Leadership development: Ignore at your own peril

Thursday, 9 May 2019 00:38 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Ronnie Peiris

Top professional and former John Keells Holdings Board member Ronnie Peiris is busy preparing for an already sold out two-day ‘Nurturing Leaders’ program crafted, and designed, to unearth, and nurture, the ‘leader’ in individuals in June. Given the big need for effective leadership both at country and corporate level, the Daily FT met Ronnie to get more insights to this challenge. “There is a leadership crisis and a gaping leadership vacuum. If it was not so, then, we won’t be where we are as a country,” he emphasises. In this interview Ronnie gets candid about the status quo of leadership as well as what is desired at country and corporate level. Following are excerpts: 


Q: How important is leadership in today’s context at both country and corporate levels?

 “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be” – Rosalynn Carter.

At both a country level and, to a lesser extent, at a corporate level, Sri Lankan leaders have failed miserably to take their followers to where they ought to be. As a generality, the policies/actions taken have been, and are, very short-term with little change from the past even where it is obvious that such policies/actions are not sustainable and that there is a pressing need to change. While the rest of the world has changed, Sri Lanka has not moved enough in relative terms. Her progress is impeded by mind sets which have outlived their usefulness and relevance.

‘250+ dead in a series of co-ordinated explosions’; ‘Failure to achieve economic potential’; ‘Rampant corruption’; ‘Breakdown in law and order’; ‘Constitution violations’; ‘Spiralling cost of living’; ‘A power crisis arising out of indecisiveness’; ‘Rapidly declining morality and values’ are just a few of the recent news headlines which highlight the bankruptcy of leadership in Sri Lanka.

Yet, the world abounds with evidence of extraordinary things which have happened because of effective leadership which translates vision into reality, transforms values into actions and separateness to solidarity, converts challenges into opportunities and intolerance to understanding and the establishes environments where meritocracy thrives. 

Take Singapore for example. 50 years ago, the city-state of Singapore was an undeveloped country with a GDP per capita of less than $ 320. Today, it is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Its GDP per capita is now estimated to be $ 56,000 placing her among the top 10 in the world. For a country that lacks territory and natural resources, Singapore’s economic ascension is nothing short of remarkable. This is solely attributable to the leadership of Lee Kwan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, and other Singaporean leaders who employed strict pragmatic policies in taking Singapore to where it is today – a leader in global commerce and number 2 in the world in Economic Freedom Index.

I am not saying that Lee Kwan Yew as an individual and/or Singapore as a nation were, and are, perfect in all respects. His authoritarian leadership style was probably appropriate for the Singapore of the late sixties. Yet, one cannot deny that, whatever the yardstick we use, the quality of life of all Singaporeans has increased stupendously in the past 50 years.

But whither Sri Lanka? Recognised as better than Singapore in most respects in 1965 by Lee Kwan Yew himself and endowed with natural resources that Singapore never had, or has, Sri Lanka, after 70 years of independence lingers at a GDP per capita income of $ 4,100 and a number 115 spot in the World Economic Freedom Index.

The principal reason for this significant difference in the progress of the two countries is the quality of leadership. Other than for fleeting moments, Sri Lanka has never had selfless leaders. The leaders who emerged were keen on self-preservation and self-enrichment. They wanted to be in political power at any cost, even if it was at the expense of the country, because political power brought with it financial and other riches. Selflessness, honesty, integrity, transparency, meritocracy and professionalism have been on the decline and hurtling towards ‘dodo-ic’ extinction. Our once proud sense of morality and our values of sharing and caring are being replaced by the drunkenness of power and greed. 

The advent of internet and easy connectivity, increasing influence of the social media and use of artificial intelligence and disrupting technology have brought to the business environment a dynamism which was never imagined. This environment demands a style of agile leadership which can rapidly influence and change the values, beliefs, behaviours and attitudes of the constituents. Corporates require persons with strong leadership ability who are role models to their followers.

A leader, who can consistently achieve good outcomes, gains the trust and admiration of those around him. This, in turn, accelerates the creation of a shared vision and a common sense of purpose. Numerous studies have shown that there is a strong positive correlation between leadership and corporate performance. Summated bluntly, they show that poor leaders lost money; good leaders made profit; and extraordinary leaders more than doubled the company’s profits in comparison to the other 90%!

