We often hear about leadership through the eyes of various leaders representing different industries. But in order to get a holistic insight about leadership, we really need to delve into the leadership experiences of various leaders, how they react to emergent problems, and seek their advice on various leadership experiences that young aspiring leaders need to pursue to strengthen and prepare themselves. The following is an interview conducted on February 11, 2014 with Dr. Purnima Mane, the CEO and president of Pathfinder International based in Watertown, MA.
Q: According to you what are a few competencies/skills/traits that effective leaders should develop?
A: I would say clear vision and ability to articulate that vision in a way that is clear to people and gets people energized and excited. Leaders should be able to articulate in a fashion in which you feel moved, engaged that you have a purpose in what they are doing. I would also say that most leaders should have some charisma. The other trait a leader needs to have is to be sensitive especially in terms of whom do you expect to follow and who are these followers that you are looking for. Most leaders’ people skills are very well developed like their communication skills. I think this is important because being able to connect to people is critical for a leader.
Q: What experiences helped you to grow as a person or leader?
A: I think in my case I grew up in a family where many people were in leadership positions. They were recognized in different fields as being leaders. My father came from the theatre world and was very recognized as a luminary in that field. My mother came from the field of family planning and was recognized as someone who had done something distinctive. There were a lot of role models around that made a huge difference. I also had opportunities. I think my parents worked very hard to make sure that I availed of all the opportunities even though I was a woman growing up in India. I also think trying things out and being assigned responsibilities helped me.
Q: What are two or three experiences aspiring young leaders should seek out to strengthen and prepare themselves?
A: You need to face failure because only then:
a) you become modest – you develop a level of humility.
b) you learn from adversity and failure.
There is no one set formula for developing leadership. It would be good for leaders to look for experiences that would put them beyond their comfort zone. People say leaders are born not made. I do not fully agree. There has to be something there, some skills for you to shape, you can read about other leaders, you can go and listen to them, you can read their autobiography, and you can expose yourself to other challenges because that’s really what gives you the sense that there is no formula to lead.
Q: What emergent problems (e.g. in the field of reproductive health, social problems) has your organization been facing?
A: The organization faces many problems that many other organizations face. One is the volatile nature of funding. One likes to have a strong enough base of what you call unrestricted funds. There is a shifting nature of funding. There are also foundations that give you money to do some work but do not give you the full overhead that you are entitled to. Secondly, just surviving in a world that is getting fairly crowded with non-profits is another problem. The other thing is how to keep your organization focused on a few areas. How do you retain your focus as an organization that works on sexual and reproductive health, yet doesn’t do everything on sexual and reproductive health? And finally, I would say getting, motivating, and retaining good quality staff.
Q: How do you think this will affect the knowledge, experience, and skills that leaders (in social service organizations) may need in the future?
A: Young people are often so busy with universities they do not think about it. But if you look at most leaders, they have always done something as part of civil society, volunteer group and so on. Today we also have a range of textbooks on leaderships. I think the skills that leaders should have along with vision is adaptation, flexibility, innovation, creativity. Taking failures and analyzing them, not taking them by, because in the private sector if you fail you lose your job. However, risk taking and crafting strategies is part of leadership.
Q: Who do you admire for their leadership or that you model your own leadership style after?
A: I model myself after two or three people I worked with. They were actually my bosses and they were the heads of the organizations. But I watched what they did and learned what not to do as well. My leadership style is a little more collegial in the sense that I want to and I need to exchange my ideas with my critical group around me. I feel that as a leader you need to be able to be flippant, be able to laugh with people, be able to look a little ridiculous at times, so that you get that garb of leadership, somewhere away from you, and appear to people like …. “hey she’s human and she makes mistakes too”.