25 May, 2022


Leaders & Leadership That The World Needs

By Krishantha Prasad Cooray

Krishantha Cooray

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You can take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” ~ Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was a rare leader. It would be hard to imagine two individuals like Mandela inhabiting the earth at the same time. In fact, very few countries can boast of several leaders like him in their respective histories. This rarity is probably why he is celebrated not just in South Africa but the world over. Nelson Mandela is the leader every country wants to have but doesn’t. The Nelson Mandela yearning gains greater currency when the world, a nation or even a political party faces a serious leadership crisis.

It can be said with certainty today that COVID-19 not only took the world by surprise but threw it into confusion and even chaos. Unexpected turns of events can do that, but if humankind has overcome adversity that arrives unexpectedly and in magnitudes of this nature, more often than not it is because of resolute leadership.

COVID-19 exposed a lot of weaknesses and errors in multiple spheres of humanity but none so stark as our lack of good leadership. There was no global response to speak of. The World Health Organization, for all its good intentions, was caught wrong-footed. The leaders of powerful nations quickly opted to play a blame-game, pointing fingers at each other. Naturally, while there was no concerted global effort to combat the pandemic, individual countries, including the economically powerful, floundered.

Ideally, leaders would coordinate efforts, using power vested in their respective offices to implement a concerted, coordinated and efficient strategy that is principally informed by the advice of those who are well versed on the subject of pandemics and how to combat them. This did not happen.

Individual political survival seemed to be what mattered most, not the wellbeing of the respective populations. The expertise of scientists and healthcare professionals played second fiddle to political expedience. Leaders continued to depend more on political advisors than relevant professionals.

The last few months showed us that there were a handful of leaders with vision, but even they lacked action plans, political will and drive. There were leaders who were action-oriented but without vision. Then there were leaders who had neither vision nor action plan. Lack of integrity compromised credibility and the power to mobilize populations in the necessarily collective effort to combat the threat. We saw leaders indulging in speculation. We heard grand proclamations of imminent success absolutely at odds with the horrific reality of the spread, the numbers infected and victims. What we didn’t see was humility to acknowledge limitations, courage to be honest with the citizens and a sense of purpose that could convey the message that regardless of how formidable the challenge, no pains would be spared to overcome it.

Clarity has always been a key strength of successful leaders. In times of confusion seriously compounding all the terrors that attend pandemics, it is this quality that must come to the fore. Unfortunately, we either see leaders using sunshine stories to gloss over their ignorance or else treating the citizens as passive consumers of their policy decisions. The latter is the Godfather approach where the thinking can be captured as follows: ‘I am doing this for your good, trust me; I know what I am doing, trust me.’ Trust, however, is not something that can be won simply through legislation or executive decree.

If history has demonstrated anything about effective leadership, it is that those who succeed tend to be honest and clear about what they want to accomplish and for whose benefit. Such leaders gained loyalty and trust by being truthful and frank, regardless of possible negative political fallout. Even if they could not envisage a phenomenon such as COVID-19, they had all the qualities required to meet such threats — courage, determination, humility, ability to inspire people and mobilize resources, and most importantly the integrity that gelled it all together. They were clear about what is possible and what is not. They were not ashamed to admit errors, welcome blame and give credit to their people. They were quick to correct mistakes. They did not hide behind numbers and half-truths. They did not sweep uncomfortable truths under the carpet or disguise them in happy colours.

Such attributes cannot be gathered overnight, of course. Integrity, for example, is a quality that has to be nurtured over a long period of time. Indeed, it takes time for a citizenry to recognize integrity because words and deeds have to be seen as being consistent with intention in numerous situations and not one-off decisions or actions. Integrity is also measured in terms of the ability to make sacrifices and denial to oneself of any and all special privileges typically available to political leaders. Example counts as much or more than precept. Empathy is measured in terms of concrete acts and not words.

