What Makes A ‘Leader’

What Makes A ‘Leader’

by V Anantha Nageswaran - Dec 30, 2015 05:49 PM +05:30 IST
What Makes A ‘Leader’

It is almost impossible to capture all the elements of successful leadership. The exercise becomes even more difficult when one considers what a complex, diverse and big nation like India needs.

The end of the year is a time for prediction of the year ahead or for reflection on the year that went by. We will choose the latter. And we will do the reflection on behalf of our political leaders.

The role “Leadership” plays in achieving economic, social and political transformations is usually glossed over. Not because it is unimportant but because it is too important to be discussed by economists. Technical solutions to problems can be found by hiring technocrats and other experts. But, getting their solutions to be accepted and implemented requires leadership. Foremost, a leader not only is acutely and always aware of his/her personal strengths, failings, and that of others around him (“him” includes “her” going forward).

In other words, awareness separates leaders and evolved humans from others. Awareness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful leader. Indeed, it is almost impossible to capture all the elements of successful leadership. If it could be captured, it could be a mechanistic endeavour. It could be taught. Up to a point, it may be feasible. But it would still fall short. Leadership is more about morals than about mechanics. That is one of the many qualities that a leader of a complex, diverse and big nation like India needs. Hence, we mention and discuss only a few key attributes in this section.

Insecurity, incentive and insurance

No matter how much of material advance societies achieve, human instincts remain primitive and eternal. Anger, jealousy and insecurity persist in all individuals on varying degrees. They often come in the way of successful public policy and the nation is the loser.

Human insecurity takes many forms. One of them is resistance to change. It arises out of lack of self-belief and self-confidence in facing up to the challenges that change brings. It could be psychological and not real. Instead of confronting their own insecurities, many choose to block change.

Leaders should grasp that. How they respond to that has long-term consequences for the nation. It can cause lasting good or damage.

Resistance to change can be broken with appeasement or with empowerment combined with accountability. Appeasement buys peace and cooperation in the short term but at the cost of potential long-term damage. It is child psychology. If children are appeased when they throw a tantrum, then it entrenches the tantrum as a permanent tactic to win concessions. The child knows that it does not have to change its behaviour. When confronted with a demand to change behaviour, it can throw a tantrum. Not only will the required change be dropped but the tantrum is also rewarded. This is as true of adult situations in public life as it is with children.

In economic terms, it is about incentives and insurance. Insurance is similar to appeasement. Those who are resistant to change need insurance or assurance that they won’t be worse off by the changes that are required of them and that will happen in the systems that they are part of. At the same time, the leader, who initiates the change, has a choice to make. Does he provide incentives for change or insurance to those affected by change? To a degree, these are economic decisions. They can be analyzed in terms of outlays, costs and benefits. But, they are also moral decisions, for the consequences cannot just be measured in terms of economic costs and benefits alone. The consequences that choices made today can and do last for generations. For example, one can think of the decisions to insert the words “secular” and “socialist” in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. The other is the decision to nationalise the Indian banking system.

Hence, the balance to be struck between incentives and insurance is a challenge for leadership. Too often, incentives are thought of only in terms of positive reinforcement. However, incentives also include negative reinforcement. Simply put, penalties and punishment for unacceptable conduct and behaviour are also part of the incentives framework. Refusal to buy cooperation by offering insurance will have short-term costs. The costs could be considerable and could be personal too, for leaders. They face choices, hence. Do they place long-term goals ahead of short-term peace? Do they place national interest ahead of personal goals? These are personal choices but they determine the trajectory of progress for the nation and for the society. There may even be self-sacrifice required in determining making these choices. No economist or expert can provide neat answers in such situations. Each leader’s own moral and values compass will influence the decisions made in such situations.

Pride, ego and the fallout

Love and pride are primordial human emotions. When love is contaminated by possessiveness, it becomes self-love. Similarly, when insecurity and an innate sense of inadequacy mix with pride, it becomes ego. Pride is a powerful driver of human endeavour and achievement. Ego is obstructionist. Ego drives individuals to place their personal goals over collective good. Ego accords primacy to short-term benefits while ignoring long-term costs. Ego hoards credit for successes while distributing blame for failure to others. Ego speaks but rarely listens. Consequently, ego loses touch with reality.

Of course, we are acutely aware that it is far easier to catalogue the fallout of egoistic behaviour than to suggest remedies for them. It is not easy to overcome ego because it works in combination with loss aversion. Loss aversion is intrinsic to human nature. Simply put, humans hate to lose. No, it is not about winning and losing bets and in competitive situations. It is about losing what one possesses. That is why scores of psychological experiments have shown that humans experience pain disproportionately more when they lose something that they possess than when they forego a gain. That applies not just to possessions but also to opinions. Once formed, opinions are owned. That is why humans are loathe to change them or let them go. Changing one’s views or opinions is akin to the experience of losing something. That is why we hold on to them stubbornly and that is why views and opinions are often immune to facts.

