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WHAT MAKES A GOOD LEADER?
WHAT MAKES A GOOD LEADER?
July 22, 2018
Eyebrows were raised when US Press Secretary Sarah Sanders disclosed last week that President Trump had directed White House to extend an invitation to his Russian counterpart, President Putin, to visit Washington later this year. Close on the heels of Summit in Helsinki, such news was bound to gain a lot of media attention, particularly after a little controversy concerning the alleged Russian meddling in US Presidential polls. While there would be several geopolitical implications of such ongoing summit between the two leaders and many experts may have different interpretations of the dynamics of the entire exercise, in terms of “leadership”, there is no doubt that it must be one of the boldest gambits. If these summits build a momentum of their own and do succeed in building a friendly relation between the two countries over the next few decades or even thawing their strained bilateral relations, there would be a directional shift in global politics.
America’s main worry today has been the rising economic and political clout of China. The United States cannot afford to fritter away its energies on conflicts and rivalries that can otherwise be tackled with little extra effort or a victory in these shall make no big difference. If President Trump succeeds in winning over Russia or even containing the threat from Russia, it would be one of the most remarkable accomplishments of his time. I was recently interacting with a UK based observer of US foreign policy and he opined that the best strategy would be 'to look forward without getting bogged down by the past. Even if there are heavy baggage and serious misgivings and distrust in the West’s relations with Russia, the adversarial relationship does not suit at least the American interests at this juncture.’ He described that what President Trump is trying amounts to ‘winning over Russia without defeating it.’ If we win over our adversaries or neutralise even potential foes, we reduce the threat to ourselves, which automatically enhances our strength.
We assess the quality of leadership of any great leader not by one or two moves but by the overall impact that they can leave. I recall early last year, many people were concerned at a somewhat disruptive approach of the leadership of Head of the Government of the world’s most powerful nation. One of the former Directors of IIM, who is probably one of the most eminent global experts from India on leadership, remarked in course of a casual chat that “in the past half a century, the world had not witnessed such an acute crisis of leadership in virtually most fields.” He wondered whether the systems had ‘saturated so much that it struggled to throw up high-quality leaders.’
Leadership is a crucial ingredient for the success of democracy and its ability to produce good quality leaders shall determine its eventual fate. So, who is a good leader?
Good Leaders are Easy to Identify
Good leaders are easy to identify but difficult to describe. In fact, ‘who is a good leader’ or ‘what makes a leader good’, maybe fairly contested ideas. Every leader is not endowed with the same level of skills or strengths. There is a large spectrum, varying from average to great or exceptional, on which we can classify leaders. Average leaders may succeed in certain circumstances and remain ineffective in the rest, good leaders succeed in most circumstances and even against several odds and great leaders need a very wide variety of skills and an exceptional push of both luck and support of associates to succeed and leave a mark. Great leaders leave a legacy that inspires people much after they are gone. They set their benchmarks of excellence which are difficult to match or emulate. They are path-breakers in the sense that they venture into newer areas and attempt things that are different.
The word leader or leadership has probably been overused in our times. We usually consider those individuals as leaders who occupy the highest rungs in political, professional or social hierarchies. These include institutions, organisation or communities or even nations or simply those individuals who command wider acceptability. However, the real test of leadership lies not in occupying a position at the top of acceptability among but in the quality of difference that they make to their surroundings and even beyond. Good leaders make a more positive quality of difference or change, bringing people across divides and differences together, infusing greater synergy and harmony, even while opposing entrenched vested interests.
Good leaders transform the quality of output of their people - both individually and collectively. They show a sense of purpose and direction that is both appealing and viable. They succeed despite hindrances. They inspire others through their acts, deeds and performance. They infuse a sense of higher self-worth among those whom they lead. The biggest success of leaders would be their ability to win over even their enemies.
Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Napoleon Bonaparte, John Davison Rockefeller, Albert Einstein etc are some of the greatest leaders in different fields that the world has produced in recent centuries. None of them was perfect and they all had their share of flaws but their actions and beliefs did help change the world for better in some form for the entire humanity.
However, one story from Indian history that is attributed to ancient Indian King Samudra Gupta is worth narrating even though its details are inapplicable in the contemporary context. Legend says that Samudra Gupta was third among the four prince brothers who were contenders for the responsibility of the Gupta empire that flourished in an era, which is considered the golden phase in the history of Indian sub-continent. His father Emperor Chandra Gupta I, who himself was one of the greatest emperors in the history of mankind, was keen to appoint the most worthy among the four princes as his successor who could protect the vast empire. All the four princes had to undergo a series of tests including a sword-fight. They fared almost equally in all the tests except sword fight, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. About Samudra Gupta, the story says that the nimble-footed royal prince not only fought the duel against a formidable opponent with utmost skills and dexterity but when the latter lost both balance and sword, failing to react to a sharp attack from the prince, and fell, the prince promptly threw his sword and knelt to lift his opponent and embraced him apologetically. The sword fight was for winning and not killing the opponent. Emperor Chandra Gupta-I and his associates chose Samudra Gupta on the plea that he would protect the empire better as he could control his emotions and handle his opponents without anger and vengeance, despite being powerful. An emperor had to earn the respect of both his associates and opponents and convert even enemies into friends. It was more important to win rather than kill and destroy the opponent- a sentiment that scripted exceptional prosperity and harmony of ancient India.
Several centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly asserted that he had no enemies and advised his followers to “hate the sin and not the sinner.” President Lincoln showed remarkable courage to not only forgive his political opponents but risk his career and even his life to secure liberty and dignity for “slaves”. Mandela forgave his tormentors and oppressors who had subjected him to enormous physical and psychological torture and outraged even his dignity. As the greatest corporate leader and accumulator of wealth in his lifetime in the entire recorded human history, John Davison Rockefeller eventually scripted a new chapter of philanthropy that has inspired many of his ilks much after his death to inspire the "Giving" pledge by corporate leaders led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. As an intellectual leader and great genius, Eisenstein led the most simple and austere life and showed remarkable humility, but yet his accomplishments changed the world for better.
Can such people be considered good leaders? They may be materially successful individuals but irrespective of the political, military or financial success or clout they may wield, they can never earn respect and trust, which is the hallmark of good leaders. Leaders build bonds, promote powerful ideas and establish processes that positively impact most, if not all, around them. Various means of direct and subtle communications adopted by leaders are extremely crucial for this purpose.
Observations of great leaders, who have obtained exceptional results in different contexts, suggest that they have often possessed different attributes, and at times used contradictory techniques to achieve their goals. At the same time, most of them had certain common qualities like vision, courage, ability to energise their teams, and most importantly integrity of character and purpose. Hence, it would be fair to say that while there can be no fixed formula or prescription for good leadership but essential attributes of a good leader transcend time and context. Effectiveness of various tools, techniques or approaches of leadership varies with context and sub-context but the key principles remain timeless.
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