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  • Gunjan Syal

My Grandmother, the Strategic Leader (Free)

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

This summer marks my grandmother's twentieth death anniversary. She was affectionately known as 'Mataji' (the most respectful Hindi word for a mother), not only around our joint-family home but the entire neighbourhood.

Mataji lovingly raised eight grandchildren within my generation to be resilient and responsible members of society. As a middle child in this group of cousins, I observed Mataji's array of strategies when working through various situations and personalities daily. I had lengthy conversations with her during bedtime each night focused on the events of the day. Mataji would articulate her approach in detail. Then, she would follow it up with the most entertaining stories to drill in the underlying lessons. Often these were mythical stories focused on her value system, but the ones I loved to hear repeatedly were her own life experiences.

Mataji was a young adult when she faced the partition of India in 1947 and was forced to leave behind everything she knew. She protected her family of younger siblings, cousins and friends from fates worse than death without any formal education. A strong karma-based value system gave her courage and guided her through the treacherous journey. Armed with an instinct to read people and situations, Mataji formed tactical as well as strategic alliances in the unlikeliest of places and circumstances to successfully migrate her family to a safe ground. Then, she began her efforts to restore the family life as the lead matriarch.

Having witnessed the cost to life at such a scale, Mataji knew the value of collaboration and the need for productive strategies for dealing with conflict. She recognized exactly what was needed, by whom, when and for what purpose in the family - the hallmark of a strategist. Mataji also knew the talents of each family member and encouraged us to self-organize to work towards the desired results, which made her a true leader. She could identify the most impactful and critical situations affecting her family, and created an environment in which we could focus on reaching a resolution. This is the reason almost everyone she knew would seek her counsel with their difficult life decisions. More importantly, this is what made her a skillful grandmother, who found time for each of her eight grandchildren and their varying needs at the same time!

Mataji constantly pushed us to question our perceived assumptions and constraints, to avoid learned helplessness. She imparted her value system, mental models, confidence and strategies to the younger generation until her last moments. I like to think that she had a wise teacher's soul. Even though I lost her early in my life, these timeless gifts have proven to be the most fundamental tools-for-life that bring success. I am thankful to have had influences and leaders like Mataji. I hope to continue to share Mataji's lessons of morality, resilience and global citizenship.


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