Incorruptibility is another rare attribute and one which we hardly see in political leaders today. Corruption, turning a blind eye to corruption, and placing public trust in those with checkered histories, all go a long way towards compromising credibility. No leader who is thus tainted can hope to mobilize a people to fight a pandemic. People will not trust such a leader. They will not believe what is said and will be more hesitant to follow.

If a leader is not fair or if a leader fails to treat everyone equally irrespective of differences such as religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, gender, class, caste and ideological choices, there will be serious doubts regarding his or her integrity. Once integrity is questioned, it is hard to lead a people. It is only possible to serve a few; some and not all.

A successful leader on the other hand, will recognize the higher worth of a meritocracy, have an unerring eye to identify talent and possess the tone and words that will compel the talented to play the particular role to the best of their ability. Such a leader will see beyond self, party and election, identifying future leaders and grooming them for succession. Endowed with the ability to see and think ahead, they will know who is likely to be better equipped to lead the nation into a future made of different challenges in an ever-changing social, economic and technological milieu.

COVID-19 has compelled us to ask questions about leaders and leadership. What kind of leaders do we have? Do we have Mandelas? Do we have people who could one day rise above circumstances, lead everyone and not just those who voted for them, and become leaders like Mandela? If we don’t have such leaders, we need to answer another set of questions.

How do we identify a dearth of leadership? Real leaders are people who see things that others do not. Yet far too often, the people who claim to lead us seem oblivious to truths that are glaringly obvious to those in their charge. Real leaders hold strong beliefs, whether in ideas or principles, and inspire others to follow. In our lives, those who lead seem to decide on their words only after calculating the popularity of their ideas.

In times of crisis, real leaders have the courage to take a stand, to take risks and put themselves in harm’s way, politically or physically, and stand up for what they believe. They must be able to understand the present, envision a better future, and successfully navigate from one to the other. They need to plan for the long-term and be able to adapt to unexpected challenges in the short-term.

Any good leader knows that no man or woman is an island unto themselves. The secret to their success is often the ways in which they harness the talents of others and move communities forward as one.

Albert Einstein made it a point to invite and respond to correspondence from scientists across the world, exposing him to all the finest ideas in the world. He once even translated into German a paper by a young Indian scientist he had never met to get it published in a European journal. Abraham Lincoln famously had his “team of rivals” and harnessed their diversity of opinions and experience to victory in the American civil war. 15th Century Chinese explorer Admiral Zhang handpicked a team of seasoned sailors and soldiers who built and managed trade routes from across Asia to the horn of Africa.

The old adage of military camaraderie, “leave no one behind”, is as fundamental for successful leaders in a boardroom or Parliament as it is to generals fighting in a war. Too often, leaders throw their people to the wolves, leaving them to fend for themselves in times of need, rather than come to their aid and stand up for their people. A leader must be able to surround themselves with the finest talent available and assemble a capable and dedicated team to see their vision through to implementation.

It is difficult to attract such talented people to serve in any capacity if they feel that they are expendable to those in charge. Indeed, in some political parties and organisations, capable deputies are sidelined and isolated, while the weakest of the pack were elevated in order to secure the party leader’s position by dislodging and isolating anyone who may have been “next in line”.

But this cancer is one that seems to be prevalent across our society, preventing future leaders from rising. Is it that we have a system that rebels against the emergence of great leaders? Do we not have a system that inhibits the nurturing of leadership qualities? Is it that those who possess such qualities are systematically prevented from becoming leaders or are discouraged from entering politics or are essentially disqualified because of identity, socio-economic background, ideology, religion or race?

Finally, we need to ask ourselves what is perhaps the most crucial question of them all: do we, as individuals and a society wait for a hero like Nelson Mandela or do we rehearse the heroic ourselves — acquiring, practicing and perfecting the requisite qualities and deploying them whenever and wherever possible, slowly but surely expanding our spheres of engagement?

