03 May 2018 19:05 IST

Role model leaders: the Mountain Man

A still from the movie, Manjhi - The Mountain Man

Dashrath Manjhi teaches leaders to have intention, resolve, and a mission bigger than themselves

An unusual, but powerful role model for our leadership journey is Dashrath Manjhi. Also known as the Mountain Man, his story carries many lessons for us. For those not familiar with the background — Dashrath Manhji was an ordinary labourer who lived in Gehlaur village in Bihar. Versions vary, but the essence of his heroic story was that his village was separated from the nearest town by a hill. People would have to go around the hill, to reach the town that was more than 55 kilometres away.

Dashrath’s wife is said to have fallen while climbing the hill and medical attention took a while to arrive due to the long journey. Dashrath then decided to carve a path through the hill. Armed with just a chisel and a hammer, he worked on the mammoth project for 22 years until finally, a path was hewn. The long trek to town was shortened to about 10-15 kms.

Against all odds and inspite of his fellow villagers’ ridicule, Dashrath created a legacy that outlived him and benefited the whole village. He died in 2007 at the age of 73, with recognition and fame coming only after his death.

What can we learn from his magnificent obsession?

A mission bigger than ourselves

As leaders, we often make the mistake of choosing small missions. Revenue targets, profit targets, being number one in the market are all great goals but they rarely have the power to motivate and invigorate people for the long haul.

For ourselves personally, gaining a coveted title or designation, or achieving a salary number, could be good goals, but once they’re achieved, they end up feeling empty. Dashrath’s message to us is to choose a mission larger than ourselves; a mission that reaches out beyond our selfish desires; a mission that gives us and the work we do, meaning.

Facebook had set for itself the mission of ‘making the world more open and connected’. Last year, it expanded the scope of that mission to ‘Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’. Both statements are powerful because they encompass a mission bigger than the organisation. When people come to work, they are able to view themselves as part of a bigger purpose and that helps them give meaning to what they do — even to relatively small tasks.

Attention and intention

Great tasks require great focus. For all of us, time is a limited resource. Nothing that you or I do can increase the 24 hours we are all granted. But the intention and attention with which we approach and use our time is what gives it power. That is what makes the difference between a leader’s impact using the same time, versus the person who chooses to use his time without intention and attention.

A leader goes about her years, months, weeks and days more deliberately — with what we could call intentional leadership. Most often, we function on autopilot, slave to the tasks and crises that pop up and consume our days. In the end, we feel exhausted but rarely feel fulfilled. Being intentional with our leadership can change that.

It means we choose a mission, we choose the goals that flow from that mission, we commit to the tasks that move towards those goals, with attention and intention. That combination creates focus and gives us the energy and stamina for the journey and most often blesses the work we do, with results far greater than our work deserves.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to listen to K Paul Thomas, the inspiring Founder and Managing Director of ESAF bank. Their mission statement reflects a deliberate focus:

‘To provide responsive banking services to the underserved and un-served households in India facilitated by customer-centric products, high quality service and innovative technology’.

That focused mission helps them make choices, from marketing and operations to finance and growth, that are deliberate and intentional and that are executed with the care and attention that supports the mission. I had the opportunity to meet with some of his team members as well and in each person, I saw the same zeal and fire for the mission. Their successes reflect the power of the intention and attention with which they work and lead.

Dashrath was able to do that everyday he worked on the mountain — he gave the mission his noble intention and his deliberate attention and that literally moved the mountain.

Resilience and resolve

As Dashrath himself put it, many villagers thought he was insane and often ridiculed him. But he kept at the work, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year — for 22 years. That would not have been possible without an immense reservoir of resilience and a steely resolve born of a deep conviction.

When we are deeply convinced about the work we do — the why of it — we face criticism, temporary setbacks and failures with the right attitude. We can bounce back, and see the bigger picture.

Elon Musk is a great example. He was bullied as a child, rejected for a job at Netscape, ousted as CEO of Zip2, the company he had founded, and when his ambitious SpaceX programme reached for the stars, his first few rocket launches ended in what others would call failure.

And yet, he surges ahead in his quest to make Tesla the electric car that is used all over the world, and in realising his dream of finding another planet in space for human settlement. As he puts it in true Dashrath Manjhi-speak: “If something is important enough, you should try, even if the probable outcome is failure”.

Perhaps it is best to close this reflection on Dashrath’s story with the quote often attributed to Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

“Begin it now.”

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