs. If a woman needs to tend to her family and children in the afternoon, she can step away from the loom and do so. This approach is a way to preserve village life as well.

Doing: Today, Jaipur Living has more than 7,000 looms across the country, and most are sitting in artisans’ homes. The most important values preserved are simplicity, empathy, integrity, and humility. Gupta believed that even when he hired people who shared his values, the only way that an outside management team could come to understand the fundamentals of our business was by spending time with the weavers. So to help new hires acclimate, each of them were shown the supply chain firsthand, experience it, and engage with it. This “Higher School of Unlearning” has since become an integral part of HR at the company. Jaipur Living has become a global brand. What Gupta realized on this journey is that if only he can live by his values and impart them to every person who represents the company, the business can become strong and grow.
The essence of Socially Embedded Leadership:
In the book “Connect” by John Browne, and others, as described earlier, there are four tenets of Connected Leadership. It turns out that the fourth tenet “Engage Radically” (with stakeholders) is the critical one. All previous tenets have the objective of working on the fourth. It is one of openness, empathy, proactivity and action. The authors call it “meeting important stakeholders regularly and making friends before they are needed”. Socially embedded leadership, as explained earlier, goes beyond – the consciousness of the tree in our opening story made it the Bodhisattva. It was the realization that I am never just one – I am a part of an ecosystem. Others sustain me just the way I sustain others. I am completed by others just as I complete others. The meaning of the Zulu greeting Sawubona (“We see you”) is an invitation to a deep witnessing and presence. This greeting forms an agreement to affirm and investigate the mutual potential and obligation that is present in a given moment. Readers may be well aware of the philosophy of “Ubuntu” – I am because we are. The socially Embedded Leader makes this philosophy her own and charts her course with this philosophy as her guide!

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