Similar to loss aversion, many other features of the human mind are beyond the control of humans. Awareness of our cognitive limitations is the first step towards taking ego out of the equation in any situation and becoming a truly successful leader. But taking ego out of the equation is easier said than done. Leaders are far more susceptible to the play of ego simply because ego has played a big role in making them leaders and plays a big role in keeping them there. Enormous amount of self-belief and self-confidence are needed to rise to the top in any sphere. It is especially so for political leaders in a democracy like India where the competition is intense both within their own party and outside. Successful leaders are vulnerable to attacks of hubris.

The danger of hubris

Lord David Owen, former Foreign Secretary in the British Government, had started a trust called Daedalus Trust, to examine symptoms and afflictions of hubris among corporate and national leaders. He practised psychiatry medicine before he joined the British government. Among other things, the most important insulation from hubris is to surround oneself with critics who would keep one’s feet to the ground. Of course, well before Lord David Owen, India’s homegrown Thiruvalluvar had spoken clearly and loudly on the value of trusted, sage and fearless counsel for a king.

Keeping wise and fearless critics around

In India, the Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar had dedicated one chapter (10 couplets from 441 to 450) to the idea of surrounding oneself with wise men who would keep kings grounded and ensure that they rule the kingdom well, in the interests of all the subjects.

What Makes A ‘Leader’

Says Thirukkural No. 444: “A king wise enough to have men of greater wisdom than he to advise him shall be a powerful ruler.”

Thirukkural No. 447 reads as follows: “Where the king’s counsellors possess the courage to reprove him when necessary, nothing on earth can bring about such a king’s ruin.”

Thirukkural No. 448 goes thus: “Without courageous counsellors to point out his faults and so protect him, a king will ruin himself, even without foes.”

And Thirukkural No. 450: “It is foolish surely to incur enmity of many foes, but 10 times worse to lose righteous friends.”

These four “kural”s capture the essence of having advisors who would keep any leader’s ego in check and prevent him from becoming hubristic. It is practical too. India has been a feudal society for long. Most scholars, pundits and poets depended on the king’s munificence to sustain their livelihood and their vocations. Hence, a certain amount of sycophancy (deserved or undeserved lavish praise) is deeply ingrained in our history and culture. At the same time, the culture has also provided for a Tenali Rama to advise and counsel Krishna Deva Raaya and a Birbal for Akbar.

The Indian context and communication

Specifically, in the Indian context, in the light of all that we had written earlier about the immense challenges of steering the Indian economy to prosperity in what are likely to be inhospitable conditions, the role of leadership becomes that much more critical. Indeed, it can be argued that strong, effective, competent and enlightened leadership may or may not have been necessary for today’s developed economies because other factors were vastly more favourable to them. For India, it is the other way around. Since many of the favourable factors have vanished, leadership has become a critical input to the process.

Again, we reiterate that, given India’s size, complexity and democratic politics, there are no easy templates to follow or precedents to copy. Consequently, the government should have the courage to make policies based solely on what is likely to work in the Indian context, in their best judgement rather than based on whether it complies with prevailing wisdom or western practices. Courage to buck trends, fashions and fads if that is in the best interests of India is vital.

Finally, leaders, as far as possible, eschew compulsion and coercion and embrace persuasion. Communication is critical. It makes the difference between persuasion and coercion. After all, in the age-old fable, it is the sun that gently bears down that removes the cloth from the itinerant traveller and not the fierce wind that threatens to snatch the cloth from him. There is a huge lesson from that fable. The sun succeeds because it makes the traveller feel that it was in his interest to let go of the shawl whereas the wind threatened to snatch it away from him. Success comes to those leaders who make others feel that they were in command of their decisions.

In October 2012, at the height of gloom and despondency about India amidst growth challenges, corruption charges and collapse of governance, Shankar Aiyar, author of Accidental India, wrote the following about leadership:

“Leadership is not about pickled intellect. It is driven by imagination, a willingness to reflect, ability to inspire, to listen and to have the courage of conviction to embrace risk.”

Two quotes attributed to Harry Truman, cited by Shankar Aiyar, provide the fitting conclusion to this section:

“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still…Progress occurs when courageous, skilful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

Of course, as the author of this piece, I have the right and the obligation to have the last word and not leave it to Mr Truman. I would say that a leader makes a difference for the better not only for the here and now but also for a long time to come. He makes a difference not only for those alive and voting but also for future generations. A leader is aware of his limitations and rises above them..

V. Anantha Nageswaran has jointly authored, ‘Can India grow?’ and ‘The Rise of Finance:Causes, Consequences and Cures’

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