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OP-ED: The dimensions of leadership

  • Published at 12:00 pm June 24th, 2020
Mandela
Photo: REUTERS

Look to the actions of great statesmen and stateswomen who came before us

The question is one of leadership in these present times.

With the coronavirus pandemic making a havoc of lives and nations, leaders almost everywhere are seemingly at sea, to a certain extent paralyzed where they should be taking effective action. And, of course, there are the demagogues -- like Trump and Bolsonaro -- who happily go on confounding an already bad situation. But, then, demagogues are no leaders. And what we have for leadership today, a prime example of it, is the young Jacinda Ardern. The mantle of leadership has sat well on one so young. She offers hope to New Zealanders.

In these difficult, definitively dark times, leaders can take pages out of those statesmen and stateswomen who came before them. A few days ago, France and much of the European world remembered the call by Charles de Gaulle to his countrymen from London, a call which informed Frenchmen that the lamp of resistance must not be extinguished. 

The people of France listened to him, even as Petain and Laval collaborated with the Nazis. De Gaulle’s leadership, in the end, left France with an enduring political system, the Fifth Republic; and all his successors have since tried to recreate his grandeur around their own personas.

Decisive leadership is of the essence anywhere. In early March 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not flinch from taking the step -- toward emancipation and freedom -- he knew was a historical imperative arrived at by his own demonstration of leadership. He left a nation prepared to go to war for freedom. It is a fortunate happenstance in Bangladesh’s history that Tajuddin Ahmad did not think twice, in the horrific darkness generated by the genocide resorted to by the Pakistan army, before deciding what needed to happen. His formation of the Mujibnagar government-in-exile was leadership put to the test. He passed the test with flying colours.

An instance of a leader of foresight we have met in the modern era is Jawaharlal Nehru. A man who was not content resting complacent on the arrival of independence, he drew other politicians, economists, scientists, and scholars into his tent to map the course India would take in the times ahead. 

A democrat to his bone, Nehru wrote to his chief ministers every week on issues which needed to be reflected on. Abroad, his was a suave personality comfortable in dealing with the world on his terms. And, of course, despite all the criticism around her of excesses committed during the Emergency, Indira Gandhi remains a powerful instance of purposeful leadership. 

Her pioneering efforts in bringing about a Green Revolution in India, her contributions to the arrival of Jawaharlal Nehru University, her abolition of privy purses and her unequivocal role in the crisis of 1971 have remained unmatched by her successors.

Leaders are people whose lives are based on principled convictions. They do not shift with the winds. They do not, in the interest of holding on to power, opt for compromises. They are diligent students of history, as was Willy Brandt. Back in the 1970s, it took great courage for a German to express contrition over Nazi crimes. 

But for Brandt, history could not move on if it remained arrested in the past. He travelled to Warsaw, knelt before the memorial to the Jews murdered by Hitler and his henchmen, and thereby told the world a new beginning could be made. It was a moment of catharsis, for Germans, for the world beyond their borders. 

There are men who sometimes break out of their narrow parochial shells, in effect shed their skins, as they take the lead in the creation of a better world for their people. For decades, Anwar Sadat laboured as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s factotum in Egypt. On the day Nasser died, it was a tearful Sadat who informed Egyptians that their leader had fallen silent. 

Soon, however, Sadat was demonstrating his own brand of leadership, first through launching the Yom Kippur War and then travelling to Jerusalem in November 1977 to make peace with Israel. It was a huge gamble. More than that, it was a decisive display of leadership. Sadat was roundly condemned for his “perfidy” by the Arab world, but he alone knew that the future could not be held at bay through clinging to the bitterness of the past. 

Leadership often rests on the element of forgiveness of the enemy. Continued antipathy to adversaries mars the quality of leadership, indeed leaves those wielding power hostage to their own narrowness of thought. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was unhappy that he could not place the war criminals of the Pakistan army on trial, but he was absolutely clear about his need to forgive those who had humiliated his country. 

Likewise, when Nelson Mandela sought to create a rainbow nation in South Africa, having spent 27 years as a prisoner of apartheid, he looked to the future. Neither Mujib nor Mandela would brush away the past, for the past was the substance that constituted huge swathes of their nations’ histories. But neither would they fritter away the chances that came to them of building a more relaxed future.

Leadership is embedded in morality. Any aspiring leader will first convince himself or herself of the strength of moral principles that will strengthen and expand the roots of his or her politics. And on an adherence to morality will emerge the structure of heritage a leader leaves behind. Leaders go beyond the partisan; they see wrong before them and they move to sweep away such wrongs. 

They do not mouth platitudes. They reach out to an entire country, to their followers as well as their detractors. They go for action, in the way Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the early 1930s to pull his country out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt exuded optimism. And leadership is indeed a creation of optimism, of then transferring it to the multitudes.

Leadership in modern times is an intellectual exercise. It does not cater to sycophancy, which pushes society into misery through planting the seeds of corruption. It builds systems that endure, that give nations their places under the sun. 

Leaders embody enlightenment. Go back to Charles de Gaulle.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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