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A gentleman among leaders

  • Published at 09:39 pm August 14th, 2019
A gentleman among leaders
The man with the plan Nashirul Islam/Dhaka Tribune

Five ways that made Sir Fazle Hasan Abed a visionary leader

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed just announced his retirement from his formal role in BRAC. His retirement encapsulates a career of not only building solid organizations but impacting millions of people worldwide. 

Be it in BRAC or in the broader national NGO movement, he is being credited for creating many leaders who learned from him, was mentored by him and became foot soldiers for materializing his vision. Those of us who have worked with him very closely know well that there will not be another Fazle Hasan Abed. So, what were those essential ingredients that made Sir Fazle’s leadership attributes so unique? 

Here is an attempt to distill down five of his most brilliant leadership qualities that made him set up so many world-class entities in Bangladesh.

1. Setting a bold, lofty and clear vision

“Small is beautiful, large is essential” -- that was a mantra, that became part of BRAC DNA. He set targets that required a lot of courage and boy he delivered on all of them. From going to every single household in Bangladesh to teach mothers how to make oral rehydration saline to covering half the country with latrines, to ensuring social protection for millions of ultra-poor, he was very clear in setting lofty targets in solving social problems. 

But there was also certainty that he could convey in how to achieve those targets which made it look easier and much simpler than it actually was. He wanted to dream big and pushed everyone out of their comfort zone and such is his enigmatic personality that we all wanted to give our all to achieve those dreams.

2. Incredibly driven by numbers

He was incredibly driven by numbers. Not only in terms of actually for understanding of the issues, but also in terms of measuring the interventions, effectiveness was always determined by real evidence and data. It was by design that BRAC from its very early days had a strong focus on research and evaluation and set up one of the largest research entities in any development organization. 

Being a chartered accountant, financial numbers also would stick to his brains like a glue. Even after all these years, he would meticulously read through the accounts book and would get a sense of the health of the organization. Whether it is the sales numbers of Aarong during Eid or the latest transaction count of Bkash, he would know it all and look forward to the reports every night. 

This would essentially form the basic premise of his management by query. He would speak less, listen more, and yes, he firmly believed that what gets measured, gets done.

3. Effortlessly moving between being strategic and being operational

These days the higher up we get into an organization, we think our role becomes strategic and far removed from operation. But in countries like Bangladesh where human capital capacity is all but limited, just setting lofty strategic ideas is not enough. He understood that from the early days. So while he was a visionary leader, he took a very keen interest in the operational activities of BRAC. 

A very important part of BRAC's success was not just the vision but also how that vision was achieved. His keen interest in operational efficiency and effectiveness and meticulous program design led to the operational excellence that BRAC enjoyed over the years. He was a tough taskmaster. Field meetings under him would go on until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning discussing the nitty-gritties of operational details. He was a master problem-solver. No problem was too small; no problem was too insurmountable. 

He realized that, in order to set realistic strategic visions, he needed to understand operations well and the effectiveness of the organization was dependent on how effective our staff was on the field in solving problems. Was he a micro-manager? Yes, in some settings and at the same time he gave a tremendous amount of space to his leaders to operate. Such an ability to move seamlessly from micro and macro, from being visionary to being operational made him such a unique leader.

4. Spotting talents and being able to get extra-ordinary results out of the ordinary

Sir Fazle had an uncanny ability when it came to spotting talents. BRAC was mainly built in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. If you think, the state of human capital is bad in Bangladesh now, imagine what it was 30 years ago. 

Yet, he built BRAC by focusing on the underdogs -- the hardworking, motivated young men and women who didn’t quite make it to the top but had all the potential. He made leaders out of very ordinary human beings who rose to the occasion and became extraordinary when given the responsibilities. 

He identified talents, trained them, and unleashed them with full freedom and tremendous responsibilities on their shoulders. In the national NGO sector in Bangladesh, you will barely find a name who was not mentored or coached by him in some capacity.  

5. Not being afraid to admit failure

One of the key features that made BRAC so unique was the brutal honesty of its leader. Everyone knows about the story of oral rehydration therapy to reduce the mortality rate of children under the age of five. 

For those who lived in Bangladesh the story of “Ekmuth gur, ek chimti lobon, aar aandh sher pani” was all the more familiar. A very effective media campaign coupled with door to door visits by community health workers to teach mothers how to make oral saline saved the lives of millions of children in Bangladesh. But that didn’t happen overnight. 

He admitted his efforts in the early days were a disaster. He continued to send researchers and monitors to identify how to make the interventions more effective so the mothers not only knew how to make these solutions but the behavior of the decision-makers in the family was significantly changed to ensure that they actually provided the saline when the child had diarrhea. 

This openness to admit failure and learn from its mistakes made BRAC such a learning organization. Very few outside BRAC know how self-critical we are as an organization -- constantly looking at areas to improve. That culture stemmed from the very top.No doubt that all these leadership qualities would have made him a superstar in any private sector entities. However, Bangladesh and the world were extremely fortunate to have a leader like him in the development sector where he applied these skills and rigour.

It is no surprise that on one hand, some of the most financially successful organizations were founded by him and on the other hand, some of the most effective interventions to fight extreme poverty (ultra poor graduation program, one-room school model) was also designed by him.In the end, it is his amazing empathy for the poor and the ability to stand on their shoes made him able to design such effective poverty busting interventions.

Such a unique combination of empathy for the poor and amazing business savvy in a leader is so rare that it also makes BRAC, his hybrid social enterprise, such a unique success story.

Asif Saleh is an Executive Director at BRAC. This article originally appeared as a LinkedIn post.