Finding the Leadership  that India needs
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Finding the Leadership that India needs

February 3, 2020

By Dr. R. Balasubramaniam

Watching the young 17-year-old move menacingly with a drawn gun in his hands towards a hysterical mob would have made any sensible person see the crisis that is now evolving around the country. Whatever the explanation this young man gives himself and to the Police, it is no different from the raving of another doctoral student from one of India’s prestigious educational institutions talking about breaking India apart and laying siege to the North-East part of the country.

Events spread over the last two months has exposed several challenges for India.  A common thread amongst most of what we see on the streets or in our Parliament, in our street corner discussions or in some of our own living rooms is the message of distrust, lack of leadership and blind but evident polarisation.  It almost feels like we are all living in spaces and times of constant distrust.

Talking to people, I realise that very few actually have an intellectual understanding of the issues on hand.  Most seem to be swept away by the emotions of the moment. It is as though an entire generation of people have surrendered their collective intelligence on the altar of mistrust and imagined fears.  Watching the television debates and the mindless and immature tweets of people on several sides of the spectrum, it is also evident that most people are looking at the symptoms and missing out the deeper disease itself.

On one side we are exposed to people who have succumbed to the temptation of their own grandiosity while on the other we see a class of people who constantly devalue both their own and the contributions of others around them in solving the problems. It is amidst this crisis of faith, trust and humaneness that we need to find meaning in all that we say and do. 

We need to come to terms with the difficulty of being honest with oneself and not lose sight of what one doesn’t know. People are living in a situation where one is unwilling to accept the fact that experiments can fail; a situation wherein one finds comfort in holding steadfastly to one’s own views irrespective of whether it is based on logic or evidence and this is indicative of a society that is not led but immersed in misguided sentiments.

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We are also operating in a strange situation; on one end we see technical expertise being viewed disdainfully while at the same time we seem to operate in a society that values specialisation. We find mass mobilisation happening everywhere but at the same time we find people lacking the courage to work with others.  We are all shouting and screaming but very few of us are actually listening to what is being said.

Each one seems to find inspiration and strength only from listening to one’s own voice and unwilling to accept how several other meaningful voices are getting drowned out. It is as though one can only trust oneself or others who sound and act like us but anyone who sounds different or looks different needs to be outrightly condemned, rejected and not to be trusted at all.

The paradox is that human beings are basically designed and wired for trust.  What we need today is the leadership that can drive the renewal of ‘Trust’. We need the kind of leaders who look at honesty as a long-term strategy rather than using it as a short-term exhibitionistic opportunity to sell their narrative. We need people who are not only courageous to stand up to what they believe in but are equally open to listening to other views, however diametrically opposite they may be. We need such people to expose the dark side of the counterfeit leaders that are running society and the nation amok.

Leadership is not just exercising influence and power over others but realising the enormous power within oneself and being comfortable with the feeling of powerlessness too. What India needs are people who can go beyond being the centre of attraction and explore what needs to be done rather than merely seeking to bask in a couple of minutes of television glory.  We need leaders who can capture meaning from the restless culture that we are seeing around us and forge a common understanding of the way ahead.  Such leaders need to learn to operate in an intellectual frontier in an immature and emotional arena that is prevalent today.  Leaders who can communicate rather than confuse is what society needs and only then will the process of understanding each other and healing begin. 

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What India needs is not just political leadership.  It needs people from different domains — religious, academic, civil society, media, arts, industry and the common citizens — to go beyond the conditions that authority creates and learn to form bonds of trust amongst and with each other.  We need them to be like a protective mother who holds on to her child with love and care, who provides guidance while at the same time corrects defects, who can enable and constrain simultaneously — doing all this keeping the best interests of the child in mind.

We need leaders who are willing to cross pollinate instead of constantly contaminate;  people who are willing to embrace diverse perspectives, build new capacities and demonstrate a willingness to learn.  We need such people to allow themselves to be vulnerable, to be humble and to appreciate that accepting one’s mistakes is not the end of the road either for themselves or for the people that they are leading.

Leaders from these and other domains should have the ‘ability to trust’ while at the same time live a life where they can ‘be trusted’.  Such people who do not see the world only from the back of their own eyeballs are the ones that can now lead this nation.  What India needs is visionary leadership that is pragmatic, compassionate while at the same time firm, humble but steadfast, vulnerable but consistent, free from the clutches of grandiose positioning but simple and grounded. We need people willing to communicate while at the same time staying open to intense listening; people who are willing to risk their reputations in being different and having the courage to ‘trust’ the other. 

And when such people use their authority wisely without being authoritarian, change will begin to set in gradually.  Only when we see such leadership emerging on all sides, will we see the gradual emergence of a relatively happy but a stable equilibrium.  Only by persevering with love, compassion and trust, will society move towards undervaluing the negative and becoming open to going beyond tolerance to universal acceptance.  Leadership should not only learn but also be willing to teach how to discover trust in a world getting used to distrust.  This kind of leadership is both urgent and important. Only then can we go beyond the destructive noise and learn how to lead India out of this crisis instead of allowing ourselves to drown in the cesspool of our own making.

[Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, the founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement & GRAAM, teaches leadership at Cornell University and IIT-Delhi.  He can be reached at [email protected]]

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