My life’s journey, a blend of diverse cultures and challenges, has been a profound exploration of what it truly means to learn and lead. From the streets of India to the policy halls of Washington, D.C., each chapter has been a lesson in courage, empathy, and unwavering commitment. This account is more than a series of events; it’s a patchwork of moments that have profoundly shaped my perspective on leadership, resilience, and the importance of advocating for justice. Importantly, it underscores the belief that there is no monolithic, one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. As we grow and learn, our own style of leadership naturally evolves, adapting to new challenges and insights. Reflecting on my journey, I recognize moments that, in hindsight, may have been marked by recklessness or a lack of strategy. Yet, it is precisely these moments that underscore the beauty of growing and evolving as a leader. This journey often requires taking time to learn, navigating through confusion, and finding balance amidst aggression and challenges.
The First Stand: A Childhood Lesson in Bravery
At seven, I faced a neighborhood bully, a boy twice my size. This encounter was more than a child’s scuffle; it was my first foray into leadership. Standing up to him taught me an early lesson in bravery and the importance of standing up for those who couldn’t.
College Years: Resilience in the Face of Adversity
My involvement in college politics at age sixteen took a dark turn. My brother was kidnapped to scare me and derail my stand against a powerful, politically backed candidate. This ordeal forged a resilience that would define my approach to leadership – standing firm in the face of fear and pressure. It also showed me how important it is to build and rely on the support of people around me.
The National Council: Surrounded by Wisdom
At twenty-two, I was elected to the decision-making national body of a pioneer and largest human rights membership group in India. Surrounded by legends, including former Supreme Court judges, freedom fighters, and award-winning journalists, I was immersed in an environment rich with passion, bigger vision, wisdom, humility, and diverse perspectives. The organization, known for attracting future national leaders, including a Prime Minister, a President, a defense minister, and many parliamentarians, was a unique platform for learning the intricacies of leadership and the importance of thoughtful deliberation among people irrespective of age, experience, or social status.
Grassroots Activism: Empathy and Courage
In remote Indian villages, I spent years organizing and fighting crimes against women and documenting human rights abuses, often risking my life. This work, including daring ventures into high-security prisons, taught me that true leadership is deeply rooted in empathy, courage, and a relentless pursuit of justice and speaking truth to power. A community leader’s true power is not self-derived but rather drawn from the collective strength and support of the community they serve.
A Stand for Personal Integrity: Refusing Armed Security
Facing life threats, I chose to decline the armed security offered by the government in response to the National Human Rights Commission of India’s directions. This choice was about commitment to authenticity, the value of vulnerability, and community trust. Leadership often involves taking risks and relying on the collective strength of the community, demonstrating that actions should not be governed by fear.
Steering the Longest Physician Strike: A Test of Endurance
In a historic movement, I co-led a three-month-long strike involving about 5000 physicians in the public health system. It entailed tirelessly traveling across the state that spans 19,000 square miles to keep the physicians motivated and united in the face of daunting challenges. It deepened my understanding of the role of empathetic leadership in navigating through times of crisis.
Championing Global Health Equity: The Fight for Affordable Medicines
Based in Washington, D.C., I spearheaded a pivotal campaign advocating for global health equity, focusing on safeguarding access to essential medicines. It required complex strategizing to sway lawmakers across multiple nations, notably in Brazil, India, and the USA, to counter the immense pressure from major pharmaceutical companies, ensuring the continued availability of generic HIV/AIDS medications. Volunteers contributed not just their time but also supported my basic needs, from groceries to housing. My home became a chai spot for like-minded activists, a hub of collaboration and support. This collective effort, marked by workshops, direct actions, and extensive travel, showcased the power of community-driven initiatives in making significant policy impacts.
Advocacy at the World Bank: Challenging Established Powers
In the wee hours of a cold and rainy morning in April 2001, I led social justice advocates from many countries to knock on the door of the World Bank (WB) president’s home, delivering a letter signed by activists from over 40 countries. It was a strategic move to highlight the often-overlooked influences shaping global health decisions. Accompanied by fellow activists, national television cameras, and amidst extensive security presence, this bold move underscored my commitment to not just identify but actively challenge systemic powers for the greater good.
Conclusion: The Resilience and Growth in Leadership’s Journey
Leadership, as I’ve learned, isn’t just about triumphs; it’s often about enduring the toughest storms. I’ve experienced metaphorical and literal beatings, lost battles, and felt defeated. Yet, each instance has been crucial to my leadership growth, teaching me resilience – the art of rising, dusting off, and moving forward with renewed courage. It’s in vulnerability that we often find our greatest strengths. As I face new challenges, I’m reminded that the journey of learning and leading is ongoing. Each experience is an opportunity for growth and meaningful contribution.
By sharing these experiences, I hope to share a nuanced view of leadership – a path marked by both successes and struggles and the continuous pursuit of regrowth and rebuilding from defeat.