Sri Lanka, at present, is a country with many domino-esque problems – of nature’s devilry and man’s fallacy – which have a single interconnecting Dopplerian thread – a leadership deficit.
Leadership means many things at many times to many people; its presence, in whatever incarnation, having the capacity to inspire, its absence as profoundly enervating. Leadership is evolution. Leadership is human resource management whilst in a state of flux. Above all, it is not the application of the once size fits all approach. And it is also most certainly not hereditary.
To say that Sri Lanka is in a pickle is to put the present chaotic state of abject disorder experienced on most all aspects of the home front, not just the economy, mildly, and to also make light of this annus miserabilis. The Yiddish phrase oy vay seems apt to describe the present existential dread felt by nearly all and sundry, whose metropolises are fast developing into necropolises, as homes currently rendered cold by sheer material want have also become too close for comfort hearths, due to the veritable paroxysms of gas and the literal baptisms of fire. Whilst this version of the last supper plays out on the kitchen turf, Sri Lanka is also gearing up to play host to a particularly truculent Cain like scion of Covid-19 – Omicron, whilst in equal haste, also jettisoning, sound mind in political-socio-economic firefighting and its people to a succour-less exodus of outrageous fate, and with less haste, unsound policy in national mythmaking.
It would be safe to say that Sri Lanka is on trial with the very life of the country at stake; yet, as Sri Lanka’s tailspin, nose-dives into a vortex, the solution – leadership, seems increasingly yoked to political arm twisting, that is spreading across all levels of governance like a bad rash. The bottom line is that such a pervasive attitude that seems to colour virtually everything that the Government does, and which results in everything it touches turning to the very antithesis of King Midas’s touch, is dangerously counterproductive, not only because it backfires, as in the case of the 100% carbonic/green/organic fertilizer policy with debilitating consequences, but also because such a mentality contains within its fertile soil the destructive seeds of both subservience and revolution.
But how much of this can be blamed on leadership, more precisely, a malodorous brand of leadership, best exemplified by the British jurist John Austin’s command theory of law, in which law and policy are seen as commands, directives, instructions or orders from a sovereign, backed by sanctions or the threat of such, in this case, punitive sanctions. It seems that there is more than the fair share of those in the Government including in the Executive and Legislative branches, who subscribe to this problematic school of political and legalistic thought. In equestrian parlance, not only has the Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa increasingly sought to place the cart before the horse, but even in the instances where the sequence has been properly ordered, it has all but forgotten the carrot (once again blaming the dire ills that plague the economic straits for having no incentivizing carrots left to dangle), and is wielding only the stick, in a shtick that is becoming only too unrealistic (Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s import restrictions and the proposed freezing of the bank accounts of those who distribute and receive money through unlawful money transmission methods, which affects remittance collection), exceedingly humour-less (virtually every pronouncement by the high priest of militaristic moralism, Public Security Minister (retired Rear Admiral) Dr. Sarath Weerasekera and the since replaced literal bully pulpit style of diplomacy of former Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena) and utterly unconscionable (Chief Government Whip and Highways Minister Johnston Fernando’s base and ominous “kill a crow and hang a feather” appeal against Presidential and Governmental leniency, in the context of a particular State Department tasked with matters pertaining to antiquity opposing certain aspects with regard to the dredging of a historic irrigation tank of yore and lore), with the President himself implying that officials who criticized aspects of or dissented from the 100% immediate carbonic/green/organic agriculture policy were dishonest when he stated that he needed a team of honest officials to take such dystopia forward and for those who could not fall in line with the same idiocy to leave on their own volition.
President Rajapaksa has most certainly been a leader of men, and being a military man (and thereby not a square peg in a round hole by any stretch of the conception of Asian democracy) has his own ‘my way or the highway’ way of doing things, which smacks more of garden variety authoritarianism, as seen in its increasing rejection by multi sectoral professionals and technocrats who do not take to having freedoms and independence curtailed, neither kindly nor laying down, owing to the culturally ingrained nature of democracy in Sri Lanka, than being authoritative, as exemplified by, if not ready, somewhat bureaucratic, compliance.