Sri Lanka is currently on a very slippery downward slope at both a country and corporate level in terms of governance and achievement. Values and morality are at an all-time low. This situation must be arrested quickly, and I believe it can be arrested if we move fast. The need for good and effective leadership has never been more urgent.


Q: Is there is a leadership vacuum and why is it so?

 Of course – there is a leadership crisis and a gaping leadership vacuum. If it was not so, then, we won’t be where we are as a country. The vacuum I am referring to is not only the need for more leaders but also the void within the leaders themselves. As a voting public, we must take the blame for this in that we are very passive in holding leaders accountable. Let us just look at the last 15 years. We have had several crises in governance at the country level. From the blatant non-compliance with the applying policies and procedures to the unrepentant abuse of power. 

To a reasonable human being, and I believe they still constitute most of our society, the wrongful, discriminatory, unethical and fraudulent nature of these transgressions are obvious. Yet, when we get the opportunity to choose leaders, we elect the same tainted persons. One could rightfully argue that some of the allegations are not proven. But on the contrary ‘there can’t be too many instances of smoke without fires’. Even if there is no formal ‘fit and proper’ test, we must develop one in our minds. Quoting George Orwell: “A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims, but accomplices.” 

Take the Parliament for example. There are several members who were rejected by the electorate. But they are still in parliament via the National List, this being the very sub-optimal tool available to the Party Leaders to include their favourite ‘yes’ men. The big problem is that the vote is canvassed, and the vote often is given, on party lines. Not on the merits, ability and character of the individual contestant. As for the party, the all-powerful leader, surrounded by spineless ‘yes’ men and women, decides who the candidates are. 

So, there is little wonder that the country is represented in the first instance by ‘party’ favourites rather than by sincere, capable individuals who are ‘people’ favourites. Even within the parties, it is only a handful of members who have the ability and the courage to disagree with the leadership objectively. This is often a result of a lack of confidence in the individual’s own abilities. The current sorry state of leadership in many of Sri Lanka’s major political parties evidences the fall outs from this lack of openness and transparency with leader overstaying their usefulness and preventing succession planning.

We, as the voters, must find a more objective way of electing our representatives. The October 26 constitutional crisis, the Easter Sunday carnage and several other misdemeanours have re-ignited, in a more forceful way than before, the public’s frustrations re the duplicity of political leaders. During the constitutional crisis, it was the indefatigable resistance by a multiplicity of citizens’ groups which probably set the example for the judiciary also to be courageous in performing its constitutional duty. As for the Easter carnage – the two key leaders played the blame game and passed the buck without taking responsibility. Behaviour unbecoming of true leaders. If this happened in the private sector, the subject persons would have been fired. They would have probably resigned of their own accord. Such is the leadership deficiency in our country. Fortuitously, these happenings are making us open our eyes wider. Hopefully, they would be the catalysts for of a new political order, an order where we carefully identify and elect transformational leaders.

Instances of leadership vacuums, if any, in Sri Lanka corporates are not that visible and obvious and, therefore, there is little record other than what one hears from the grapevine. A vacuum invariably results when leaders claim more responsibility, more authority, or more control than they are effectively able to manage, thereby, impeding the development of the leadership potential of others. I was fortunate to be a part of the think tank of John Keells Holdings (JKH) for 15 years. JKH has, over many years, shown its adroitness in establishing structures which enable the flow of leadership. This was amply demonstrated recently when these open structures of shared responsibility founded on a culture of unity and commitment to a common purpose, helped JKH to smoothly transition to a new regime when three long standing executive directors retired recently. 


Q: What are the challenges faced by a country/corporate in terms of nurturing leaders?

 My response to this question is greatly influenced by the conclusions of James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their international bestseller ‘The Leadership Challenge’. After analysing thousands of experiences of leaders who were at their personal best in making extraordinary things happen in organisations, they distilled the involved actions into five categories which they termed ‘The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership’, these being, Modelling the Way, Inspiring a Shared Vision, Challenging the Process, Enabling Others to Act and Encouraging the Heart. They emphasised that leadership is not about personality, but it is about behaviour and is available to anyone who accepts the leadership challenge, being the challenge of moving beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary. They further observed that while the context of leadership has changed dramatically, the content of leadership has not changed much over the years. The challenges faced by a country or a corporate is not one of content but one of context.

