LEAD­ER­SHIP LESSONS FROM SEX WORK­ERS

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - HTNATION -

Can sex work­ers be in­tel­li­gently, se­ri­ously and use­fully com­pared to busi­ness lead­ers and, when they are, might they come out bet­ter? An anal­y­sis along these lines is one of the more in­ter­est­ing parts of a book due to be re­leased next month. I was sent a pre­view copy and found it fas­ci­nat­ing.

Called A Stranger Truth, it’s by a clearly tal­ented au­thor, Ashok Alexan­der. His ca­reer started as a high-pro­file ex­ec­u­tive with the in­ter­na­tional con­sul­tants, Mckin­sey & Com­pany. Then, one day, he threw it up to head Ava­han, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion’s pro­gramme to fight HIV. He ended up run­ning this or­gan­i­sa­tion for a decade. The book is based on his ex­pe­ri­ences.

It be­gins in the most strik­ing way pos­si­ble: “‘Don’t step on the peo­ple hav­ing sex!’ the NGO worker whis­pered ur­gently as we ven­tured into the dark­ness.” This was Alexan­der’s first en­counter with sex work­ers. Their names were Par­vati, Vat­sala and Jayan­thi. “I could hear them gig­gle as they watched me move gin­gerly around the cou­ples that lay strewn around the field… sounds of fran­tic coitus em­anated from be­hind the bushes.”

Chap­ter six con­tains the com­par­i­son I found in­trigu­ing. It’s called ‘Lead­er­ship se­crets of the com­mer­cial sex worker’. “Ev­ery time I met and in­ter­acted with sex work­ers I would pon­der over a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion”, Alexan­der writes. “Why did sex work­ers show so many more lead­er­ship at­tributes than a busi­ness leader? The an­swer is straight­for­ward — out of ne­ces­sity.”

As Alexan­der points out, busi­ness lead­ers have the at­tributes they need to have and “very of­ten just one or two might suf­fice”. Rarely does a busi­ness leader have to be an all-rounder in terms of lead­er­ship qual­i­ties. He has peo­ple to cover for him.

Fe­male sex work­ers are very dif­fer­ent. “Her world is far more com­plex, much more chal­leng­ing. She must deal with emo­tional, health and fi­nan­cial crises all the time.

There’s the con­stant threat of vi­o­lence and her first mis­sion is re­ally to sur­vive. She has no power, but she still must stay in con­trol. She has no sup­port sys­tem, but she must cope. She sim­ply can­not win with just one or two shots in her game. She needs a whole reper­toire.”

Alexan­der got to know sex work­ers well. He says they’re “tremen­dous judges of body lan­guage”. They de­velop this fac­ulty to sur­vive. This also means “they’re amaz­ing judges of peo­ple, es­pe­cially of men”. They can size up an in­di­vid­ual not just in a mo­ment but from as far as twenty feet.

Not sur­pris­ingly, ne­go­ti­a­tion is one of their prime skills. “It’s not just busi­ness lead­ers who have to be adept at ne­go­ti­at­ing. A sex worker ne­go­ti­ates all the time with her clients for safe sex.” On the out­come de­pends more than the suc­cess of a busi­ness. It can de­ter­mine the sex worker’s life.

Alexan­der’s con­clu­sion is sim­ple and straight­for­ward: “I was con­stantly learn­ing about life, lead­er­ship and val­ues from the com­mer­cial sex worker.” I sus­pect the for­mer Mckin­sey ex­ec­u­tive ended up a very dif­fer­ent per­son and a bet­ter man.

Now, if you think about it, there’s noth­ing sur­pris­ing about Alexan­der’s anal­y­sis.

In­deed, it’s hard to dis­agree with. The jolt lies in the fact this is not a sub­ject we think about leave aside dis­cuss. Alexan­der has bro­ken that taboo. The re­sult is a truth he calls strange but which feels un­de­ni­able.

Karan Thapar is the au­thor of The Devil’s Ad­vo­cate: The Un­told Story The views ex­pressed are per­sonal

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