From the Leadership Perspectives' Series by

Dr. Vandana Nadig Nair, Founder Director - Phicus

“Leadership is leadership… where it plays out doesn’t really matter”.

Yes and no.

At a very high level, the principles of leadership stay constant.  Every leader, regardless of whether she heads a large MNC or a grass root NGO needs to have a clear and compelling vision of the future, a well-defined strategy and plan to progress towards that vision, take people along on this journey and demonstrate unswerving authenticity through it all.


Over the past 27 years, I have worked closely with over a 1000 leaders spanning sectors, industries / domains, size and purpose – MNCs, NGOs, Foundations, Governments, family-run businesses.  There are a core set of leadership competencies and skills that are important regardless of the domain one is operating in – For instance, Strategic thinking is equally crucial for the Head of a thriving global Risk and Compliance consulting practice as it is for the leader of an NGO that is working in a remote Himalayan region to leverage and manage water from mountain springs to better the lives of people in these hilly terrains.  People management challenges don’t change much either! Talent attraction, retention, motivation while more or less imminent depending on the organization, are key leadership mandates.


How some of these skills play out in the social sector definitely are more nuanced to the purpose, the extent of scale and the complexity of the context.  For instance, stakeholder management, in my opinion, is far more complex for a social sector leader given the multitude of actors ranging from the end beneficiary to the communities in which the organization operates to donors, employees, partners and the Government.


The difference between a Social sector leader and leaders from other walks of life does not lie in the skills and competencies required to fulfil their roles.  What distinguishes a social leader, rather, are three clear attributes - Passion for Betterment, Authenticity and Resilience.  Are these not important for leaders in other spaces too? Definitely they are.  However these are defining attributes of a Social sector leader and are critical for success.


Passion for betterment is what has driven Jadav Payeng, a tribal from Assam, India, to afforest 1360 acres of land which he has now transformed into a forest reserve over 40 years now and Vinod, a software professional to bring books and reading to children in remote areas in Sikkim.  Their common engine? A deep and urgent desire to make a small portion of our world a better place.  It is this passion that helps them stay the course and keep their own and their organization’s efforts focused on an outcome that is long term, intangible and often without precedence.


Authenticity, in my experience, is a wonderful amalgamation of unswerving commitment to the cause and reflective role modelling.  Bundled into it are critical behaviors including staying in touch with the realities of the community one is serving, a willingness to experiment and learn, thriving in partnerships and sharing deeply and widely of learnings and experiences.


The development sector as an arena is fraught with uncertainties and changes.  Funding and talent remain constant challenges while socio, political, economic and cultural elements and changes play a large role at macro, meso and micro levels.  A large government supported education project lapsed into oblivion when there was a change in the bureaucratic offices supporting the project.  What did the NGO leader do? Patiently wooed the new incumbent while ensuring that critical, on the ground work in the schools continued in a stripped down manner (befitting the shrunken budget).  This tandem of perseverance, innovative thinking and ability to deal with uncertainties / ambiguities is what I call ‘resilience’.

I have seen several supremely efficient leaders, often corporate crossovers into the social space, with incredible leadership skills and organization building abilities fail miserably in the Social sector.  This is because they did not deeply connect with the core belief of wanting to bring a tangible difference to the lives of the people they touched; to humbly accept that perhaps there is much to learn from the communities they serve and those who directly serve these communities and finally, persevere in the face of all the vagaries that development work anywhere in the world is confronted with.

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