Most dangerously, this governing with the stick approach has met its match in the governing by trade unions (a parallel tier of governance) that has proven deft in wielding the hefty gait of collective bargaining as a potent weapon of bringing the Government to its knees, and unto the path of capitulation. The Government is to be reminded that the over one million strong public sector which has sought an approximately Rs. 20,000 salary hike via the Budget under discussion, has warned of following in the wake of the teachers and principals unions who seem on the cusp of achieving their demand for a salary hike, to also win their demand. Dealing with trade unions requires strategic compromise and pragmatism based leadership.
For British analytic philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, “the fundamental cause of trouble in the modern world” was that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”. Why then are our elected (at least by some among us) leaders including the President and his band of pranksters – the Cabinet of Ministers, organs of Government and the incompetence of the actions of which have now become both the nitrous oxide and butt end of online memes, the apotheosis of political polemics and the derision of cartoons, so full of themselves that they are unwilling to entertain criticism, at least those of the kind founded more upon the spirit of enquiry, if not permitting the criticism, however constructive, that belies the arrogance of certainty. The people who exercised their franchise neither sought nor elected a Government of enlightened men and women. No matter how meagre, they however must have had, one assumes, some lowly expectations. Where are, they may have queried, the antidotes to stupidity, who choose the humility of admitting to not knowing or admitting to the extent of their ignorance, over the nudity of overconfidence – the doubting Thomases? It seems that this rare open minded breed are either relegated to the professional doldrums, or ignominiously targeted with canards such as in the case of the ex-Consumer Affairs Authority Executive Director turned preeminent thorn in the Government’s side as the whistleblower who helped probe the garlic scam and blow the lid on the gas controversy. The Government by not understanding the tactical advantage of a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush is effectively making foes out of allies. Trouble shooting which is a prominent part of the Governmental role involves mechanisms and institutions being put in place to seek solutions to large scale problems in coordination, to determine what needs to be done when there are fundamental disagreements and to resolve conflicting views, and entrusting such with the agency of determining the facts in circumstances of conflict instead of the appointment of ad hoc committees, which seems to be the only time the President or the Government seeks expertise from the academe when it is not busy alienating them. All of this requires driven, purposeful and mature leadership reliant upon negotiation and persuasion and give and take, rather than sophomoric blame games and dogged adherence to the doggerel of dogma.
The rot, it is said, spreads structurally and hierarchically, along the vertical axis, from the top down. And something is definitely rotten as the Great Bard (William Shakespeare) would have it (in Hamlet), in the State of Sri Lanka.
It is the stench emanating from the dung heap of the leadership deficit.
It is therefore a pity indeed that the wise men of the Government have not sought fit to establish a Ministry of Human Resource Management. In its absence, perhaps a popular school’s anthem’s call to learn of books and learn of men and learn to play the game, with the emphasis on continued learning, could be the path to turning a new leaf in the direction of governance.
During the ill fated bid to conquer the South Pole, Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, leading a group of marooned men afoot on floes with paltry supplies, surrounded by mother nature’s inhospitable bosom, and with no means of communicating with the rest of the world, let alone coordinate the organizing of a rescue mission, was reduced to the most starkest of circumstances, with the most insurmountable question before him – how exactly was he going to accomplish the goal of his men’s survival. N. Koehn notes in her book ‘Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times’ that even though the answer to the question was anything but clear, the most important part of the answer however, despite acute doubt in Shackleton’s own mind on the ‘how’ factor, was clear as crystal to Shackleton. She writes: “What Shackleton did know was that he was committed to bringing all his men home alive, and that he was willing to do whatever it took to accomplish this. In the midst of disaster, he had made a conscious choice to lead. He was all in,” and importantly, “whether or not he acknowledged his own culpability, he was prepared from the onset of the crisis to take full responsibility for the outcome of the enterprise.”
Leadership is an attitude and Sri Lanka is in need of a sea change. The change is of humaneness in the exercise of authority in a nuanced manner.