History confirms that a leader’s individual vision is not adequate by itself. While an individual vision may be catalytic, it will never match the force and power inherent in national belonging, commonality of purpose and collective determination – all of which are in a shared vision. Neither will it, on its own, produce the synergies which emanate from the cohesiveness of diversity – the rich and poor, the educated and not so educated, intellectual and unintelligent – all uniting in pursuing common goals and objectives
From Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, Parakramabahu 1, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Bill Gates, Lee Kwan Yew to Mark Zuckerberg, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Fred Smith, Jack Ma and Jeff Bezos, to name just a handful, history abounds with stories of great leaders who enabled, and brought about, paradigm shifts from the status quo by liberating the aspirations and inner desires of their constituents through an inspired shared vision.
A shared vision, as it conveys, is founded on a shared sense of identity and need not be, specifically, the individual vision of a leader. It embraces, and projects, amongst others, the stirrings, yearnings, longings, needs and wants of the citizens, the community, and the populace which the leader represents. History confirms that a leader’s individual vision is not adequate by itself. While an individual vision may be catalytic, it will never match the force and power inherent in national belonging, commonality of purpose and collective determination – all of which are in a shared vision. Neither will it, on its own, produce the synergies which emanate from the cohesiveness of diversity – the rich and poor, the educated and not so educated, intellectual and unintelligent – all uniting in pursuing common goals and objectives.
As Peter Senge, the author of The Fifth Discipline, states, “A shared vision is not an idea. It is not even an important idea such as freedom. It is, rather, a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power. It may be inspired by an idea, but once it goes further—if it is compelling enough to acquire the support of more than one person—then it is no longer an abstraction. It is palpable. People begin to see it as if it exists. Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as shared vision. At its simplest level, a shared vision is the answer to the question: What do we want to create? Just as personal visions are pictures or images people carry individually, shared visions are pictures and images which people in a nation collectively carry in their hearts and minds.”
Leaders in Sri Lanka sold rather than inspired visions
Leaders in Sri Lanka have, in the last five decades, sold, rather than inspired, visions to gullible voters at election time. Other than to a reasonable extent in 1977, some extent in 1989, and a limited extent in 2010, the visions articulated by the leaders were, in my opinion, not inspired by an in-depth understanding of the aspirations, wants, and needs of the people. They were just visions based on selfish motives and a hunger for power. Even on the few occasions when the requirements of the masses were included, the vision was not fully espoused to produce the meaningful whole which it promised. Even the few components of the shared vision which did yield the expected results never took deep root. While it is acknowledged that the progress in 1983 and 1989 was severely hampered by the ethnic conflict and the JVP led insurrection, one must admit it was during that time, there also emerged the embryo of a deliberate disregard for the freedom of expression, equality of justice, and the rule of law. These are the absolute minimums of human yearnings, and no right-minded citizen would have wished for their exclusion from a shared vision.
The year, 2010, was, in my book, the beginning of the end of the application of values such as honesty, transparency, empathy, ethics and integrity in our way of life and in our day-to-day transactions. Stated bluntly, 2010 was the beginning of the end of human decency. It saw the birth of systemic bribery and corruption at levels previously unheard and/or unseen in Sri Lanka, the curse which has, since, permeated the fabric of our society and destroyed, with cancerous swiftness and subtlety, the values-based behaviour which had, until then been a hallmark of Sri Lanka’s way of life and a mirror of our compassion and love for our fellow beings.
