The Leadership Deficit
The Competence Cauldron

The Leadership Deficit

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Disruption is the spirit of our times. Whether we refer to the prevailing scenario as knowledge society, digital age or millennial generation, one thing is for sure. There is an all-pervading energy and urge for change. Not just in technology or business model. Every aspect of life and culture is impacted by the openness, courage and impatience of the transitional spirit.

We are changing our narrative of possibilities from limited options to endless alternatives. Our thinking horizon is changing from ‘within the framework of the familiar’ to the ‘excitement of the unknown.’Our questioning habit is changing too from “What and Why” to “What else and Why not.” This is the new age society-connected, bold and willing to experiment, fail, learn and try again.

Yesterday, we viewed with suspicion and cynicism any thought and idea ahead of its time and branded them as outlandish and heretic; today the deviant view is hailed as disruption. Disrupters are seen more and more as path-breakers. Today, disruption is not only appreciated and applauded but it has become an infectious spirit that transcends domains and geographies.

The newfound culture of disruption is casting away stereotypes of ideas and approaches in fields as diverse as science, technology, business and services. One of the last bastions of disruption seems to be political governance. Yet the larger society’s cynicism and suspicions about the intent, calibre and commitment of political parties and leaders are growing by the day.

In many democracies, there has been a distinct throwback to conservatism in the past decade or two. One of the outcomes was the ascent of Donald Trump as the President of an avowedly liberal democracy. We have seen over the past few years the assertion of authoritarian (both right-leaning and left-of-centre types) leadership styles across the globe, as exemplified by rulers as varied as Putin, Xi, Netanyahu, Mahathir, Erdogan and Modi, to name just a few. More than ideology, what drives this crop of contemporary leadership is a highly individualistic style with aggressive positioning and posturing.

The paradox is that the digital society that we live in is characterised by connecting, sharing and co-creating technologies, platforms, applications and operating models. Such individualised and power-centric leadership style is out of sync with the genre of the contemporary society. Sustainability of the overbearing leadership is in doubt in the medium term.The schism is already showing up as the millennial mindset is getting re-energised all around; they cherish individual freedom and leaving space for differing ideas and thoughts to co-exist. Sooner than later, the truly transformational leadership that is aligned to the changed societal aspirations would emerge. That is the writing on the wall.

To quote Kancho Stoychev, President of Gallup International Association (GIA), a world leader in gathering, analysing and interpreting opinions and preferences from across nations, “Tensions across the world are growing and leadership is in crisis almost everywhere. Are those tensions growing because of bad leadership or bad leadership leading to growing tensions? Many point out that the gap between elites and masses is reaching intolerable levels and the post-World War-2 global order is falling apart. Mistrust in politicians, politics and political systems is on the rise and the fundamental question is not about how to find better representation of the will of the people but how the people can control their elected representatives more effectively”.

Decline of public trust in the institutions and leadership of political governance has been red-flagged in various studies and reports on Western liberal democracies since the 1970s. Public negativity about politics and politicians was sighted as the biggest problem facing the European Union, in a report on the state of governance in 2013. The contemporary reports and discussions in the media in India bring to focus the trust-deficit in the public at large on politics and its leading players.

The notion that public figures and professionals are basically trustworthy has been integral to the health of representative democracies. After all, the very core of liberal democracy is the idea that a small group of people – politicians – can represent millions of others. If this system is to work, there must be a basic modicum of trust that the small group will act on behalf of the much larger one. Once elected, a leader should by deeds and words reassure, demonstrate and reinforce the trust and concern for all citizens.

The disenchantment of the public at large with political leadership is manifesting through widespread protests of the vocal, and unfortunately in many cases violent, nature across a wide spectrum of polities. We have seen unruly demonstrations in many parts of the world in 2019, including in Iran, France, Hongkong and towards the end of the year in India. The structure and culture of politics and administrative power are quite different in the societies mentioned above. But the assertion of the people has been spontaneous and strong against the position taken by the party and leaders in charge.

