Below in this edited extract from her excellent book, Leading on The Frontline (described as a ‘must-read’ for ambitious leaders by Sir Richard Branson), Linda details just what the process involved and the leadership lessons she learnt as a result.
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The situation I encountered
Since the 1950s more than 150 000 Tibetans had found refuge in India. In contrast to the experience of many refugee communities, money had streamed in from sympathetic donors, and more than half of this was funnelled into education. There were now 106 kindergartens, 87 primary schools, 44 middle schools, 21 secondary schools and 13 senior secondary schools catering to 25 000 Tibetan students. Where only 65 per cent of Indian youngsters came out of school able to read and write, more than 90 per cent of Tibetans in India had achieved these skills
The well-funded, highly organised Tibetan camps had also done a fine job of preserving Tibetan culture, but by isolating themselves from their hosts (the 1.4 billion Indian population could have gobbled them up in a heartbeat), they had created other problems.
Young, well-educated Tibetans led a sheltered life in the camps. Then, at age 18, they were released into the outside world to compete with the more streetwise Indians. There was little vocational training on offer, and unless they became more commercially savvy they hadn’t a hope of competing in the job market. With little attempt at integration, they were left to sink or swim. This situation had led to a seemingly endless cycle of disappointment, boredom, substance abuse and suicide.
My plan… And the Prince of Wales
My project was to research the problem of high drug and alcohol abuse among young people in the Tibetan refugee camps in India and to try to help turn the situation around. I needed to create a bridge, to be a broker between the Indian business world and the many bright, highly educated but despairing young Tibetans. I reached out to Youth Business International in London, one of Prince Charles’s charities. They sounded interested in what we were doing. What I didn’t know when I phoned was that the Prince of Wales himself would be visiting Delhi that autumn.
When I received a call from the British High Commission suggesting that the Prince should meet some of our Tibetan entrepreneurs, I panicked. Our project was in such a fledgling state that I feared our efforts to impress him would appear derisory and that our young Tibetans might feel exposed. I knew I had to swallow these fears, though. A VIP visit could give the Tibetans just the boost they needed.
Of course I said we would be delighted to receive a visit, and phone calls to London went back and forth for a week or two. Then we hit a snag. Eric, my friend at the British High Commission, called me.
‘The Indian government aren’t happy,’ he said. ‘They say it’s not safe for the Prince to visit Majnu-ka-tilla.’
‘Oh no,’ I groaned. I couldn’t see how Majnu-ka-tilla, the camp outside Delhi that had been my base throughout my time in India, would pose a threat to his safety.
‘That’s so unfair,’ I said, hot with frustration. ‘Dirty and smelly, yes. But not unsafe.’
‘They are suggesting you bring the Tibetan entrepreneurs to meet the Prince at a five-star hotel in Delhi,’ he said cautiously, anticipating my eruption.
‘You know that won’t work,’ I fired back. ‘He needs to see that these businesses are being run from a refugee camp. That’s the whole point. They don’t live in a bloody five-star hotel!’
I could sense Eric suppressing a smile on the other end of the phone.
‘Look, calm down. I’ve got a suggestion,’ he said. ‘Some guys from Scotland Yard are coming out on a recce. Let’s ask them to assess the site and we can take it from there.’
‘And let the Prince decide,’ I said. ‘Exactly.’
Weeks went by before Eric called me with the news that a group of plain clothes policemen and the Prince’s bodyguard and private secretary would be paying us a visit the next day. The visit was quick and efficient. The police spread out to check out the camp and we met up an hour later at the playground, where I planned on showcasing the Tibetan entrepreneurs’ work.
Tim, Prince Charles’s bodyguard, was relaxed and efficient. ‘The Indian government are insisting that we place some armed police on the rooftops,’ he said. ‘To be honest, I think it’s a bit over the top, but we can agree to that. I think the camp will be a good place to visit,’ he said. ‘The “boss” is keen to meet the refugees on their own turf.’
I breathed out with relief. ‘That’s wonderful!’
He had a quick word with one of the policemen then turned back to me. ‘One last thing,’ he said. ‘We need to identify a place where you can escort the Prince in an emergency.’
I looked around helplessly. There weren’t any rooms that had direct access to the playground. Tim and the policemen walked around the perimeter.