As a nation, we have moved away from the principles of discipline, commitment, and meritocracy to mindsets of “easy money,” entitlement and personal advancement based, increasingly, on nepotism and connections. Our entitlement mindsets, short-term thinking, and ease of appeasement, even if it is superficial, are best exemplified by the lure of the basket of “goodies”, consisting, in the main, of subsidies and tax-cuts, which, was dangled by the two leading contenders at the Presidential Election in 2019 and the contending parties at the General Elections in 2020. To an objective and long-term thinking mind, these proposals were, so obviously, financially unviable. Yet, the majority got baited. Our present economic malaise and social challenges are the inevitable outcomes of the folly in our past behaviour. Notwithstanding the past, I still believe that a clear majority of our citizens are decent persons who would not identify the erosion of freedom, loss of democracy, lawlessness, violence and thuggery, non-meritocracy, bribery, and corruption as elements of a shared vision as defined earlier. As Sri Lanka braces itself for another round of elections commencing 2024, the voting public must, at least now, look for a leader who is able to inspire a “real”, pragmatic shared vision and not a leader who entices the public to vote for him/her by sugar coating his self-serving individual vision to give it a superficial taste and by embellishing his/her promises through packaging which makes them glitter even though they are not gold.
Learning from the past
Learning from the past and sieving the “good” from the “bad” and the “bad” from the “ugly,” we, the Sri Lankan citizens must elect a leader who is able to inspire a shared vision if we are to come out of our economic, and social, doldrums. In making this choice, we must pierce the veil of the immediately visible, tangible, touchy-feely glitter, and materiality, and dive deeper in assessing the sincerity, and credibility, in the candidates’ utterances and the candidates’ capability, capacity and the competence to walk the talk. The candidates’ record in encouraging and enabling collaboration, listening to the views of others, and bringing coherence to diverse views, communicating, employing participative decision-making styles, and in exhibiting honesty, integrity, transparency, humility, empathy et cetera are key behavioural indicators to examine. Emotional Quotient (EQ) must rank higher than his/her Intelligence Quotient (IQ).
When it comes to predicting human behaviour, the past is a great indicator of the future. Like a leopard which cannot hide its spots, a scheming political manipulator cannot hide his true self forever. We, the voters, have been duped, and shortchanged, repeatedly by false promises. We have been blinded by the shining flashes of promises, promises which we, ourselves, knew could not have been delivered without damaging the prospects of future generations. Let us be smarter this time. Do not get carried away by charisma, personality, the gift of the gab, debating skills et cetera, but focus on determining who shows the greatest ability in inspiring a shared vision- a leader who we believe is the best in envisioning exciting possibilities and enlisting the citizenry in a shared view of the future.
Unfortunately, there are many leaders who still believe that they, as individuals, must be visionaries and that such ability/knowledge are adequate and are the sine qua non of a prosperous future for their constituents. They believe that their vision is the alpha and the omega of the way forward. Their utterances convey a message of: “I am the know-all and you, the citizens, are just the plebs. With the help of public relations experts, the adroit use of social media and a splashing of money, they present themselves as emissaries of the future with a panacea for all ills and as possessors of magic potions which enable the hitherto elusive national transformation.
Even if such were true, in the absence of a harnessing of the power of collective thinking and collective effort, such endowments, by themselves, will yield nothing because they fail, in the first instance, to appreciate, and address, the constituents’ wants, their keenness to hear how their dreams will come true, their anxieties on how their hopes will be fulfilled and their desire to play an active role in fulfilling the dream.
Martin Luther King Junior’s dream of an inclusive society where: “My four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by their character” – became a reality only when his dream was shared by the masses. In summary, the visions which inspire multitudes, ignite positive behaviour, and get deeply grounded are those which emanate when a leader listens very, very closely to others, appreciates their hopes, attends to their needs and effects change via collaboration rather than via imposition. Paradoxical as it may sound, a transformational leader takes people into the future by engaging with them in the present.
