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Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Let’s not confuse strong leadership with a strong leader

A bit of nostalgia may not be out of place in times of a pandemic, lockdown and social distancing. Time was—it seems a while ago, though it’s only three months—when people still visited physical bookshops and browsed through rows of bookshelves. In many of these stores, a particular shelf attracted unusually more patrons: management self-help books, especially those focused on leadership. There seemed to be a keen, innate desire to learn its ropes. Books with titles like On Becoming A Leader, Harvard Business Review on Leadership, The One Minute Manager or The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People would fly off the shelf, giving readers hope of picking up tips on the fast-track to leadership.

Leadership is a coveted attribute. Everybody desires power and charisma, the usual attributes associated with it. When these traits prove elusive to acquire, people then look for somebody else with these characteristics, somebody they can identify with. Enter the “strong" leader. Country after country has elected a “strong leader" in the hope that the person will set right social wrongs (most of them imaginary), turbo-charge the economy (which often ends up worsening inequality), and restore the country’s prestige and standing (whatever that means).

But wishes have a strange way of manifesting themselves. Most people desired a strong leader when they perhaps needed strong leadership. There is a world of difference between the two, and some management books about “effective" chief executive officers (CEOs) have added to the confusion. This has also given rise to popular misconceptions that a CEO, not a political leader, needs to run a country because chief executives are deemed to be decisive, focused and target-oriented. Sadly, this has also distorted expectations and created its own biases. As covid management across countries has shown, strong leadership can be more effective than just being a strong leader.

History is replete with examples of strong leaders who have left behind a trail of wreckage in their wake.

Caligula, the nickname for Gaius Julius Caesar, helmed the Roman Empire for four years and was famous for extravagance, cruelty and ambitious projects to improve his self-image. Caligula’s post-death legacy was a broken Roman empire. The Ugandan autocrat and former army commander, Idi Amin, bestowed many titles on himself that included Field Marshal, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, President for Life, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas. Apart from misrule and human rights abuses, his regime was also marked by total economic mismanagement.

Another military general with a legacy of human rights abuse was Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), who came to power on the back of a US-supported coup. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has shown how Pinochet’s rash of “reforms", inspired by the Chicago school of economic thinking, further deepened social and income inequality in Chile. This deeply embedded inequity got institutionalized over time and finally sparked off public outrage and student protests, which continued till 2019. Costa-Gavras’ classic movie Missing—which received four nominations at the 55th Academy Awards in 1983—depicted the horrors of the Pinochet regime in which thousands of people were executed and many more tortured.

Reviewing the book, The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates writes in his blog: “…despite a worldwide fixation on strength as a positive quality, strong leaders—those who concentrate power and decision-making in their own hands—are not necessarily good leaders. On the contrary, Brown argues that the leaders who make the biggest difference in office, and change millions of lives for the better, are the ones who collaborate, delegate, and negotiate—the ones who recognize that no one person can or should have all the answers."

The past three months have separated individuals who have provided truly strong leadership from the self-professed strong leaders. As United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres has said, covid-19 is humanity’s greatest test since World War II. It may be premature to judge the success or failure of any one style of pandemic management, but then early indicators do provide some pointers.

In some countries with so-called strong leaders, the response to the pandemic has been unilateral, arbitrary, whimsical, chaotic and non-scientific, marked by hubris and accompanied by a rhetorical soundscape. In some cases, the leaders have provided undue primacy to the economy and business over individual lives; some even lived in denial of the virus. Many have used the covid opportunity to appropriate additional power and deepen social divides.

In contrast, strong leadership made itself manifest through its approach: scientific towards the pandemic and compassionate towards fellow citizens. The actions of such leaders have been imbued with empathy, their responses designed to meet societal challenges. They’ve created talented teams that are suitably empowered, and have ceded control in many cases to experts, acknowledging publicly that they are not omniscient. Their communication has been on point, and they have not spared any effort to shield the poor from the disease while protecting their income and livelihoods.

Where does India stand?

Rajrishi Singhal is consulting editor of Mint. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal Where does India stand?

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