Leadership lessons from India (part one)


Each year, Lane4 sponsors one of its employees to volunteer with Mumbai-based charity The OSCAR Foundation for two weeks. It uses football to create youth role models in low-income communities in India.

In part one of this two-part blog, Lane4’s 2019 OSCAR Fellow shares his reflections from Mumbai - drawing out leadership lessons for the world of business.

Adam is a Client Solutions Consultant at Lane4, specialising in People, Change & Transformation. In addition, he is Chairman of one of Lane4’s partner charities, Behind Every Kick.

It’s fair to say that I didn’t know what to expect when left for India. I was told the best thing to do was “Be yourself and take it all in!

Two weeks later, and I feel like I did just that - and thank goodness I didn’t arrive with a set of expectations, as they would have been blown out the water the moment I touched down in Mumbai.

Over the last fortnight I have had experiences that changed me personally as well as professionally. I believe that we can learn a tremendous amount from life in India, particularly when it comes to business and leadership.

In these blogs, therefore, I will describe a lesson for each of the 15 days that I was in India. What follows is not ground-breaking, but rather a reminder of what authentic leadership can - and should - look like.

1. Take great pride in your personal brand, it will serve you well.

One of the most interesting conversations I had during my time in India was regarding arranged marriages.

I asked the question of how a family chooses to pair their son or daughter with another. The simple answer was reputation.

A family determines whether a prospective partner is appropriate for their loved one based upon the individual’s ‘personal brand’, as well as that of their family. As such, an individual’s day-to-day habits, the way he or she carries themselves amongst the community and what they become known for are all integral for the future that they will lead. 

Whilst our personal brand at work might not determine who we spend the rest of our lives with (although it could), it will certainly influence the opportunities that we are offered, the roles that we occupy and ultimately our overall experience in the workplace - as well as the career that we end up forging for ourselves.

With this in mind, be conscious of the reputation that your behaviour creates, and recognise that what you become known for at work will have large repercussions on your career - as well as those around you.

2. Listen not to respond, but to hear.

At the start of my time in India, I simply couldn’t comprehend what it must be like to be raised there. This meant my ability to listen deeply became crucial.

When offering support and guidance on the hardships and challenges that those in the community face, it was integral that I took the time to understand exactly what was being said to me - what had worked before; what hadn’t worked; what would make something difficult to implement; what was literally keeping people awake at night?

There were a number of times when I merely wanted to respond or react - to share an idea that had worked in my own experience of charity work - but without taking the time to understand OSCAR’s context, and the unique stories that exist within it, I would not have been able to offer true value.

Furthermore, as an Englishman amongst predominantly Hindi speakers, the language barrier could become a real issue at times. However, by breaking conversations down to the emotions that people were feeling (when appropriate) - anger, frustration, sadness, happiness - I was able to find an international language that enabled us to find common ground and mutual understanding.

Ask yourself: “how often am I taking the time to truly understand the person sat opposite me, as opposed to just responding so that I can get onto the next task or activity?”

3. Demonstrate genuine care and you will reap long-term rewards.

Care is linked closely to my previous point. Never before have I been among a workforce who so obviously care for one another, the work that they are doing and the impact that it has.

Perhaps this is because many of the OSCAR team actually come from the community they are now serving, but even just in the office the level of sincerity and genuineness was inspiring and it is no surprise that this transpired from ‘the top’.

OSCAR’s senior leaders take the time to understand their people. A weekly update acts as an opportunity to celebrate successes, discuss and resolve challenges, and to keep the whole organisation in the loop with what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ - where much of my work took place (for example longer term performance management processes).

With approximately 30 full-time staff, it is easier to do this at OSCAR than in a large company, but all organisations should strive to achieve that pulse to communications as an investment in any its greatest asset: its people. This ensures staff not only understand the challenges and opportunities that they are likely to face as part of an ambitious company, but care about them too.

Are you demonstrating care as a leader, recognising that you will get long-term engagement from your workforce as a result?

4. Look for the opportunity in perceived ‘failure’.

Having attended my fair share of conferences on people, culture, change and transformation, I am not new to the idea of ‘failing fast’, ‘failing forward’ and/or ‘celebrating failure’.

Unfortunately, I have often found that leaders find these sentiments nice in principle, but difficult to implement in reality - particularly if the cost of the ‘failure’ to the business is vast.

