Thursday July 07, 2022

Leadership and U-turns

November 26, 2018

There is a thin line between being confident and being foolish. Confidence is a product of capability, skill, preparedness and self-belief which is reflected though the words and actions of an individual.

Foolishness or silliness, on the other hand, is a product of false glory; this too is reflected through the words and deeds of an individual. A confident person is always firm, consistent and reliable while a dense one is always mercurial, unpredictable, nasty and malleable to the whims and wishes of others around him/her. If there is one thing that makes a leader distinct from a follower, it is the ability to take thoughtful decisions and stick to them.

Leaders are pathfinders; they do not take diversions midway but find strategic ways to continue on the journey even if they face the odds. The height of foolishness is to justify whimsical detours as the trademark of leadership.

If these assertions are any guide, we are in fact moving towards a serious leadership crisis in Pakistan. The media reports about Prime Minister Imran Khan justifying his famous U-turns as characteristics of a good leader depict the frivolity of a man who was admired by many as a man of principles. The most farcical part of this public statement was the inference to Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte who, according to Khan, lost wars because they did not take timely U-turns. What a reductive and ahistorical way to present complex history without an iota of knowledge of what proved detrimental to Hitler and Napoleon’s war strategy on the eastern fronts.

In fact, Hitler’s unthoughtful U-turn of diverting forces from Moscow to take the grain fields of the Ukraine and the Crimea did not work well. The Nazi army was dispersed as it did not get any strategic direction and command in the rapidly shifting battlefields. Napoleon was defeated by the armies of the Seventh Coalition at the Waterloo for his lack of tactics and more importantly for his fluid strategy which proved to be his nemesis.

This digression into history is only meant to highlight the fact that it would not be fair to justify today’s U-turns by distorting history — and that too through a comparison of two brutal dictators who inflicted pain on humanity. Imran Khan could find better examples to make a case for his own incessant U-turns.

Interestingly, both confident and silly people speak in public without fear of being lampooned. If the confident have a stupid audience he/she can become a laughing stock. And if the silly one have a confident audience he/she will have the same fate. It is therefore vital for confident folk to have a confident audience and silly folk to have a rather dense audience to be admired and appreciated publicly.

Confidence is not only about having the ability to defend one’s viewpoint but also about establishing the authenticity of argument and moulding public opinion against conventional thinking. Foolishness, on the other hand, is babbling for the sake of public attention, through gestures rather than an argument or logic. A stupid person would always rush to conclusions on the basis of hearsay and would suddenly succumb to exotic perspectives without thoughtful engagement. Confidence is the ability to absorb, analyse, articulate and express within the limits of knowledge and to seek a rational debate as opposed to hiding one’s weaknesses behind words and attitude or by killing the possibility of debate.

A leader always leads by example, with motivation and inspiration. Someone in a managerial position, however, quotes examples of others and imposes a one-dimensional structural hierarchy to control people as subordinates. A leader breeds free thinkers, change-makers and altruistic souls while a manager produces subordinates, obedient, submissive and docile workers. Leaders are disruptive and transformative while managers are highly disciplined. Leaders invent order and destroy it for higher goals while managers follow order and protect it as a means of control. Leaders offer the antithesis of a prevalent idea while managers believe in disciplined thinking and are afraid of intellectual engagement as they deem it equal to anarchy. Leaders believe in broadening and dislodging worldviews while managers believe in fencing worldviews, and despise change. Managers are good at managing people while leaders develop people through work.

The debate over the difference between a leader and a manager is not only relevant for the corporate world, but is equally true for all spheres of life. Leadership, however, is not a genetic predisposition; it is a combination of social conditioning, exposure, upbringing, social networks and some particular personal experiences etc. There are no born leaders with special natural abilities and there is no one on earth who is born to rule unless an individual cultivates the fundamental traits of leadership in the real world.

In politics we are told that a leader holds charisma as a born feature. Charisma is not a natural talent either but an acquired characteristic which is honed through consistent efforts to develop a confident personality. Not all public celebrities are leaders and vice versa because in most cases the celebrities are concocted figures created by corporate media for commercial purposes. David Beckham, one of the most famous celebrities of the English world in my university days in the UK was known to be a rather dense guy otherwise. Likewise, you may find a perfect leader in your neighborhood who has no celebrity status and who still has all those fundamental characteristics through his/her words and actions.

In politics, a good leader is a good statesperson with a vision, stability, consistency and the ability to transform the conditions of wretchedness. Leaders are the product of a political process and continued engagement to transform the conditions of oppression with a firm resolve to rid society of its suffering. Leaders play the role of catalyst in a movement of transformation and they are earthly with no messianic character.

A confident and well-nurtured political leader cannot be isolated from a political movement of long-term struggle for creating an egalitarian society through a scientific and pragmatic strategy of transformation. Amongst media savvy self-propelling political leaders, celebrities and populists, statesmanship has become a rare character framed by the age of idiocy to attract the lucrative media business. A foolish politico is always blessed when he/she finds a stupid audience to hide the coarseness and shallowness of ideas that he/she propounds.

Why we are not producing good statespersons is a genuine question. Unfortunately, our nurseries of political leadership stopped functioning long ago. Colleges and universities must be the incubation centres of political ideas, statesmanship and democracy but we have banned student unions and constructive political engagement in academic institutions. There is no surprise when I am disappointed in the top political leader of my country who is ridiculed for his frivolity.

Amongst his coterie there is none to speak sense. This is what we get when we banish politics from our colleges and universities. This is more a time of reflection than one of ridiculing PM Khan for being part celebrity, part politician, or anything else.

The writer is a senior socialdevelopment and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.


Twitter: @AmirHussain76