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Meet the youth of Kerala's Leadership Village

Young people of a village in north-east Kerala go through a programme that builds self-confidence and teaches them to take charge of their lives

The listening circles function as support group where members discuss inspirational stories, their own lives, and learn from one another
The listening circles function as support group where members discuss inspirational stories, their own lives, and learn from one another (Seethalakshmi S)

It is 4pm in Kaniyambetta village in Kerala’s Wayanad district. A group of people in their early 20s sit in a circle, listening closely as Anil Emage narrates the story of Nelson Mandela. After he finishes, each listener speaks about which part of the story resonated with him or her. Emage is leading one of the weekly story circle sessions that’s part of the leadership training programme he runs for the youth of the village.

Kaniyambetta, a village in north-east Kerala with a large proportion of a tribal population, is known throughout the district as the “leadership village”, after professional trainer Emage co-founded the programme with leadership thinker Sangeeth Varghese and teacher Laila Saein in 2007. They work with youth between the ages of 15 and 25 years to help them realise their potential and grow into leaders, explains Emage. The focus isn’t only on communication or soft skills; the participants are encouraged to share their own stories and learn from each other’s experiences.

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“We follow non-conventional interventions like story circles, where the youth in the village form small 10-member groups and meet every week. They discuss the biography of a great leader, then discuss their own defining moments of that week—what decisions they took, what went right for them, what went wrong. Members discuss these in a non-threatening, non-judgmental fashion; it’s like a safe space,” explains Varghese, who was born in Kochi and is an alumnus of the London School of Economics (LSE) and Harvard University. Since 2007, at least 20,000 young people in Wayanad district have gone through the programme, and a total of about 1 million youth have benefitted from the curriculum.

The circle functions as support group in a backward region with little access to inspirational examples. The members discuss their own lives and learn from one another. Varghese says he was inspired to develop this programme after reflecting on the question ‘Are leaders born or made?’ while he was at LSE. His research on 100 leaders led him to discover a pattern in the lives of people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. “All of them started as average or below-average. Gandhiji, for example, was a shy, diffident boy who was scared of the dark and of speaking to people. Each of them had a defining moment, and took the extraordinary decision to change themselves and then the history of mankind and they emerged as extraordinary leaders,” he explains. “I came to the conclusion that leaders are not born or made; they chose to lead when they faced a defining moment. And that’s what led to the Wayanad experiment.”

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The Wayanad model has inspired the Karnataka government to replicate it to create leaders in rural areas. Karnataka rolled it out as the ‘Global Shapers’ programme for graduate and postgraduate students from government colleges. While Karnataka has just begun training 1,000 students across the state using the Wayanad model/curriculum over eight weeks, other states like Andhra Pradesh too have adopted the curriculum into different youth leadership programmes.

Apart from the story circles, experts from various professions and walks of life visit the village and share their experiences with the locals, an exercise called the ‘Living Library’. Youth ask them questions and learn more about aspiration, potential and leadership. “Mostly, it is a peer-led, peer-managed programme because we believe that people have to learn to recognise their own defining moments and grow,” said Saein.

Laila Saein and Anil Emage, who co-founded the Leadership Village programme, with Sangeeth Varghese in 2007.
Laila Saein and Anil Emage, who co-founded the Leadership Village programme, with Sangeeth Varghese in 2007. (Courtesy: Leadership Village)

Paramedical staff Pooja Raj says she realised her potential due to the programme. “Through Story Circles and Living Libraries, I came to know the leadership stories of many individuals. This shaped my viewpoints and gave me direction for life,” she says.

For many, this exposure has led them to seek jobs outside the traditional occupations of bamboo artistry and agriculture. Many of the youth who went through the programme have landed jobs in corporates, NGOs and startups and some have entered politics, says Varghese.

Akhin Sreedhar, 25, one of the trainers, went through the programme as a student. “I was fortunate to get involved in the Leadership Village project from high school. I organised training camps, created blogs and led teams of students. Wayanad is a backward region in many ways, but my involvement with LV meant I got to work with professionals from SAP Labs, and management schools, who would come here to teach us different skills. The mentoring made me believe in myself. I have now founded my own technology project Spairo, and I also make films and teach media students,” he says.

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Emage adds that the idea is to pave the way for social transformation. “That transformation is possible once an individual takes a decision to change his or her life. Leadership Village has evolved into a potential human resource bank with confident leaders. As a trainer, my greatest takeaway from LV is that once you start believing in yourself the rest of the world will acknowledge your efforts.”

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