I always try to look for the opportunity in a perceived failure. As an example, unfortunately, on my final afternoon in the OSCAR offices, some money was stolen. Having seen what I had throughout my trip, I wasn’t surprised to discover that someone had been driven to such extremes, but I worried how the team would respond.

However, rather than being frustrated or disappointed, attention turned to discovering who had taken the money to ensure that it was not someone who was around the office regularly, and considering ways such a thing could be avoided in future.

By shifting the focus from someone’s negative actions to ensuring that more secure procedures were put in place, the organisation gained and benefitted from what could have been deemed a failure.

The next time you are working with an individual or team who appear to have failed, consider the opportunity that might come from this situation. Is it actually an opportunity to learn, develop and improve? Can you apply what is common sense, but rarely common practice?

5. ‘Cut the corporate jargon and talk to me like a human!

It was often the case that I was working with people for whom English was their second or third language - or perhaps not even a language at all.

This meant that I couldn’t communicate in the way that I typically would at work. This was frustrating at times, but it also became an opportunity to cut everything back - to really get to the point of what I was trying to say or achieve.

What was my message? Who was my audience? And, what did these two things mean for my delivery? Having considered the true goal of my communication - to inform, involve or ignite - I could ensure that those with whom I was communicating understood quicker and on a practical level.

By communicating in a somewhat simplistic way, I found that I could have more quality conversations, at pace. Furthermore, there was no need to revisit previous conversations because of a lack of understanding.

When planning for a conversation or presentation, consider what you would share if you had only 280 characters to make your point. What do you want your audience’s key takeaways to be?

6. Never lose site of the bigger picture - both personally and professionally - and don’t be afraid to remind people what it looks like when it comes to business.

One of the best effects of my time in Mumbai is that it has put things that were taking up a lot of my mental capacity into perspective.

What was deemed to be ‘important’ before, became feeble in the grand scheme of things. By reconnecting with my personal ‘big picture’ - as well as that which surrounds us (the world within which we live) - I was able to recalibrate and reprioritise my task list, deciding what to do, what to delegate, what to diarise, and what to ‘dump’.

I found that working in a different space (and time zone) gave me the opportunity to reconnect with what we typically do day-in-day-out.

Rather than simply ‘doing’, I was able to consider how my contribution enables something bigger, both personally and professionally. This personal ‘why’, combined with the purpose of Lane4 and Behind Every Kick (for example), is a fantastic source of motivation, which can be harnessed in tougher times.

Consider your personal ‘why’ as a leader, as well as that of your people. Do they know what makes you tick and gets you out of bed in the morning? Does your organisation’s vision or mission statement get to the heart of why you really do what you do? We know it is purpose that truly motivates people, so consider this the next time you are aspiring to engage your people.

7. Create a sense of community amongst your people and your culture will flourish.

Linked to the previous point is the topic of culture. One of the most refreshing things about my time with the OSCAR Foundation was the behaviours that a sense of community drove.

Employees were willing to come into the office early, leave late and work seven-day weeks if necessary, all because there was a sense of belonging and alignment between that what was said and what actually happened in reality.

This sense of community meant that people were happy to go above and beyond the bare minimum, predominantly because they knew that others would do the same in their joint endeavour to achieve ‘success’.

Appreciating that not everyone is going to be equally motivated to achieve greatness within your organisation - and drivers will differ between individuals and teams - it is integral that you give your people a voice and listen to that what is said.

How could processes be improved? What are people proud of? Who do they believe deserves recognition? What have they tried and implemented within their team that could benefit the entire organisation? By opening a two-way dialogue between the business and your people, you can create a brand that thrives off of creative problem solving, collaboration and a sense of team and togetherness.


Read part two of this blog here. Or click here to learn more about how a sense of purpose can separate great leaders from merely good ones.




Behind Every Kick uses the power of sport to develop young people. The charity empowers both sportsmen & women to discover that the skills they are building on the pitch or court, can be harnessed to unlock a lifetime of wider opportunities.

The OSCAR Foundation (Organization for Social Change, Awareness and Responsibility) is a Mumbai-based football for development non-profit focused on creating youth role models in low-income communities in India. Each year Lane4 offers a member of staff the opportunity to visit OSCAR for two weeks, in order to support its continued growth.

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