‘Hang on. What’s this?’ Tim opened a small wooden door. He reared back quickly. ‘Ah, a rather dirty toilet.’ I looked apologetic but he smiled, wiping his hands on his trousers. ‘Perfect. If you clean it up it will be fine.’
Preparing for the Prince of Wales
We had a month to get organised. Five Tibetans were selected to showcase their businesses and products: Pema (beauty treatments); Dawa (event management); Kesang (IT); Dorjee (graphics and signwriting); and Norbu (fashion). The latter would have his work cut out, as I had tasked him with creating a catwalk fashion show.
Dawa, the event manager, was in his element, rushing around, holding meetings to organise the running order and how the stage, lighting and seating would be set up. I didn’t imagine everything would run to plan; orchestrating any event in India was always unpredictable.
‘Just remember, India runs on “Indian Standard Time”,’ my friend Jan told me when I called for our weekly chat. ‘Don’t expect things to happen on schedule. They will eventually, but not in the way you planned.’
‘I know, Jan,’ I wailed. ‘But we have so little time and so much to do!’
‘It doesn’t help to get upset or frustrated, Linda,’ she said complacently. ‘India works in its own special way and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.’
Standing in the playground in the midday sun on the day of the event, I thought of Jan’s words. The stage was still being built. I wanted to stomp around cracking my whip, but when the chai wallah arrived to announce a tea break I decided to let it go. Everyone downed tools and took out their steel tiffin boxes. I sat down with Sonam, my Tibetan guide, general fixer and fast friend, and the workers. They had been doing a sterling job and I didn’t want to spoil the day by shouting at everyone. I just had to trust it would all come together.
As the chai wallah poured my tea, he asked a flood of questions: ‘Are you married, madam? How much money do you make? Do you sleep with your boyfriend?’
This last comment gained him a slap from Sonam. ‘That’s enough, my friend,’ he said. ‘Back to work.’ We all fell about laughing.
The Prince was due to arrive at 1 pm, and with only an hour to go we still had a lot to do. There were still a few nails to be banged in on the wooden stage, the red carpet had to be laid and water splashed on the dusty trees.
Most important, I needed to light the incense sticks we had placed in buckets behind the Prince’s chair. I was worried that the wafts of sewage coming from the nearby river might make him retch.
The clock was ticking and I realised that Norbu still had not arrived with my outfit. I had lost my hairbrush in the melee and had the sickening thought that I might have to welcome the Prince of Wales in my dirty black trousers, looking like I had walked through a hedge.
‘Linda, time to get changed,’ Sonam emerged looking handsome in his dark black Tibetan chuba and white silk shirt. ‘Your dress has arrived.’
I looked around wildly, taking in all the things that still needed to be done. ‘Can you light the incense,’ I bleated at him. ‘There’s still so much to be done.’
Shame there isn’t time for a shower, I thought to myself, running my fingers through my hair as I dashed off to the transformed playground.
The Prince arrives.. early
I was about to clear away the tea cups that had been left lying around when my mobile rang.
‘Hi Linda, Eric here. We’re running a bit early. Can we bring the Prince now?’
‘Now?’ I squeaked.
I looked at the men still laying the red flooring. ‘Please,’ I begged. ‘Can you take one more trip around the block? Please …’
I waited on the roadside outside the gates of the school for the Prince and entourage to arrive. My phone rang again. This time it was one of the Scotland Yard officers.
‘Two minutes and the Prince will be arriving,’ he said. ‘Are you in position?’
Prince Charles, wearing a double-breasted navy pinstripe suit with a Remembrance Day poppy in his lapel, stepped out of the British High Commissioner’s car into the heat and noise and chaos of a three-lane highway. He looked totally at ease.
I had rehearsed my curtsy and welcoming words: ‘Your Royal Highness, thank you for coming,’ but when the moment came, I opened my mouth … and nothing came out. I gaped like a fish.
The Prince beamed at me. ‘What a delight to be here. Thank you for inviting me.’
A moment later my wits returned and I was able to chat with the Prince as we entered the gates. Once inside, he moved from one entrepreneur to the next, asking questions and looking thoroughly engaged. I could tell he was enjoying himself. He stopped at Norbu’s display, particularly taken with the unusual design on Norbu’s shoulder bags, made of layer upon layer of silk. He showed them to his private secretary.
‘These will make lovely presents,’ he said. ‘Well done. Stunning!’
