What qualities should we expect from our leaders?

We expect individuals to be their own leaders, to take charge of their lives, to assume responsibility for their decisions. But when individuals group together, a problem arises. Groups can’t take charge of themselves, nor can every member simultaneously take charge of the entire group. Someone from the group is invariably asked to show the way, to become the primary agent, to lead. This is simply a fact: groups can’t do without leaders. Every sporting team has a captain, a school or college has a principal, a company has its CEO, institutions have their directors, and governments their presidents, chief or prime ministers.

Yet, not everyone who occupies high office is a leader. A person who merely coordinates the actions of others or has management skills is not a leader. Moreover, not everyone who assumes the role of a leader is able to play it well. What qualities then make for a leader? Which virtues are required to provide ethical leadership? I suppose there is little new one can say on this matter. But let me still give it a shot in the hope that it serves as a good reminder. And in the election year, why not focus on qualities necessary for political leadership? Here I can identify four.

Being inclusive

First, if a person is chosen to lead the group, it is her responsibility to take care of the interest of each person of the entire group. This often entails putting collective interest before her own interest or that of her preferred group. For this to happen, she must first be able to identify the common good, to have a grasp of what is acceptable to all, to have an inclusive vision. This requires an infinite capacity to listen to others, to learn from them, to have the intellectual ability to critically examine and evaluate what everyone wants and needs, and then put them all together.

Second, since this intellectual formulation can only be the first step, an estimate of the real quality of a decision is not known until it is implemented; its deficiencies begin to show up only when put into practice. This requires him to keep his ear to the ground, listen patiently to criticism to judge if his policies are working. He must not be defensive when criticised, or evade uncomfortable questions, but face criticism head on and be able to sift the wheat from the chaff. It also necessitates that a leader show flexibility and an ability for course correction by admitting mistakes. He should know that one’s stature is not diminished by accepting fallibility.

Third, a leader must be a good communicator, and that is greatly helped if he has a way with words. But all the rhetorical flourish is of no avail if the speech lacks sincerity and conviction. A conviction with no relation to truth or actual outcomes is dishonest. Eloquence, though a good quality, is hollow without truth. Isn’t it better to quietly do the job at hand rather than make grandiose claims or promises that can’t be kept?

Finally, a good leader knows that nothing can be achieved without the collective expertise and wisdom of a support team. And when it comes to the entire country, such a team consists of a battalion of groups and institutions. How should members of such teams be picked? It is tempting to induct people who belong to a common caste, region or religion. But such people are prejudiced in their thinking, serve their own particular group or merely themselves. They can’t be good for the country as a whole. A good leader must rise above narrow, irrelevant considerations to select his team.

Unafraid of rivals

It is equally tempting to pick those one has taken a fancy to, who are personally loyal. But such people often lack spine. Fearful people with poor ability can never offer good advice to their leader and could allow bad decisions to prevail that push the country down a ruinous path. Besides, they are often among the first to backstab the leader once out of power. Thus, personal likes and dislikes too must be set aside. I doubt if younger readers know that Nehru inducted into his cabinet Dr. Ambedkar, his long-standing, pre-eminent critic, as also the founder of the Jan Sangh, Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Abraham Lincoln, the 19th century American President, was also exemplary in this matter. The man he appointed as his Secretary of War was earlier his superior in legal practice and had on occasion even humiliated him. But over time Lincoln was convinced that the interest of the nation during war would be best served by bringing this rather arrogant man into the cabinet. This led him to set aside personal resentment, forgive him and appoint him to a very crucial job in his cabinet. Great leaders don’t hold grudges, are not vindictive and do not care if they have been wronged in the past by anyone so long as they are convinced that he will do no wrong in the future. Magnanimity isn’t just a personal moral quality but a necessary political virtue.

Clearly then, a leader must have a knack of appointing persons best suited to his team who have proven ability, understand the purpose of the job, can speak their mind, and are able, without fear, to disagree with the leader if need be. Above all, they must understand the inclusive public philosophy that guides the nation. But such persons can be identified only by one who possesses these qualities and is himself devoted to this public philosophy. In India, this means that our leaders must owe supreme loyalty to nothing but our constitutional values.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 3:00:24 PM |

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