What makes a participatory leader?

What a coincidence to pen down this piece “What makes a participatory leader” on the same day when the U.S. has its new President. We all desire that our political leaders, bosses at workplace, teachers in school, county chiefs and parish heads are ‘our representatives’ who respect and engage with us,  for that is the key to more advanced, democratic and effective model of leadership and egalitarian society.

Over my years of pedagogic learning and praxis in the development sector I’ve imbibed to the extent possible, tenets of ‘participatory engagement’. May be as a result of such a learning’s influence, I feel reluctant to any element of classical ‘top down leadership’ attributes in me and rather identify myself as a participatory manager and researcher. Before my academic resurrection in August 2015, when I enrolled for my doctoral studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, I had professional experience of 15 years, working in civil society organizations in India and bilateral programmatic experience with Kenyan, Ugandan and South African collaborators- International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), PATH, Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT), Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) and Child Rights and You (CRY), which have shaped my participatory personality.

The journey of a ‘participatory manager’ sounds ideal, though, in recapitulation, I would sum it up as being complex, intriguing, and tremendously enriching, to self and to the sector. Participatory management has harnessed intercultural professional competencies in me, while building a shared responsibility for action with team and intervention communities, thus yielding collective learning.

One of the biggest traits towards being a ‘participatory manager’ is, I feel, having ‘authentic and respectful listening’ – listening with a thinking heart, with an attitude that seeks for appreciative inquiry versus listening with limiting assessments, opinions and biases. Working in the arena of sexual and reproductive health (SRH), I have engaged with the most vulnerable sections of the society: rural masses, sex workers, drug users to mention a few,  sections, for whom we might have a bounty of sympathy, but rarely an egalitarian approach to sit by them and pay them a respectful and patient ear. While this might either seem too trivial an exercise or a sentimental ideology of a social worker, there is enough evidence which shows that most programs and leaders have historically practiced paternalistic delivery mechanisms, leading to a brewing feel among communities that they are not being consulted appropriately and as if ‘being used’! This has not just built up negative grassroots sentiments but also resulted in distrust for leadership. On SRH we have witnessed several instances like lack of uptake of female condoms in India or lower utilization of Tetanus Toxoid vaccines in Kenya, and even the suspension of Human Papillomavirus Vaccines (HPV), meant to prevent cervical cancer, in India and other countries, the key being ‘not enough’ conversation with the community, who were otherwise supposedly to benefit from the said program or project.

Dusting my civil society s(h)elf, I would strongly suggest, that the first step to being an effective leader is to listen to people or communities and subordinates,  build a resilient environment and ‘help them to help themselves’. Companies and organizations are increasingly hiring talents with deep knowledge of local problems and challenges to build effective and sustainable impact. Trust, it is imperative to deeply listen to stories of pains, pleasures, subjugation, defeats and malnourishment (metaphoric), lest projects would be mere rubric and you an implementer! Appreciate that there is an unknown pulse in the anecdotes of people, which theoretical learning can never decipher!

On a last note, do not forget to attend “Will you be ready? Tomorrow’s Leader” workshop that is being put on by the School of Public Health in SPH 125, from 6:00-7:30 pm on Wednesday, November 16th.


Tapati is a socio-behavioral scientist in community health. She is currently in her second year doctoral studies at the School of Public Health and majoring in Health Behavior. Her research emphasis is on multi-level community engagement in health policies, particularly in resource-limited country settings.Whenever any breather from her pedagogic assignments, she engages in painting or creative writing.

By Tapati Dutta
Tapati Dutta Doctoral Student