Facilitated and driven by technology, our interconnection and inter-dependence as individuals, as companies, and as countries are expanding exponentially. In this light, there are skills which are imperative to the future of work; -skills which can be developed and honed just like any other ability. The challenge faced by countries and corporates is to identify them for the overarching application of the Practices of Exemplary Leadership. Fearless agility, empathy, selflessness, flexibility, commitment to a clear vision, collaboration, listening, humility, communication, emotional and cultural intelligence, authenticity and versatility are those which come immediately to my mind.

Many organisations often operate with a typical thought that leadership is about designation or is associated only at the top of a hierarchy. It is very important for them to understand that leadership is an attitudinal behaviour which can be exercised at any level of the organisation. A shift supervisor is the leader of the shift, the supervisor of the cleaning gang is the leader of the persons who comprise that gang. It is people who are in the centre of every activity and employees are not the means to end the journey but they themselves are the end. 

So, it is not always necessary that a person who holds the highest designation is the one with the potential to become a great leader because the actual impact of leadership can be seen outside the realm of one’s designation. Therefore, a person with a lower designation with a people-centric attitude can also be a great leader. Given that resources, themselves, are limited and the use of such limited resources may have to be prioritised, developing every person as a leader is not practical. 

The subject organisations must identify those persons who can give the biggest bang for the buck. As organisations grow and engage in more complex, dynamic, and creative work, they must rely more and more on leadership at all levels. As was stated earlier, there is vast anecdotal evidence of effective leaders making extraordinary things happen in very ordinary organisations. It is my opinion that the Return on Investment on ‘soft’ leadership development is a significant multiple of the Return on Investment on ‘hard’ business-oriented projects.

When questioned about the challenges faced by organisations in fast tracking leadership development, a senior Head of HR stated as follows: “The greatest challenge is the training methodology. The next generation has different expectations and needs. Instructor-led classrooms are not their most popular choice. But developing training on technical platforms – mobile, e-learning, etc. – is not enough alone either. We also need active support and participation from high-level leaders to sponsor the programs and current managers to coach and mentor. Learning the skills is not the problem; practice and an understanding of the need for character and competence in leadership development is required – not just creating an app for that.”


Q: You are planning a focused Nurturing Leaders program targeted at individuals in corporates. Explain the rationale for such an initiative?

 My foremost objective is to share my experiences in a career ranging from a very junior Cost Clerk at Lever Brothers (Ceylon) Ltd., as it was then known, to Managing Director, Anglo American Corporation (Central Africa) Ltd., Zambia and finally to Group Finance Director, John Keells Holdings PLC, Sri Lanka. There are certain principles, beliefs, and behaviours which I never compromised, or deviated from, in a journey which certainly had its ‘lows’ and ‘highs’. 

I have a great desire to convince corporate executives, and particularly professionals, that a rise to the top is possible by doing the right things. I also wish to convey to the participants that work, and life can be balanced. Whilst I worked hard, I also played hard. In fact, whatever success I achieved in life, keeping in mind that the definition of success can differ from person to person, was a result of working smarter and not necessarily working longer. Empowered teams with a shared vision generally enable a balanced distribution of volume.

There is a ‘Leader’ in all of us. While some of us may take to the practice of ‘Leadership’ easier and more naturally than others, there is no doubt that all of us are endowed with many leadership qualities. We just must work on it and bring it to the surface and, ultimately, to the forefront and make extraordinary things happen in very ordinary organisations.

As was described in the early parts of this interview, Sri Lanka is suffering from a leadership deficiency, particularly, at a country level. While this may well be the case at a corporate level too, that is not all that evident. It is this deficiency which has prevented us, and is preventing us, from reaching our full economic potential. Like Martin Luther King Jr., I too have a dream. I have this dream to create a ‘Values Driven’ leadership movement at a corporate level, a movement which will, in turn, have positive knock-on effects at a country level. While, admittedly, it is for others to judge and assess, I consider myself as a Transformational Leader with a focus on people, team-building, motivation and collaboration at different levels of an organisation to accomplish change for the better. I have walked the ‘transforming’ talk and I am very confident that I can help/nurture leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality, motivation and performance.


Q: What is in it for participants?