Norbu beamed with pride. He had been working around the clock, not only on the clothes and accessories for his stand, but also on my dress and the outfits for the catwalk models. Five ultra-shy Tibetan office girls had been taught by Dawa how to move along the stage to music. It hadn’t been an easy job. I had watched him earlier in the day calling out, ‘Lift your heads! Stop looking at your toes! The Prince wants to see your beautiful smiles!’ His tutelage had not been in vain. Now the models were smiling for all they were worth as they sashayed down the catwalk, and I could tell the Prince was charmed.
As a grand finale we had laid on something very special. I had had to keep my surprise a secret. I had asked Miss Tibet to come to the show. The Chinese had long exerted pressure on governments and organisers to remove Miss Tibet from any international pageants or competitions. I wasn’t going to let that happen. We wanted to make a statement, and what better way than to invite Miss India and Miss Tibet to share in the event? Now, as they walked along the catwalk, arm in arm like sisters, we all held our breath, mesmerised by their beauty and grace. They curtseyed to the Prince and he smiled. Later he stood to have his photo taken with the pair. The Tibetans cheered and the press went mad, camera bulbs popping furiously. The moment was captured forever in Hello magazine.
Little did I know that this unexpected visit from the Prince would play such a pivotal part of my career. I shared with him my passion for engaging business leaders in my humanitarian projects. He agreed that the private sector was the most underused resource in development work but he quickly added, ‘When they start to offer you money, a nice big cheque, leave it on the table. Money is always needed but the real jewel is them, their business acumen, their entrepreneurial skills, their innovation, their creativity, heart, passion and soul. Money is for a moment. The person is for a lifetime.’
Imagine, I thought, engaging the world’s brightest business minds, applying their entrepreneurial skills, passion and creativity to uplift challenged communities sustainably while at the same time transforming their company, their people and their world I have. Yes. I believe. The world needs to stop being charitable and start being capable.
For many years it had become increasingly obvious that charities were struggling to be effective, with too much red tape, conflict of interest and misdirected funding. The social problems were continuing to grow. What we needed to do was to change the players, change the model and change the approach. Turn the world’s brightest minds to the world’s biggest problems. Turn to the stars of industry to figure things out and bring their best ideas to the frontline. Stop throwing out cash and start throwing our weight behind real change, one village at a time if need be. My heart and soul were on fire.
The Prince of Wales spent hours in the sweltering heat talking to each of our young Tibetan entrepreneurs. At one point a young Tibetan approached him, offering tea. We had been told he would not be able to accept any food or drink, but he accepted the cup and drank. His interest and concern were evident in every conversation. The Prince finally took his leave long after his allotted departure time. The inspiration and encouragement he gave the group was priceless, and for me a seed had been planted that was to grow into a far-reaching oak tree
What the experience taught me about leadership
Most leaders are great talkers but not such great listeners. Active listening is a top leadership skill. Being alert and attentive can pay unimaginable dividends that can change the course of your life. If we learn to listen in a focused manner, without being distracted by the chatter of our own needs, preoccupations and prejudices, we are able to connect more fully, and resolve conflicts and problems more empathically and effectively. Listening and connecting bring gems to light.
Active listening is not easy. Our ‘monkey mind’ is always busy jumping forward and backward, twisting this way and that. Observe yourself. Do you jump in on a pause and finish the speaker’s sentence for them? Do you have your opinion already wrapped up? Be aware: these are signs that you are not fully listening.
As a good listener, you will make continuous eye contact. You will constantly check your own understanding against what you are learning from the speaker.
- How well do you listen to others and learn from them?
- Are you really open to what they are saying or are you pretending?
- What do they mean, what are they feeling, and what’s at stake?
Linda is a frontline humanitarian, leadership expert, author and inspirational speaker, intent on changing the world forever. Businesses and individuals around the world continue to benefit from Linda’s incredible frontline experience, transformed into Courageous Leadership a series of unique, high-impact workshops, leadership programs and inspirational speeches designed to develop top talent and emerging leaders.
To find out how it all began: READ MORE
In November 2019, Linda is leading a’ be the change’ frontline experience to Nepal to help with recovery after the earthquake. The group will travel to a remote and forgotten area on the Nepal/Tibet border, bringing people from all walks of life together to observe and live in the villages. The group will share their ideas, innovation and intelligence and together with the elders come up with sustainable livelihood uplifts — aiming implement the solutions while the guests are there.