A Leadership Journey with Dr. MK Bhan: Formidable Father, Friend, Mentor, Ally

Op-ed by Shereen Bhan

With special thanks to Drs. Nita Bhandari, Shinjini Bhatnagar, Gagandeep Kang, Soumya Swaminathan, and Renu Swarup 

I have spent a significant period of my life trying to understand and serve the needs of others. Witnessing that moment when another human finds true value and purpose in their being is priceless. It is especially rewarding when I see this actualization in women. When I joined WomenLift health, I was in search of a path that would serve women and girls — this was neither accidental nor inevitable. My leadership journey began at home.


My father, Dr. MK Bhan, was much more than a visionary scientist, a rightful and well-deserved recognition. He was known for his love of caps and his were adorned with many feathers – a Padma Bhushan awardee, the brain behind a Rotavirus vaccine, and behind the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council, and former Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, amongst other accolades. However, his greatest joy and legacy was the talent that he nurtured and fostered. He mentored numerous individuals as a stalwart in the science fraternity, some of whom are now leading researchers in their fields and established institution leaders. Like mine, his journey began at home in the warm embrace and wise counsel of three older brothers and his parents. The bond between these four brothers was like no other and remained that way his whole life. Their father fostered an environment full of curiosity and exploration. All four brothers remember their father teaching them “how to think” and not “what to think.” Their mother also imbued them with a deeply generous and large-hearted spirit. My father would say that from his mother he learned how to love and how to bring people together without losing one’s individuality.


My father would also have acknowledged his wife, my mother, Girija Bhan, as one of the biggest leadership influences in his life. He always introduced her as an entrepreneur and often said, much to my mother’s chagrin, “Mom is the boss of the household and she enables our life.” She doesn’t like this kind of visibility or credit but the truth is that she provided a tremendous emotional and financial safety net for our nuclear family. This allowed all of us including my father to take risks, indulge our passions, and fulfill our commitments. My mother embodies a quiet confidence enveloping layers of iron grit, and a sea of immense wisdom, patience, and love. I grew up thinking that all women were capable of being lionesses and that all men had it in them to recognize and value this strength.


The warmth and strength of these lionesses have made me the woman leader that I am. Alongside my mother’s constant empowering presence, two of these women include Dr. Shinjini Bhatnagar, Professor of Eminence at the Translational Health and Science Technology Institute, and Dr. Nita Bhandari, Director, Centre for Health Research and Development at the Society for Applied Studies. I have come to my love and admiration for health and her leaders through my love for such women. It was neither accidental nor inevitable.


I witnessed how my father gently molded the lives of Drs. Bhandari and Bhatnagar and gave them a platform to fly. They marvel at his instinct for identifying the key strengths in an individual after just a couple of interactions and how he then pushed them to excel in those areas. In Dr. Bhandari’s own words, “From a painfully shy, unambitious young physician, I became a person who felt confident in handling any setbacks and challenges at the workplace, whether it meant leaving a job I loved and setting up an organization, or coordinating the first of its kind multicentre trial of the indigenous rotavirus vaccine.” Dr. Bhatnagar recalled how “with gentle encouragement, he emboldened us to think because his firm belief was that “your idea/your research is yours”.


Women leaders around the world are seeking permission to be their whole and authentic selves. I sometimes notice the women in WomenLift’s Leadership Journey listening intently to our every word. It’s as if I can read the questions in their faces:  Is this the answer? Is this the key that will allow me to exercise my full potential? To accomplish all that I want to? To contribute? To influence real and meaningful change? Yes, some of these women want power, but they also want guidance, feedback, and credit. They want ownership of their work, the space to create and innovate, the space to make mistakes, the ability to take a break, get some rest, all without gross penalty. These women are not naïve. They understand that every decision in life involves trade-offs, but they also recognize an unfair hand when they see one, and they are painfully aware of how often they are at the receiving end.


The first two and a half years of my time at WomenLift Health were focused on co-creating a design driven by leader capabilities most needed in women leaders in health, and thinking about what the key take-aways of this experience should be. These now include providing the women leaders in our cohort the ability to:

    • Confidently rise up as a stronger leader and increase impact.
    • Collaborate with and leverage the support of peers, mentors, male allies, and other women leaders through the collective power of diverse national and global networks.
    • Raise awareness to drive conversations and strategies that promote health and gender equality in their institutions, country, and beyond.
    • Internalize that global and public health will only achieve its goals when those in positions of power make space to expand and diversify leadership.

