Nurturing Leadership to Save India – I

Krishnaraj Rao

RTI Activist

Last month, a fellow activist asked me how we could save India from going to the dogs. Sharing a plate of sev-puri with him at a roadside stall at 10.30 pm, I said that there were no easy methods. “I can’t even improve my own small family, or my cooperative housing society,” I told my friend. “How can I talk about improving India?”

The more we dwelt on this topic, the more I felt humbled. “In my family and society, which are the building blocks of local-self-governance, I participate in decision making. I know people personally. I can explain my viewpoint to them. Even then, I can only make a small difference,” I said.

But who am I to improve anybody else when I can’t even improve myself? My waistline is ballooning and I need to go on a diet. (It is do-able. On earlier occasions, I have shed about 15 kg in a few months.) But now, every passing day, I fail to get a grip on myself.

Can I talk about disciplining my country when I fail at discipline myself? We are are an integral part of this system, and that we are ourselves causing this system to fail every waking hour of our lives.

We ourselves commit many wrongdoings on roads and roadsides, in offices, clubs, hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, and in the board and managing committees of companies, banks, cooperative societies, trusts, NGOs… you name it! But in our collective mind, all the diverse wrongdoings are boiled down to “Corruption”. We simplistically attribute all corruption to the leaders whom we have voted to power, and to the people who are hired to run the administration. And so we want to see them condemned and publicly punished. Although some ministers and bureaucrats richly deserve punishment, that alone cannot be a cure. The wrongness in all of us will continue to exist, and continue to breed corruption.

We The People do wrong things for diverse, convincing and compelling reasons. Just as I keep putting off my dieting every day, and my building society keeps putting off garbage segregation, most corrupt persons agree that the right things must be done, but are convinced that they cannot be done today for some very valid reasons. To fix our nation, we must remove every such “valid reason” or root cause.

One such root cause is our FAULTY UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT LEADERSHIP IS ALL ABOUT. If we close our eyes and try to visualize a leader, what do we see? A feudal leader who wields absolute superiority and unreasoning authority, with a huge mass of followers. We all carry this archetype in our mind. Unknowingly, we select such leaders and hand over the reins of our country, state and city to them. We The People do this repeatedly at every election, because we have not paid attention to this tendency in ourselves. We are unaware of our habits.

Leaders with millions of followers don’t appear on the scene spontaneously. A coterie of chamchas is needed to conduct a propaganda campaign, spread a false mythology and discourage skeptics from asking questions. Feudal leaders thrive on sycophancy, bullying and intellectual dishonesty. They get their larger-than-life public stature by stealing the credit for work done by genuine workers. All our political parties have this sort of environment. There is no inner-party democracy, no real elections are held, and important decisions are made by the coterie. Therefore, no genuine leaders arise; only sycophants, bullies and liars tend to become MLAs, MPs and ministers.

Characteristics of Toxic Leaders:
LEAD BY COMMAND, NOT BY EXAMPLE. Feudal leaders command others to do what they themselves don’t do. Their motto is, “Do as I say; don’t do as I do.”

UNDUE PRIVILEGES. Feudal leaders take undue privileges, and they pass on undue privileges to family members and people who are loyal to them.

NOT ACCOUNTABLE. They are not answerable to their followers; in fact, followers must accept that they are a law unto themselves.

COTERIE. Feudal leaders create a charmed circle around themselves, and the main attraction that they offer to their followers is inclusion in the charmed circle, which enjoys absolute power and privilege.

NO DIRECT ACCESS. Only those with access to the charmed circle can approach the leader; direct access to the leader is restricted.

PRIVATE INTEREST. Feudal leaders often espouse private-interest causes to benefit individuals or specific interest-groups. This is always a trade-off for receiving some benefits and privileges.

POPULIST CAUSES. Feudal leaders espouse dogmas, superstitions and communal beliefs that people blindly believe in. They ignore unpopular causes — even those that are important for public interest.

POWER IS THE OBJECTIVE. The ideologies are for public consumption. A feudal leader only wants power.

Almost all our government and opposition leaders are products of such a toxic leadership environment. (By the way, feudal leadership is also observed also in NGOs, charitable organizations, companies, chambers of commerce and cooperative housing societies.) Can we expect such leaders to honestly and democratically run a government? No way!

It is urgent to create democratic and intellectually honest environments where an alternative crop of leaders can grow. There is an existing breed of leaders whom I shall term as “servant-leaders”, because they live in service of a larger ideology. They may not be “selfless”, but they find their greatest satisfaction in serving society. These people may sometimes look like followers, but they are emphatically not followers. We need to nurture and support such people, spread their culture of service, and enable them to be get into government and administration.

What exactly is a servant-leader? Many of us have an authority-figure in our family – often it was the mother – who would quietly do anything needed for the health and happiness of the family. Whether it was cooking dinner, cleaning soiled nappies, giving sponge-baths or wiping the floor, no task was too small or too shameful for this person, who was only concerned about the welfare of all family members. She (or he) derived her authority from a willingness to serve, nurture, mentor and empower others. This is an example of a servant-leader.

Characteristics of Servant-Leaders:

LEAD BY EXAMPLE. Servant-leaders do not command from above; they reason and request for assistance. But they are themselves doers, not commanders. They lead by example.

AVOID PRIVILEGE & SHOW-BAAZI. Servant-leaders avoid visible marks of authority, and don’t take extra privileges even when offered. Because of this, they don’t attract self-seeking followers and sycophants; instead, they repel them.

FIRST AMONG EQUALS. Servant-leaders don’t hog the credit. So they attract friends, associates and supporters. They don’t have a rigid command structure, and they are reasonable and friendly in their approach.

ENABLE GROWTH OF OTHER LEADERS. They are willing to be held accountable for their actions. As they freely share credit and limelight, they enable development and growth of other personalities besides themselves.

ACCESSIBLE. Servant-leaders are humble and generally accessible to the public.

MAY ESPOUSE UNPOPULAR CAUSES. Servant-leaders speak up for causes that are in the public interest, even if the causes are unpopular.

PUBLIC INTEREST IS THEIR OBJECTIVE. Servant-leaders generally avoid the trappings of power. Public interest is their main objective. For them, wielding power is at most a means for achieving public interest goals.

There are many servant-leaders in our midst today – not one or two, but hundreds. They are there in every walk of life, quietly working in public interest. They don’t have a mass of followers. They may not necessarily have awards and public recognition.

I often hear it said that there are no genuine leaders nowadays. That is because most of us don’t recognize a genuine leader even if he or she sits with us and talks for hours. People are looking for iconic personalities like Mahatma Gandhi or some other historical figure. Or they expect a leader to sound wise and be charismatic like a messiah. They expect perfection. But servant-leaders are not iconic, charismatic and perfect; they are very human. They have faults and make mistakes – often more than others. In fact, the faults of servant-leaders may be more visible to us because, unlike feudal leaders, they don’t hide behind coteries.

If you truly wish for a resurgent India, look among the persons you know, and identify the servant-leaders, the true leaders. Recognize them. They will typically not ask for support as other leaders do, but support them please! Because they are the future of our country.

And yes… PLEASE WITHDRAW YOUR SUPPORT FROM TOXIC FEUDAL LEADERS. Because following feudal leaders is like giving India a daily injection of poison. If you knowingly continue to do that, the sincerity of your patriotism is in question.

And now, a deeply personal note to some friends who are true leaders serving the people: I am honoured to be your friend. I am privileged to spend time with you, and share your thoughts and beliefs. You are more precious than all the material wealth of this nation. Society may or may not recognize your true worth, but you make me proud to be an Indian. I bow to you.