17 Feb 2016 18:40 IST

Has the leadership crop deteriorated?

As scandals and charges against leaders grow, a look at the possible reasons behind the trend

The world is undergoing a crisis of credible leadership. Newspapers and the electronic media are full of stories that show leaders across the spectrum — be it politics, society, spirituality, or business — in poor light.

And it seems to be happening a lot. But why? Is there a sudden or gradual deterioration of competence, or ethics and morality? Or is it because every move that leaders make is more visible thanks to the media and is more intensely scrutinised with TRPs in mind. The fact that it doesn’t take much for a story to go viral on social media doesn’t help. Or is it in part, both deterioration of morality and increased scrutiny?

Part one

Let us examine the first part — the deterioration of moral fibre.

Is it true that leaders today are more willing to compromise on issues than they were in the past?

If you take a look at the information around us, political and corporate leadership is riddled with financial scandals and corruption; religious and political leaders are charged with rape and murder; every leader of almost every country is challenged on various kinds of moral grounds today.

Let us look at the leadership of the past. Think of those during the independence movement — Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Rajaji, K Kamaraj, Abul Kalam Azad, Lal Bahadur Sashtri, Acharya Kripalani and many more, led by Gandhiji. They were men of vision, of capability with character of highest order.

The business world was led by titans such as JRD Tata, GD Birla, Kamalnayan Bajaj and others of that calibre. The social space was occupied by people like Vinoba Bhave, and the spiritual space by Aurobindo, among others.

Cut to the present

Very few leaders in any of these fields at the present time inspire the kind of trust and loyalty that the stalwarts mentioned above did.

While it is true that feudal society deified leaders and protected their image, there are enough reasons to believe that they did conduct themselves in a fashion that is above reproach. Their lives were exemplary and transparent.

That being said, it is true that the leaders today are under greater media and public glare. Media is unrelenting and the public is more equipped to know what leaders do on a day-to-day basis.

What makes good leaders?

Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organisational behaviour guru at Stanford, recently wrote in his book (which was subsequently published as an article in McKinsey quarterly, January 2016 issue) the characteristics that typify great leaders.

He counters the current theme and emphasises that morality and ethics are the cornerstones of leadership. He shows, through examples of leaders like Lincoln and Johnson, the practical approach to getting things done — even if it involves making a compromise. In a similar vein, tolerating something minor which is not necessarily correct or ethical, to achieve something bigger and ethical is alright. In such cases, the means justify the ends. Lord Krishna acts similarly in Mahabharata.

According to this thinking, successful leaders:

~~ Were action and result oriented / pragmatic

~~ Were mission focused. Prioritised ends over means as long as the compromises were relatively minor

~~ Galvanised people through appropriate communication

~~ Waited for the right opportunities and timing

~~ Took everyone along, and were willing to deal with the devil

While there is a general perception that today’s leaders have feet of clay and do not stand close scrutiny, it doesn’t reveal the entire truth. Wrong incentives are one of the factors that promote bad behaviour.

For greater good

While one is likely to be more sympathetic to a leader in modern times, one has to accept that doing things with the philosophy of ‘greater good to larger number of people’ is more realistic now.

Integrity has to be the foundation on which leadership is built. This means even if you make a small compromise to achieve something for the greater good of for a larger population, be transparent about it.