It is no accident that I identify with and value the desired outcome of our co-created Leadership Journey at WomenLift Health. It is no accident that I constantly emphasize it’s “co-creation”. I witnessed co-creation in action all my life and I wholeheartedly believe in an inclusive process. As I grew older and developed my own professional and leadership capacity, I continued to learn from my father’s style and relationships. My father had the pleasure of working closely with three women leaders who continue to make a mark not just on me but on many women and men around the world. In their own words:

Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor, CMC Vellore and former Executive Director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, “I was never formally trained or employed by Dr. Bhan, but we began an association through interactions on a range of research and policy activities that grew stronger and stronger in the past 10 years, as I came to rely on him for guidance and clarity. Through calling on me for discussions and insights, he showed that he believed in my abilities and, always a patriotic citizen and scientist, constantly (and sometimes annoyingly) challenged me to do more for India. When I was uncertain about my next steps, it was an imperative to find time with Dr. Bhan because I knew I would leave with a framing that was clear, aspirational and achievable. I don’t think this support and building up of those he interacted with was only about gender, but it was in his DNA that independent and competent women had the potential to affect change–and that is unusual in any society.”

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, “Every time I came away from a conversation with Dr. Bhan, I was energized, excited and full of new ideas. Even when I was feeling low, he would somehow enable me to look beyond the immediate challenges and focus on what I could be doing to change the status quo. The focus was always on the important work that still remained to be done, the many allies one had and the excitement of new discoveries to be made. Having Dr. Bhan as a mentor and ally meant that he helped you forge your own path, gently nudging but never telling you what to do,  building on your strengths while working on your weaknesses, and always being there for you.”

Dr. Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, “A friend, a mentor suddenly left, leaving a huge void and vacuum which is impossible to ever fill. I worked so closely with Dr. M K Bhan for nearly two decades and each day was an interesting part of the wonderful chapters we wrote together and the creative thoughts and ideas we put together to build a new innovation ecosystem in the country. An exciting journey of working together on interesting ideas, out-of-the-box innovative thoughts for  new governance models and new institutional structures abruptly came to a halt

A true visionary, Dr. Bhan not just gave wonderful new ideas, he had a unique way of encouraging inquisitive minds to run with innovative thoughts. Dr. Bhan was a leader in the true sense. A wonderful human being, he had a characteristic sense of humour and was equally comfortable with the younger students as he was with senior colleagues. As a leader his contribution to the sector is remembered  and deeply acknowledged by all, both nationally and globally.”


Witnessing my father’s journey with these incredible women leaders has been a powerful lesson. I truly appreciate these women for their contribution to this memorialization of the many roles he played, but even more for their own practice as mentors and leaders. I would especially like to thank Dr. Bhandari who reminded me of how “he created and nurtured a competent yet caring team, tolerant of each other and deeply committed to their organization. He was always available to help if he believed in the cause or the person. He owned your problems whether these were slides that had to be developed for a presentation, or a family crisis” and Dr. Bhatnagar who said, “Some mentors are just mentors but here was this man who fitted the role of a mentor, father, brother, friend, whenever it was required. He augmented our strengths and built on our weaknesses. He gave us a sense of how life should be lived.”


Now that I often find myself in the mentor role, I hope I can emulate what these women leaders have highlighted as my father’s biggest mentoring strengths.

This time in dad’s words:

    • “Have the courage to take challenges, think big”
    • “Your idea/your research is yours”
    • “Be committed to a purpose, be focused, dive deep —Begin a story and take it to the end”
    • “Remember knowledge is the best treasure you can possess”
    • “Grace under pressure”
    • “Live responsibly”
    • “Enjoy what you are doing —there has to be a romance with it”

It is neither accidental nor inevitable that after almost two years of grieving my father’s loss, reflecting on his life, and trying to glean lessons from it, I have co-created and totally identify with WomenLift’s leadership journey which emphasizes 4 styles of leadership— authentic leadership, inclusive leadership, strategic leadership, and impactful leadership. Ours is a candid, exploratory, and results-driven experience for mid-career women leaders in health which equips these women with new tools, ample resources, and an expanding community of peers, mentors, and coaches. WomenLift Health supports them to navigate their path to be better leaders and agents of change within their institutions and beyond.


While my focus in this piece and our collective impact through the WomenLift leadership journey is dedicated to women leaders in health, we are absolutely cognizant of the fact that we cannot create change without male allies in their various roles as peers, supervisors, mentors and sponsors. I witnessed the impact of these relationships in my father’s network but most importantly through the kind of masculinity he practiced. In my brother Dr. Gautam Bhan’s words, “My father taught me how to be a man. He taught me a masculinity that drew strength from affection, kindness, love, and gentleness. I grew up never wanting to conquer but to cohabit. I grew up with an immense amount of generosity and a strong desire to share.”


I would love to believe that my dad was unique but it would give me even more pleasure to know that there are many more men and women out there who, like him, will devote their life to developing other leaders. Happy Birthday, Dad!

**Please go to https://www.mkbhan.in/his-life, if you would like to read more about Dr. Bhan’s work and life..