This is an issue that will outlast COVID-19, which will not be the last challenge we face as a community of nations. The pandemic will leave economic carnage in its wake, and with the climate rapidly deteriorating and major powers flexing their muscles, we can expect more crises on the horizon. With this certainty in mind, we have an obligation as a species to either improve our existing leaders or to nurture new ones from amongst our ranks. People are not “born to lead”. Long before Nelson Mandela became a household name, he worked as a cattle-boy tending cows with his illiterate parents in a rural South African village.

Our leaders can come from any walk of life. It is up to us to see past our own stigmas about so-called acceptable genders, classes, ethnicities, ages, religions and castes, and to recognize and promote future leaders who have the ideas, dedication, teambuilding skills and competence to navigate the trying times ahead.

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Latest comments

  • 10

    Nelson Mandela never had the greed to stay in power. He just stayed only 4 years in office. Our balaperethadandas, such as Mahinda Rajapkahse would stay in power wasting the tax payers funds as long as he can.
    People to be blamed not to have done their due.

    • 5

      Mr. leela ge …..,
      Nelson Mandela served as President of South Africa from 10 May 1994 to 14 June 1999.
      That is 5 years you Idiot. Not 4.
      As usual your grannies giving you wrong information.

      • 4


        but come to the point, SRILANKEN BPs can never be comparable to Nelson Mandela. Right ?
        Only condom support to that criminal family behave no second to ” uro kekuna thalana kota raban kukulo natanawa waage”.

        I may have added inacurate data but I am still right with my statement that NM never behaved like our MERCY COWs.

  • 7

    In most of the Asian countries, we don’t have individuals like Mandela, who can lead the people/masses. Particularly in Srilanka people/masses lead the so-called ‘leaders’. The
    available leaders do not have the capacity to lead and guide. Instead, the ‘leaders’ simply follow the masses by promising them the sun and the moon and the earth and win elections. Ultimately the people get nothing but the ‘leaders’ get what the want to contest the next elections.

  • 3

    Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and, Abraham Lincoln are not born daily

    Why we worry too much on what we did not have.

    We have our own human capital and we have to produce our own leaders from this available stock

    “The country gets the leadership it deserves”

  • 3

    Mr Cooray, There is no leader who is Mr.Perfect but the expectations are close to being perfect and definitely not far far from it. Keeping that in mind, we never had such leader in past and I doubt there will be any in future. The reason I say this,when people are given a choice they bear the responsibility of picking their leaders.(democracy comes with responsibility). Where as Lankans have preferred family dynasties since independence. So the choices are between bad and the worse and never good honest people. The mentality of the public is such they are not concerned about the country, their own well being or the future generation , it is only to see their neighbor in pain and misery. With such kind of mentality how do we expect a Mandala in Lanka. If South Africans too thought in those terms even Mandela could not have saved the country.

  • 2

    Part 1
    Mandela was a great rebel against apartheid. But he betrayed the struggle by his compromises on the eve of his freedom
    Had he stuck to his policies, he may have been eliminated by his corrupt ANC colleagues on behalf of the white masters at home and abroad.
    The compromises:
    “In a political bargain with the outgoing apartheid regime, Mandela and his party, the African National Congress, allowed whites to keep their property. This meant that even if, for instance, the apartheid government had forcibly removed a village of black people in order to sell their land to a white farmer at far less than its value, the farmer would retain clear title to that land post-apartheid. If the new government later decided to take the land and return it to its former owners, then the state would have to pay the white farmer just compensation.” (Source: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-atuahene-mandela-land-south-africa-20141207-story.html)

    (to be continued)

