Leadership and Waiting
This is a story about time and about leadership, and the power of waiting. A leader’s job is to help find solutions, but often the right answer needs wisdom, and a bigger perspective. This can only happen with time. Though the pressure to produce can be huge, we need to have the ability to slow down, take our time, or even reverse a decision if we feel it has arrived to quickly
I recently heard this about Vinoba Bhave, a close follower of Gandhi’s, and how he led the largest peaceful transfer of land in history. In 1951, after Gandhi’s assassination, the followers of the movement looked for who would step into the role of leader of the movement. Vinoba was the most likely successor, and huge masses of people asked him to take over from Gandhi and to speak to them about how to get the movement started again.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘That’s turning the clock backwards.’ In a time of transition we want to return to the past, which feels certain, and tested. At such a time the model of the past feels safe. Are we looking at the reality of the situation?
So Vinoba said, ‘Let’s go forward instead.’ The people begged and pleaded and eventually he agreed to stand in front of the movement.
‘But only,’ he said, ‘if you will wait.’ There is no need for leadership if there is no change needed. The job of leadership is to pay attention and make a decision. Paying attention means there is a space where things can be seen, and talked about. In some cases we will want to leap across this space, but Vinoba suggested that they wait, and open the potential for seeing and understanding the situation more clearly.
He wanted them to wait while he took six months to talk to people in the villages. What he told them is that he would walk to the conference across India.
So he walked and met with people. Early in his journey he came to a village, and as he commonly did, he sat under the trees to listen. In this village the people were very hungry, and hungry in a way that we can’t probably imagine. They had no food for their families. They had great need, they told him, and they wanted him to get someone to help them.
‘Why wait?’ he asked. ‘Why don’t you plant food and feed yourselves? Don’t wait for the government or someone else to fix this.’
‘We are untouchables,’ they replied, ‘and cannot get access to the land.’
‘I’ll go and talk to the new government,’ he said, finally. ‘We’ll change this.’
The meeting ended, they all retired, and Vinoba went away and thought about what the people had asked him. The next morning he woke up and called another meeting.
‘I made a mistake,’ he told them. ‘If this is going to work, governments and laws won’t do this. By the time all the wheels of bureaucracy work there will be no good land left.’
There was a silence. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ he told them. They sat and thought about this. To change your mind and say you don’t know is hard to do as a leader. You are expected to have the answers. You are expected to be decisive, and to be the solver of problems is great for the ego. To ‘not know,’ however, invites intimacy with the situation, and the moment. When a group is lead into this unknown there is greater potential for participation in solving the problem, and a widened series of possibilities. Have you had a leader stand in front of your team and say: ‘I don’t know’? Such candour often empowers the group to develop solutions.
In the meeting with Vinoba a rich man stood up. ‘How much land do you need?’ he asked the crowd.
‘We have 15 families, and we need 5 acres a piece’
‘I will give it,’ the man said.
‘No,’ Vinoba said, however, yet again. ‘Not this way. You have to check with your children, who will inherit this land, and your wife and family, and make sure this is okay.’ No person stands alone, outside of the system.
So the man did this, he checked with his family, and he came back the next day and said, ‘Yes. My family agrees we will give you this land.’
In the next village, Vinoba came across a similar situation, and the villagers told a similar story. He did not present a solution, but he told them what happened in the last village. Sure enough a man stood up. ‘How many truly poor?’ and he offered 100 acres for 20 families.
By the time Vinoba arrived at the gathering for the movement he had collected 2200 acres for poor families across India. And this was the birth of the Budhan land reform movement. His followers walked across land, without government support, and accomplished this great transfer.
As you will see from this story, there were moments where a solution presented, but a whole system needed to be addressed, not one part of it. It is easy to see that we can pause before leaping at a solution. One of the great uses of decision-making processes is to slow the answer’s arrival, so the greater network of opportunities, can be more fully explored. This takes wisdom and creativity.
The further consideration of Vinoba’s great leadership is in the courage it takes to say, ‘Wait. Let’s consider. Maybe our solution needs more time.’