The Ashoka website describes the Young India Fellowship as “bring(ing) together a group of 300 bright young individuals who show exceptional intellectual ability and leadership potential. It trains them to become socially committed agents of change.” It’s a big statement. It’s ambitious. And it is a baffling notion for someone who is not part of the programme. Upon reading it, we are left asking, how do we create change-agents? The answer may not be what you expect and comes in the form of a 6-foot-tall American man.
Apart from a broad range of modules that the programme offers, the YIF places emphasis on developing leadership and entrepreneurial skills. There are some of the mindset that leadership cannot be taught. Through a cocktail of upbringing and circumstances and fairydust, you either have it or you don’t. Dwight Jaggard, a visiting professor from the University of Pennsylvania who has been with the YIF since its inception, is not of this opinion. He is of the view that leadership is something that can be learned and honed and that anyone, given the right training and mindset, can enhance their leadership potential. Over 10 classes, Dwight redefines the meaning of leadership and tells us that leadership is how each one of us finds how best to make our contribution to the world.
This does not mean that YIF students are waking up at 6am, taking cold showers and running intensely around campus to ‘Eye of the Tiger’ whilst in training to lead. Dwight wants us all to start with the personal; to explore ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses and our values. Ownership of these traits, he says, will enable us to lead with more direction and agency. Through a series of assignments and feedback-analysis, students engage in small groups and get valuable inputs from their team.
This year, I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of twelve teaching assistants for the course – Dwight’s “Dream Team” as we called ourselves. This experience was an eye-opening one as I had the unique opportunity to assess the progress of the students through the development of the classes. Students, through a series of simulations and exercises, are encouraged to explore team dynamics, decision-making biases and common pitfalls of teamwork. Dwight teaches them tools to handle the real working world, showing them techniques of political savviness, persuasion (always ethical, of course!) and methods of influencing without authority. A number of film-screenings and readings also complement the hands-on, practical element of the course. It is invigorating. It is testing. Dwight looms above us with a perpetual grin on his face, like an all seeing, all knowing Yoda, guiding us through the process, encouraging self-introspection, praising when things go right and identifying when things go wrong.
Above all, Dwight teaches us that empathy is a vital component of not only being a good team-member but a good leader. In this fast-paced, competitive world, this message often goes amiss. At the course end, I could see the change in the students. I can’t say that each of them knows for definite where they will make their best contribution to the world, but I can say for sure that they know how they will make their best contribution to the YIF programme. And that is as good a place as any to start.
Thankfully, we have Yoda – I mean Dwight – to ignite The Force within us.