    • 2

      Part 2
      Mandela (in prison still) said on 26 January 1990: ″The nationalization of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable,″ the statement said. ″State control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.″ (https://apnews.com/c880ff67ef676aee358c3c48f1029ec6)
      In 1992, before taking office, Mandela and the ANC ditched large parts of the movement’s program, particularly those planks relating to public ownership of the banks, mines and major industries. They signed a secret letter of intent with the International Monetary Fund pledging to implement free market policies, including drastic budget cuts, high interest rates and the scrapping of all barriers to the penetration of international capital. (https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/12/07/pers-d07.html)
      The Whites still own the mines, banks and big industries. The Black man is where he was under apartheid, but for the top guns of the ANC, and the Mandela family.
      The ANC regime opened fire to kill 34 striking miners and wound at least least 78 in 2012. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marikana_massacre)
      Such is Mandela’s legacy.
      Those who expected otherwise from Mandela, once the uncompromising rebel, were stunned while to imperialism he is a great African idol.

      • 2


        Nelson Mandela is a role model for a leader whereas Lenin, Stalin and Mao are not

        But Deng Xiaoping is a better Leader with leadership characteristics-
        a country in crisis was transformed into a modern state within a short period.

        A leader should be able to compromise.

        Should not Gota compromise?

        Should not TNA compromise?

        Yes, they should strategically

        Compromise is a leadership characteristic.

        The path to achieve a vision is often complex. There are up and down movements and a positive long term outcome runs through.

        One step forward and two steps backwards-Lenin 1904.

        Progress is not always linear, It is often zigzag.. One has to move up and down.

        Mandela made historic compromises- for reconciliation between whites and blacks.

        Whenever one speak about reconciliation the name of Mandela comes to mind automatically.

        The great Mandela

        Leadership should not be viewed dogmatically, but realistically in context.


        • 0

          I respect Mandela the freedom fighter. But see what happened since he was freed.
          It is not a question of dogma but of pledges that meant life and livelihood of the native.
          What were the compromises? For what’s sake were pledges based on which Black, Coloured and Indian masses made sacrifices abandoned. Was it only to dismantle an already faltering apartheid?
          The Black man is as poor, landless and oppressed under Black rule as much as he was under apartheid.
          I am not comparing even a mediocre ANC leader with our ‘leaders’ whom came in the tradition of collaboration with the colonialism. There was no independence struggle here except for what the Left and before it the Jaffna Youth Congress tried unsuccessfully
          I very much respect the Mandela denounced as a terrorist by the West. The much applauded angel of compromise disappoints me. But what did thirty years of Black rule secure for the Blacks and the working classes?
          If you have time read Patrick Bond, a reputed social scientist, on South Africa (for a start https://theconversation.com/why-south-africa-should-undo-mandelas-economic-deals-52767)
          I will not denounce Mandela as a traitor. But he harmed the people and the cause. The ANC did worse.

        • 1

          Dear SK

          Irrespective of the outcome following his release he would not have been able to be on the journey for change for the black rights if it was not for the behind the scenes support from the communist block in the first place. The communist parties in the african region including the one in SA played a major roll for the sustained pressure that brought the International community (mainly the west) to regulate their connivance with SA regime at least to calm the public outcry in their respective countries. Flat of the matter is we were all living off the scope/loot from nations like this when we all migrated to the west/going to the UN crying foul and blaming the Sinhalese for all evil and funding the freedom struggle using the same dollars and pounds too. We never told the western public what we used to do Toit he low caste in Jaffna as bad as how vales were treated in America segregation…even from the Temples. None of went to Communists countries as refugees to be noted too.

  • 3

    Dear Krishantha Cooray,

    I appreciate your charismatic thoughts about a good leadership of a country. Nelson Mandela is an exceptional evolved leader who sacrificed his life for the people and peace of this country. Unfortunately, in Srilanka Political leaders had several opportunities to bring this country into a developed peaceful nation but they failed each time. Corona was not a serious problem in this country. Corona affected all citizens irrespective of race, religion, rich or poor around the world. Srilanka had only few deaths, few infections like some other countries like Vietnam, Singapore, Newzealand, Australia, Maldives, Iceland, Madagascar, Zambia, Paraguay etc.
    As Muraleetharan Vinayagamoorthy claimed that he killed more than 2000 Srilankan soldiers in a day and he is more dangerous than Corona, it is true that Kauna was a good deputy leader of LTTE and he was successful for LTTE’s victory until peace talks. Later he left LTTE and joined Srilanka and according to many SLPP military leaders agreed that Karuna is one of main factor in winning the war with LTTE in 2009. Unfortunately Mahinda family claimed they won the war and put their military leader who lead the war in jail but they have ministerial post to Karuna with full knowledge of Karuna and now saying he is not from their party and asked for police investigation.

