on Oct. 15, 2010
Students of ISKCON's new international leadership training course with teachers Anuttama Dasa (back row, second from the left) and Ravindra Svarupa Dasa (center).
An international leadership training course for ISKCON devotees has just wrapped its trial run in Washington D.C., North America, with the two-year program’s last semester coming to an end on September 30th.
The course was the brainchild of the GBC Training and Succession Committee, which deals with the concern of the GBC—ISKCON’s governing authority—that some of its leaders will pass away, and many of them retire, within the next ten to fifteen years.
“This meant that we needed to have some solid systems in place for finding, training and replacing capable leadership at the GBC level,” says ISKCON Communications Director and GBC Training and Succession Committee member Anuttama Dasa. “But when we took a look at that, we soon realized that the problem was society-wide—not just in the GBC.”
ISKCON needed systems for succession; for training younger devotees and placing them in different services to learn new skills, to be challenged, and to take on new responsibilities. Eventually, the GBC hoped, these systems would help them identify men and women who had the capability to take on progressively higher leadership roles.
“One of the things we had to do was establish specific training courses for leaders,” Anuttama says. “We broke this down into three phases: Phase One, to have high caliber, intensive training seminars, was already in place. Within ISKCON, we have an excellent six-day leadership and management course, a communications course, a conflict-resolution course, teacher-training courses, and grihasta training courses covering both how a husband and wife can strengthen their marriage, and how leaders can function in a way to help strengthen marriages. But these were all short, several-day courses, fragments of a bigger picture—there was no one coordinated effort.”
The vision for Phase Three, meanwhile, was an ISKCON seminary. Just as other religious organizations have seminaries for training priests and leaders, this would be a place where young men and women could get trained in Vaishnava philosophy and practices, as well as in leadership and management, until they were ready to take on important positions of leadership. The idea was that young devotees would be able to do their four years of undergraduate training at a mainstream college, then do two or three years of graduate study at the ISKCON seminary.
The GBC, however, recognized that it would be some time before they would be able to establish something like this. So what would they do in between offering six-day courses and the long term vision of a full-time seminary? What would Phase Two be?
So in 2008, they began serious work on a new program—the International Leadership Development Initiative (ILDI)— in cooperation with Bhaktivedanta College in Radhadesh, Belgium.
“We took some of the existing seminar pieces that we had, added some new material to them where it was needed, and established a six-semester program,” Anuttama says. “Each semester comprises of ten days of study, and there are three semesters each year over a two-year period. The idea is that devotees would come and study for the semester, then go back to their respective temples and projects, and apply what they’d learnt in that particular semester—a little like on-the-job training. They would then return the next semester, learn more, and apply that. We chose this structure rather than just packing it all into sixty days in a row, so that devotees would more easily be able to assimilate everything.”
Bhaktivedanta College principal Yadunandanda Swami, its administrative director Jaya Krishna Dasa, Rasa Mandala Dasa, who has written many Vaishnava Training and Education (VTE) courses, and GBC Tamohara Dasa all wrote courses for the program, including some new material.
The program’s international trial run was launched in North America in Spring 2009, and all six semesters were held at ISKCON’s Washington D.C. temple, which also provided accommodation and prasadam meals for attendees.
Anuttama, GBC member and ISKCON scholar Ravindra Svarupa Dasa, New York’s Bhakti Center president Yajna Purusa Dasa, and sannyasi Bhakti Brihat Bhagavat Goswami have all taught sections of the program; as have the director of Gainesville, Florida’s Krishna House Kalakantha Dasa, North American Book Distribution Minister Vaisesika Dasa, and GBC member Tamohara Dasa.
Content-wise, one third of the course is focused on spiritual practice, while the other two thirds are on other management and leadership skills.
For instance, Bhakti Brihat Bhagavat Goswami taught Bhakti Sadhachara, or Vaishnava qualities and behavior; Vaisesika taught a section on book distribution; and Yajna Purusa led a japa retreat for the group. There was also a session on caring for Vaishnavas, and an abbreviated version of the grihasta training course.
Meanwhile, Kalakantha taught one presentation on college outreach and another on fundraising, while there were also sessions on strategic planning, conflict resolution, child protection, clergy abuse, self-management, and assessment and performance reviews.
The units of the course were designed to be self-standing, and it was not mandatory to take all of them, so the the group of students varied. Due to scheduling conflicts, some took units 1, 3 and 5, while others took 2, 4, and 6, with the option to take the others later.
“Since this was our first time offering the program, we had a small group, with eight to ten people per semester—but it was a very broad demographic,” says Anuttama. “Some were second-generation devotees, or gurukulis, while others had had experience as temple presidents or preaching center managers. Some were young devotees who had just graduated from college and were looking to fine-tune their leadership abilities, while others were retirees who had been travelling and preaching Krishna consciousness and were trying to enhance their teaching and leading skills. There were celibate monks and householders, temple residents and congregational devotees, men and women. There were devotees from Canada, the United States, and South America, and ages ranged all they way from 22 to 56.”
In between semesters, devotees put their newly learned skills to practice. Paramatma Dasa from Guyana, who does a lot of traveling and teaching in his home country, utilized many of the things that he had learned and would go back and teach other leaders in Guyana.
Damodar Gopal Dasa, who is just getting married but was a celibate monk for most of the course, applied a lot of what he was learning in his management responsibilities in Montreal, Canada.
“There was also a nice sense of comraderie that developed amongst the devotees participating in the course,” Anuttama says. “Some have been functioning as peer counselors to each other, keeping in touch with each other every couple of months to follow up on what challenges they’re facing, and how they’re applying what they’ve learned.”
With the trial run now over, all units of the course are being fine-tuned according to feedback from students and facilitators, and about fifteen per cent of the material will be tweaked to improve the course to the highest level.
The training is also spreading across the world. ISKCON LEADS, a parallel program, was launched in India by Bhakti Brihat Bhagavat Swami in March 2009, and is receiving a phenomenal response. Russia is also working on a similar program, while the GBC Training and Succession Committee are also hoping to eventually launch the course in Europe, Australasia, and South America.
“I think it’s an outstanding training series for anyone who wants to enhance their skills and their spiritual expertise in leading segments of Srila Prabhupada’s society,” Anuttama says. “We hope that this leadership development will take root all across the world, and become a standard, if not mandatory, program for anyone taking up a leadership position within ISKCON.
“We feel that in the long term, this will lead to a higher quality of management and leadership in ISKCON,” Anuttama concludes. “And that by improving our abilities in this way, we will fulfill Prabhupada’s mission of having ISKCON be a very well-organized and spiritually-focused organization that’s truly helping people by spreading Lord Chaitanya’s message.”