The program (available on www.ronniepeiris.com) will be personally conducted by me. The number of participants will be limited to a maximum of 40. I am happy to say that all 40 slots were taken up within 10 days of the launch.

Participants will be nurtured in the art of transformational leadership. Transformation leaders are highly visible and spend a lot of time communicating and interacting with their teams. They expand leadership’s focus towards the growth of the followers through their capability to empower and delegate responsibility amongst their team. They create an enlightening vision of the future and get maximum buy in to the vision. This can only be done through inspiring a shared vision and involving those they manage. Transformational Leaders use their capacity to ‘influence’ not ‘command’.

Participants will also be assisted in understanding, and appreciating, their self-esteem. There is a strong and significant relationship between self-esteem and transformational leadership. In order to adopt transformational leadership behaviours, individuals first need to have high levels of self-esteem. Transformational leadership behaviours will be more difficult and less natural to adopt without this. 

Self-esteem in this context refers to a person believing in himself as a significant, worthy and capable member of a team or organisation. A person with high self-esteem has self-respect and can accurately assess his strengths and weaknesses. A person with low self-esteem is the opposite. He sees himself as inadequate and unworthy and is also unable to accurately assess his strengths and weaknesses. Leaders with high self-esteem will find transmitting enthusiasm and positivity to their followers more natural too.

On completing the program, the participants will have a good understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. They will learn the importance of creating and modelling a personal brand, entrenching a unity of purpose, questioning the status quo and creating an enabling environment. They will also appreciate the essentiality of recognition and celebration.

The participants will receive a 60-page course booklet with case-studies and discussion questions, a pre-program leadership assessment, a post-program leadership assessment, a participation certificate and a free copy of my book ‘Tough Journey Great Destination’. In addition to having a 30-minute ‘one-on-one’ coaching/mentoring session with me, they will be a part of a network/blog which i will create to facilitate the sharing of ideas, among like- minded individuals.


Q: Are corporates doing enough in leadership building initiatives? Is there a checklist?

Surveys appear to indicate a slight slowing down, year on year, in the percentage of the training budget going to leadership development, relative to the past five years. However, it is heartening to note that organisations are directing more of their leadership efforts toward middle managers, supervisors, and high potentials as they realise that large numbers of middle managers and supervisors will be retiring soon – and that if they don’t begin to prepare the next generation for these roles now, they will have difficulty filling them moving forward.

With the growing awareness of the importance of leadership development, there is a need for corporates, and even a country, to establish criteria which measure leadership development initiatives and impacts. Questions, the answers to which most experts agree provide a good indication of leadership development performance, are:


  • Do the movers and shakers acknowledge the importance of leadership development to the organisation’s success?
  • Are other companies trying to recruit our leaders?
  • Are there significant gaps in leadership succession?
  • Is there a minimum mandated annual spend on leadership development?
  • Is there enough leadership bench strength?
  • Is there a structured methodology to capture organisational knowledge and to leverage the knowledge of mature leaders?
  • Is there a succession plan and is it reviewed regularly through a “risk management” lens?
  • Is there proactivity in seeking and attracting younger leaders with leadership potential?
  • What support is available for employees with potential to transition to a leadership position?
  • Are the handover and takeover processes managed?


There are several actions which can be taken to increase the probability of leadership development succeeding. These are:


  • There must be a shift of focus toward improved effectiveness of the learning. When designing a leadership development process, the first question should be: “Will this improve the leadership behaviours of our people?” It should not be: “How do we make this less expensive or time consuming?”
  • Senior executives need to see leadership development as a priority. Encourage the executive team to communicate specific expectations, model desired leadership behaviour, create leadership succession plans, and engage direction in leadership development activities.
  • Focus on getting leaders to a high level of proficiency faster. It is not about finding a way to shorten a program from three days to two; it’s about how to shorten the time effective leadership behaviours show up in the workplace. One key critical activity is the need to support new leaders in their transition.


There is a need to tailor the training to the younger generations. Newer generations have exposure to a much more diverse and integrated approach to learning than did prior generations, and their expectations are high for how learning can be conducted. A first step is to examine leadership development from a process or journey perspective.

Challenge or no challenge – in my view the nurturing of leaders at every level of an organisation is not an option but an essential. It is my sense that the country and the corporates are not spending enough on leadership development through ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ thinking.