  • 2

    Ajith, you are right. Rajapaksas needed Karuna ,hence elevated him to a minister and were in cohorts. Now that he has told an uncomfortable truth (which is well known ) they appear to have woken from their slumber in shock. This is typical of Rajapaksas whom our masses are treating as Mandelas. As I mentioned there is no such Mr.Perfect, what we need is honest but pragmatic individuals. The simple fact that South Africans could reach a reconciliation which our Lankans are unable to , is an indication what kind of leaders we have had until now. Our leaders work hard in causing more division and hatred and Rajapaksas have mastered such art. CVW is right in stating ,”right now they are involved in creating security concerns in North and East to get their votes.

  • 0

    K.Varunan, In general Asian countries do lack such leaders. But if you look closely most have been blessed with one or two, which we Lankans never had. For Example, country like India (where people expect the least) they had A.P.J. Abdul Kalam . There is a well known fact narrated by the staff. “He came with a suitcase and after completing his term left with the same suit case”. When reminded about the gifts, souvenirs and other things which he personally received , he refused to take by stating “it was given to me as a President of this country , hence it dosent belong to me “. I also remember reading a Scandinavian head (though not Asian) upon seeing an elderly tourist couple struggling to carry their baggage into an apartment stopped his car and personally carried using the staircase. The couple came to know his identity only after recognizing him on TV, few days after.

  • 0

    The World Health Organization, for all its good intentions, was caught wrong-footed////

    The WHO is appreciating most countries for compating the virus . US is blaming WHO due to unable to controle situation think of withholding funds.

    The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

  • 0

    “Nelson Mandela is a role model for a leader whereas Lenin, Stalin and Mao are not”
    You are talking about three people who inspired and motivated liberation for most of humanity for over half a century.
    Very few talk about Deng in China today. Mao is still remembered with veneration.

    • 1


      After the Second World War, colonialism was on the retreat.

      No doubt, the left inspired, -not most of humanity but, colonies in Asia and Africa.

      Colonialism was replaced by neo colonialism and later globalization with neo liberalism.

      But now we are talking about leadership and the results of such leadership of a country, not about a movement.

      Communism simply collapsed in Soviet Union and China shamelessly embarrassed capitalism, only the name board remained with the communist party.

      What is the legacy left to the posterity by Lenin, Stalin, Mao or Castro?

      • 0

        Dear SK

        The point is they achieved as Nations what they said out too achieve that is to give their people a way of life after the Cold War ended. Up until the Cold War they all fought equally hard to survive as Nations sacrificing what other took it for granted.

        It was a journey of endurance, lessons leaned to shape a future with less conflict…..they have indeed done walk the talk that over and beyond the communism and the capitalism narratives. it is the third world countries who paid the price for this Cold War madness when all we wanted was to be non alligned and to have mixed economies to survive what was going around us. Our leaders had to manage this along with the heritage of the post colonial mess In our country. We had all the great chance to make it to the top with our population numbers/strategic positions but we failed……look at what happened to all the non aligned countries that all been taken out one by one right under the nose of UN?? Only think that could save us is “One Mother Lanka” and Patriotism. Otherwise we will become another Palestine fences/walls/barbed wire/children dying to protect tiny space until matter of time who will end up in the sea first?? for what purpose??

        FP/TULF was a “joke allowed too far” because we were taken on this journey of doom at gun point??