This piquant situation brings the spotlight on two distinct trends–firstly, there is a widespread perception of the decline in the quality of political leadership and disconnect with masses. Secondly, the individual citizen feels strongly empowered to articulate opinions and reinforce shared concerns through social networking. If there is one thing that a demagogue politician is mortally afraid of, it is the mobile internet. No wonder many imperfect democracies resort to frequent blockage of internet connectivity.

The domain of politics is ripe for disruption; however, the political class in power is bent upon blocking the possibilities of disruption. Therein lies the fault lines of social order. A disruption is a breakthrough idea or movement that goes through with the support, respect and accommodation by most stakeholders. Lack of avenues for disruption leads to build up of tensions and frustrations and to possible eruption of destructive passions. A liberal society must provide safety valves to release social and political tensions and provide avenues and platforms to express, debate and negotiate ideas and approaches to solve issues.

Self-serving leaders on either side of the political opinion may indulge in fanning passions and might succeed in reaping short-term gains. But as and when the public at large becomes more politically competent they will see through the machinations and the manipulators would be cast aside.

Plato’s enunciation of five types of leaders has stood the test of time. At the lower end of the leadership spectrum, Plato placed the political leaders whom he called orators. He described them as leaders who swayed masses through forceful rhetoric but devoid of the expertise or intention to implement what they professed. At the top end of leadership, he placed exemplary leaders whom he referred to as philosopher administrators. He emphasised the knowledge, skill and willpower to implement tough decisions as the characteristics of the great leaders.

There is a famous poem oft quoted on leadership; the source is mentioned by some as Confucius, the Chinese philosopher and by some others as Darius, the Persian ruler. Whatever be the confusion on the source, the classification of leaders therein is indeed thought provoking.

“He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool; shun him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not is simple ; teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep; wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows is wise; follow him.”

The legendary philosopher-strategist, Chanakya said emphatically, “…. when a king makes himself inaccessible to his people and entrusts his work to his immediate officers, he may be sure to engender confusion in business, and to cause thereby public disaffection, and himself a prey to his enemies.”

The above three quotes from thought leaders belonging to different cultures and periods bring out the universality of knowledge, people connect and genuineness of approach as crucial elements of leadership effectiveness, especially in the political governance.

Management guru James MacGregor Burns was the first to introduce the concepts of transformational and transactional leadership in his theorisation of political leadership; these terms are now used in organizational psychology.

Transformational leaders offer a purpose that transcends short-term goals; they focus on higher order needs. They look for opportunities for long-term and sustainable changes. They strive to build and nurture an emotional connect with others. Honest and deep-felt empathy is the hallmark of transformational leaders. A far cry from the orator leaders whom Plato decried. On the other hand, most leaders are the transactional type. They set their sights on tasks that are short-term and seek outcomes that would serve their personal interests primarily. They do not seek the big picture implications of their actions.

Transformational leaders with clarity of vision and intense social commitment are the need of the hour in the politics of the day. Sustainable leadership is built upon integrity of thought and passion for execution.

This brings us back to the intensely felt need for disruption in the political leadership. This change cannot be thrust upon but must organically evolve. An orderly way of hastening the process is for more and more unconventional leaders (professionals, social activists and thought leaders) to emerge on the political scene. Despite the tantrums perhaps due to political immaturity, which we can appreciate more as a learning curve, the bold initiative taken by Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia to enter the murky world of electoral politics is indeed a disruption whose time has come. The solid improvements in basic infrastructure like public education and primary health care in Delhi are a testament to what can be achieved if the vision is clear and the commitment firm. We need more such disruptors in the political leadership. That would speed up the transition from ‘politicians for a living’ to ‘politicians of passion’. When more and more political leaders would adopt servant leadership behaviour and genuinely seek service before self, the disruption that has long been pending will gather steam.

Assertion by individual citizens of their rights and the pursuit of orderly and civilized methods of protests are key to evolution of positive democratic culture. May the new decade that we are ringing in become the age of constructive political disruption in India and herald the march to a matured democracy.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is a practising strategy consultant, trainer, coach, mentor and start up enthusiast based in Trivandrum. He can be contacted at