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Leadership lessons from a Housewife

By G. Balasubramanian

Normally, we associate the ideas of leadership with corporate, social, political and other formal systems. We must acknowledge simultaneously that several forms of informal leadership exist in our social systems which are not celebrated. I have closely examined the role played by the House wife in many families and it is awesome. In many cases, in rural set ups the women have not even gone through a formal system of education; but they exercised their practical wisdom to provide the required informal leadership.

Let us take a few case studies: (all names are fictitious)

1. Shweta was married to the eldest son of a landlord in a village. The family to which she was enrolled was a large family and her husband had five brothers and three sisters. The landlady was sick and could not manage the household effectively. The entire responsibility fell on the shoulders of young Shweta. What were the roles played by her?

Let us examine:

a. She managed the flow of the grains and pulses from the fields, their storage, distribution, safety and utility, and accounted for them.

b. She could coordinate and communicate with the labourers to get various works done. On a few occasions management of estate, cattle became a part of her duties including their healthcare.

c. She could monitor the studies and growth profile of her brothers-in law.

d. She could identify, negotiate and organize the wedding of her sisters-in law

e. She managed the health profile of the members of the family

f. She managed the kitchen and ensured healthy and delicious food to the members of the family

g. She maintained rapport with the neighbors and other members of society to provide the correct profile of the house to which she had come

h. She exhibited great talents in effective change management

What are the various leadership duties performed by her? (Even though to a limited extent)

  • Resource management
  • Labor management
  • HR management
  • Communication and marketing
  • Nutrition and health management
  • PR and image building

While performing all these functions she has been a coordinator, facilitator, mentor and an organizer of resources .All these characteristics fit into the concept of leadership. As such she has been a team leader.

2. Let us take the case of Jyoti who had lost her husband at an early stage. She had to look after the parents of her erstwhile husband as he was the only son. She has a son and a daughter to look after. She had to educate them. She was a housewife and was not employed. She did her work successfully through effective organization of the available resources, educated the children and brought them up.

In what way her skills are different from those of the team leaders and project leaders in some of our corporate companies?

In the informal system, the leadership is characterized by

  • Trust
  • Confidence
  • Mutual understanding
  • Willing cooperation and support systems
  • Corporate accountability
  • Informal authority
  • Recognition and appreciation

Surprisingly, the compensation for the discharge of various functions of the leadership is not monetary but is by recognition and respect. The entire system is mostly dominated by unconditional love and the power of giving than receiving.

I have also admired their stupendous capacity for crisis management. On many occasions they don’t even show any signs of crisis in their face (as against the present day managers, for whom even a minor problem appears as a crisis). The level of tolerance, unlimited patience, ability to relate to people during crises, sustenance of efforts and perseverance to get things done are some remarkable qualities they possess. They provide an excellent role model in stress management.(you may not like to agree – please bear with me if I appear a little biased towards those people who are branded as ‘unprofessional’!)

In many organizations while people tend to create a ‘family atmosphere’, the existence of rules and regulations, systemic designs, concept of professionalism, individual accountabilities, “work cultures”, working for rewards and ownership to work than people articulate an entirely different model. Nevertheless, I have always admired the informal leadership given by men and women in many rural institutions, especially the housewife.

It is important that they should be deemed employed at home with a definite objective and as leaders of the informal work culture.