      • 0

        If colonies are free today it is much the legacy of Lenin and the communists. The stand taken by the Soviet Union until Khrushchev was critical to liberation. People who forget history are cruelly reminded of it.
        Mandela was a rebel in the tradition of Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Amilcar Cabraal, and was to an extent inspired by Castro and Che.
        If Latin America and the Caribbean has some voice in their own affairs today, that owes much to Cuba’s defiance of the US.
        One stand on US meddling in Latin America and the Caribbean (not very successfully in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela) defines one’s stand in relation to social justice. Cuba is a great inspiration morale wise and ideologically to all those who defy fascists like Bolsonaro and the coup regimes of Bolivia and Honduras.
        There was no communism anywhere. If you mean socialism, socialism was undermined from within in the USSR in the 1960s. In China it took until after Mao. But it is the legacy of socialist rule from 1949 to 1978 that enabled China’s rise as an economic power.
        Capitalist China’s rise was facilitated by the misguided economic policy of the West comprising outsourcing of manufacture and even the service sector.
        Deng’s undermining of socialist economy could not pass beyond a point.

  • 0

    Dear Sir
    We had leaders but we killed them all using our own children and is called foreign sponsored terrorism. Foreigners were able to poison our children under the guidance/approval of FP/TULF in Tamil Nadu. the children were taken away from schools/colleges/tuition centres/streets since 1970’s mostly without the knowledge of their parents not discussed in Sri Lanka/UN. You have a generation of children growing up who do not even know what did really take place in Jaffna in 70’s. No one cared even the police could not do anything until TULF turned up in the parliament with a mandate for a separate state…….this was termed a “democratically obtained mandate for a separate state”.
    All said and done we do not have the country for ourselves because we are an unruly bunch of people who could not even find out what happened to our children taken away to the land of human breeding factory not far away from our shores……so much for the Independence/Gandhi/Ahimsa.
    Other than the stolen fisheries and the fishing grounds that belongs to Mother Lankan children future our Fishermen are told today why steeling SL fish stocks are ok by the thief’s…because they fought for the Independence of Sri Lanka??.

    • 0


      TNA does not even know why India did not give Citizenship to SL refugees they themselves created. Please note FP was formed just to protect the dignity of the Indian workers who did not live in Jaffna but in Sinhala land?? We are indeed rewriting history and narratives now our people are robbed of their children/land/future. Now the criminals are discussing our future as though nothing happened…..

      All to come were pointed out by our Leaders very very long ago we did not pat any attention….may be uniting under a single language may have even saved our Nation was not a all that bad idea at all????? several other Nations have done it their benefit?? I was Born 1963 studying until my A/L in Tamil too?? Even the Hon SWRD has died giving me this right not many other Nations had?? It was not for the ego of FP/TULF(the disastrous 1977 elections of UNP-TULF) we would have joined the succesful economies of all other asian countries. Now we have become the playing fields/human resource management for other Asian countries too let alone for the Geo political masters we know historically.

      Political killings/Assassinations/Toppling governments is what took place in our Nation & she has been recolonised by the same with their new partners in crime.

  • 0

    For Leadership qualities we had a bunch of conmen in Jaffna (sorry I can not speak for down south)- If FP/TULF a party cared for the well being of Sri Lankan Tamil people would have in the 70 years eradicated the segregation/caste system/blatant abuse of human rights in Jaffna. Instead this party spent time propagating the race divide by antagonising the Sinhalese who needed equal footing in a freed Nation??

    Civil rights/Voting rights/Fair housing act in the states were only granted to the blacks in 1964/65/68 respectively.

    South Africa free and fair elections were held in 1994.

    In Sri Lanka we spent time rewriting the history to suit a bunch of Tamil lawyers narratives/deeds who turned the Sri Lankan parliament into a Court Room Drama who could not care less empowering all.but wanted to enjoy the fruits of the colonial inheritance.

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