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Leadership lessons from sex workers

Why do sex workers show so many more leadership attributes than a business leader? The answer is straightforward – out of necessity

columns Updated: Oct 13, 2018 19:39 IST
Sex workers at Garstin Bastion road, New Delhi. They must deal with emotional, health and financial crises all the time(HT)

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

First Published: Oct 13, 2018 19:34 IST