Leadership and followship

In the original Dune by Frank Herbert, the main character Paul recounts being questioned about leadership:

She asked me to tell her what it is to rule, and I said that one commands. And she said I had some unlearning to do.

I’ve taught sea kayaking on and off for quite a while, including something called “Leadership Workshops”, a series of one-evening seminars followed by the main event: a six-day expedition off the coast of British Columbia, each day being led by a different team of two students. From before sunrise until dinner, that team was responsible for knowing the weather, the route, the tides and currents. It was their job to get everyone up, fed, packed and launched, then guide the group to the evening’s destination, ensuring everyone was safely arrived and properly settled.

Each evening, over a group dinner, we would discuss how the day went, providing feedback and context, sharing lessons learned. This was an especially interesting exercise, as each day’s newly-minted leaders had no cred with the group, and had no time to earn it – the rest of the group was asked to reserve judgment on the leaders until the dinner debriefing session, which can be a very hard ask. While the trip was designed to surface and discuss leadership challenges (and it certainly did), followship, or lack of it, frequently made the difference between a successful day and a ten-hour rolling conflict.

Project teams can reach this point as well, where everyone can practically read each others’ minds, the concept feels equally shared, the goals clear, the progress exhilarating. A tight team can sense when a strong leader is on a roll  – but even a strong leader can be diverted by an intractable team member. We spend a lot of time defining what makes a good leader, and rewarding those who meet those challenges. We spend considerably less time identifying and rewarding those members of a team who, by demonstrating great followship, help create an environment within which the leader can be even more effective and the team more successful.

At one point I decided to learn ballroom dancing, and eventually experienced the conversation that is constant, subtle and sublime when two people are in the groove. But as everyone in a beginner class discovers quickly, you cannot both lead. Our instructors, Walter and Nancyanna, would explain the roles in this way: “The job of the lead is to be clear and consistent. The job of the follow is to respond gracefully and maintain impeccable rhythm.”

Bangalore impressions

I’ve tavelled to Bangalore a number of times over the last several months. Each time I go, I learn a little bit more, notice some of the more subtle things that escaped me on prior visits, discover more favorite places, people and things. Each time I go, I find I’m able to achieve just a little bit more grace in the way I move through this culture. A few of the impressions that’ve stuck in my mind…

on the road

Driving in India is a much higher-awareness endeavor than in the US. Lane lines seem optional, and one wonders why they bother – even veering into oncoming traffic is considered acceptable – yet you’ll find far fewer accidents than over a similar period here. I’ve heard americans claim they’d be able to drive easily in Bangalore with a little practice, but I have to call bullshit on it.

Conducting this eloquent chaos is the language of horns. Unlike lane lines, horns are effectively required – you’ll even find signs on rear  bumpersthat say – “OK sound horn”. And they mean it. And you’d better learn that language if you plan to drive there. A short toot that may say “Hi, I’m coming up on you”. A longer toot or quick stutter that says “Hey! I’m right next to you!”. A long blast that might mean “Dammit, stop crowding me!”

And yet anger, much less road rage, seems almost unheard of on those roads. Drivers appear cheerfully engaged in a way that reminds me of the “Whos” from Dr. Seuss.

But not all is passive on indian roads: intersections in particular seem ruled, if not by outright aggression, then by a resolute determination, a grim steadfastness in the sense of “I’m proceeding through this intersection, now, – thank you very much.” The faint of heart will sit, cowed, at such a junction for the entire day and get nowhere – it would take literally years for me to feel trained enough to be proficient in this flow.

Which leaves me the options of taxis or feet – and be warned, as a pedestrian here you are at the bottom of the food chain!


Motorbikes rule in Bangalore. I’ve seen vast parking lots of nothing but motorbikes. I’ve watched a single motorbike with the man driving, his wife riding sidesaddle on the back, a child between them, another child riding in front of the man, and still another child lying on the fuel tank. And the women never fall off. Imagine riding sideways on the back of a motorbike as it weaves through traffic, around potholes and over speedbumps. Go ahead – try.


With most species, it is the males that display color while the females tend toward a more subdued palette. Indeed, humans seem like a rare exception. And in India that difference is accentuated – while the men generally wear grays, tans and perhaps blues, the women are strikingly, beautifully colorful, wearing traditional clothing even when reporting to work in a technology park. It’s one of those cultural juxtapositions, a head-on collision between east and west, between historical and modern, that makes this place so intriguing.

tea time

In the tech park where I work when in Bangalore, large afternoon meetings are frequently visited by “chai wallas”, who bring trays full of piping hot chai and pass it out to everyone, an incredibly civilized way to break up the afternoon. In fact, I learned on my second trip that one could dial an internal number and have a cup of chai delivered to my desk, something I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get adopted back in Seattle.

vestigial limbs

Some traditions die hard. The caste system, for all the claims of reform, seems to have survived even if in some very subtle ways. It can be a look or a tone, or a reflexive cringe, or the use of the term “sah”. I’ve watched management dismiss food servers with an imperious twitch of their head, and those servers literally back away in a crouch. Courtesies we take for granted might be met with amazement or awkwardness.


In many cultures, food preparation can be pretty involved. In India, food consumption can be challenging. Indian cuisine is a rich landscape where just about every dish, it seems, has its own particular method for getting the food from the plate to your mouth. Bread (nan, roti), crepes (dosas), and at least a dozen or more types I couldn’t remember are all used differently. Some sauces are mixed on the plate when properly used. Some forms of bread are dipped but others are rolled up. And I am convinced that native indians have evolved special musculature that allows them to grab a piece of nan and pull off a properly-sized chunk of it, one-handed. It’s amazing to watch, like someone who’s able to roll a coin across their knuckles, a natural move that actually takes considerable coordination and strength.

And, traditionally,  it’s the right hand that is used. Historically, the left hand is considered unclean because it’s used for, well, things besides eating. Which is tough when you’re a southpaw, as am I. Using a fork in my right hand is a challenge, chopsticks are downright amusing or even dangerous. Indian friends tell me that enough western lefties have invaded India that they’re accustomed to it, but I’ve received some very surprised, even horrified looks.

Usually, then, I’ll simply try to eat for a while with my right hand. Always leave ’em laughing…