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Leaders, leadership and followers

Updated: Mar 24, 2020

I have often wondered what truly makes a leader and what leadership is all about. A startling fact that emerged was that one was a leader ONLY if there were followers. A party of one has an automatic leader but not really a true leader; there isn’t anyone to lead.

I have heard of many clichéd comments that leadership is about being charismatic or leaders having “leadership qualities”. There are courses on leadership and “how to…” galore. But two incidents made me pause and rethink how we really look at leaders.

A prominent activist did a lot of research on a leader. She painstakingly put together hard data as evidence of the leadership. She went through the allegations of misconduct in grave detail. She then concluded the leader was one who could be trusted with the leadership of the country. The researcher is Madhu Kishwar and the centre of her research, the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. I have read many of the pieces Madhu has written and the campaign she led to ensure her circle of contacts were made personally aware of his qualities (as she saw them).

Then within a week of him being elected to the office of Prime Minister she expressed lack of faith in his decision-making. The PM appointed a former TV star and fellow BJP worker Smrithi Irani as the Cabinet Minister of Human Resources. Madhu was quick to state the wrong person was given the job.

This turn of events made me pause and wonder. How could a man who had been researched as a thinker, thought leader and had been elected to the highest office of a nation suddenly be someone making grave errors? It just doesn’t make sense. If the man who is PM has a case to occupy the office, why do we hasten to judge every decision he makes without providing any evidence of our own judgment or more aptly evidence that the decision taken is wrong? The minister might not work, but there is a fair chance she just might. Like any mutual fund would state, “past performance is no guarantee of future performance.” Similarly where the minister doesn’t have the experience she does have the trust of the man the nation trusts.

So is the leadership of the leader to be questioned without evidence? Does he really need to be scrutinised for every baby step he takes?

There is another thought leader whose stature confuses me. The man is Dinesh Singh, the former VC of Delhi University. Just about a year ago, I heard him speak at the Centenary Celebrations of Commonwealth Universities, held in London. He received a standing ovation for his thoughts on the future of education. His focus was the student, the education imparted and the role of universities in providing learning and not short cuts to memorizing.

Today, circumstances forced Dinesh Singh to resign.

The two leaders appear to be different but I wonder if they really are. Both were hailed and then questioned. It’s true that the role of the opposition or the devil’s advocate is important for ensuring quality and getting to the truth. But is truth so fickle that it is arrived at without evidence? The Four Year Undergraduate Program hasn’t even run a single term before being discarded. It’s possible this is not what India needs even though this is the standard in many (global) leading teaching circles. But isn’t there room to debate this, to research the decision and only then arrive at accepting or rejecting it?

Education is supposed to be the greatest responsibility of mankind. It is in man’s own interest that generations to come are educated. It’s the only way we understand the consequences of our own actions. Education is less about changing the world and more about changing ourselves. I would even go as far as saying education can be a business even if philanthropy has to take a back seat. But to treat it like a prostitute is perhaps the greatest disservice we do to mankind. And this is where I wonder about leadership.

The cabinet minister and the VC are interlinked with education. They are responsible for ensuring India’s future is secured in the hands of the educated. But the followers seem to have a different agenda and I confess I am clueless about it. I don’t know why the PM’s decision on the appointment is being questioned without evidence. I don’t know why the VC’s decision was overturned again, without evidence. There can’t be a system that is so perfect and all-encompassing that it cannot be corrupted. There is however, the believer who needs to keep the faith. When a leader is trusted, allow him to do his job. Admonish if he fails but do allow him to function first.

I always envision a nice car when I think of a leader. The ride the car provides is like the leadership the leader provides. A fast car needs outstanding brakes. But think of what the ride would be like if the brakes decided to do a self-check every minute the car was running. The ride would be awful and the car will be reduced to a wreck because of the frequent start-stops.

It’s time to take stock of our own thinking, leaders after all are only as good as the followers who believe in them.

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