Productive narcissist and unproductive narcissist
Today’s tech-enabled, connected world is giving rise to larger-than-life personalities who paint the big picture and who, with their persuasive rhetoric, voice a dramatically different future. An over-reliance on, and over-exaggeration of, such “big” personalities often create narcissists. Pundits claim, and records evidence, that narcissism can be a useful leadership trait. Narcissistic leaders are, in the main, skilful orators who, through the employment of heart tugging words, and appealing mannerisms, move mountains and stir enthusiasm in their followers. These traits may, and do, help in inspiring a shared vision. However, when electing our leaders, we must be careful in identifying the productive narcissist from the unproductive narcissist. A productive narcissist is ideal in times of great transition because he/she, driven by his/her positive arrogance, has the gall, and the audacity, to push through the massive transformations which the others have shunned. It should be noted that mega transformations are a periodic occurrence in many countries. Productive narcissists are, usually, risk takers impatient to get the job done and egoistic about a desire to show success. Most importantly, they are spurred by a dream of leaving a legacy. The danger is that narcissism can turn unproductive when leaders are over-showered with praise even where such praise is not warranted in the first place. There are unproductive narcissists, who, though lacking “real” self-knowledge, refuse the advice of experts because they are power drunk by the undeserved adulation of a host of “yes men” eager to curry favour. Self-glorification and a penchant for grandiosity are the other indications of unproductive narcissism leading to flagrant risk taking. As observed by Sigmund Freud, unproductive narcissists are emotionally isolated and very distrusting and must be managed with scepticism. Andy Grove, founder, and former Chairman of Intel, says it clearly in his book, “Only the Paranoid Survive,” that a narcissist’s fear, distrust, and aggression, often leads to seeing enemies who are not there—even among his close colleagues. Yes – unproductive narcissists can create immense damage.
Heeding the thoughts of Henry Ford who said, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing,” we, the citizens of Sri Lanka, have an opportunity, soon, in avoiding the errors we made in the past by electing leaders who promised us the moon and the stars and delivered to us nothing other than the crumbs and leftovers after they, the leaders, had enjoyed the fruits of the labour of the ordinary Tom, Dick and Harry. We must not be enticed by the ‘goodies’ which our country cannot afford, and we must not get dazzled by the shine on the surface. On the contrary we must be objective by painstakingly delving into the track-records of the contenders and assessing, through a structured approach, their levels of sincerity and capability. Let us all be very shy, this time, after being bitten so many times. We must, at all costs, avoid unproductive narcissists.
In avoiding past mistakes, we must look for the following in the contenders.
- Is the announced Vision an individual vision or does it contain the essential ingredients of a Shared Vision? What is the extent of ambiguity in the Shared Vision? Is it backed by a pragmatic execution plan or is it “pie in the sky” stuff? Has the subject leader been effective in executing plans?
- Per their records – Have they led by example? Have they “walked the talk’? Do they practice what they preach? Are they role models?
- Do they have a proven record of empowering others and delegating work or are they better known for insulating their positions by stifling the development of subordinates and impeding succession?
- Are they known for building strong relationships with their followers, irrespective of the followers’ rank or status? Do they take the time to listen to their concerns and ideas and do they provide feedback and support to them? Or are they in the habit of using them for selfish gains and “not knowing them” till the next election.
- Are they reputed for fostering, and entrenching, a sense of Purpose? Do they lead from the front, or do they get their frontliners to do the hard, and sometimes dirty, work?
- Are they selfish?
As Sri Lanka braces itself for another round of elections commencing 2024, the voting public must, at least now, look for a leader who is able to inspire a “real”, pragmatic shared vision and not a leader who entices the public to vote for him/her by sugar coating his self-serving individual vision to give it a superficial taste and by embellishing his/her promises through packaging which makes them glitter even though they are not gold
The following are the tell-tale signs of an unproductive narcissist of whom we must beware.
- Loves to hobnob with the rich and famous.
- Is moody, treats people poorly and/or or acts as if they do not exist. Observe how they interact with persons of lower ranks and how they address them.
- Poor listener. Has no patience to listen. Will, in most instances, respond before listening to the totality of a query/request.
- Is self-adulatory and self-glorifying. Over-exaggerates, over-emphasises and brags about his accomplishments.
- Attempts to impress people rather than showing genuine interest in their concerns.
- Masters the ability in maintaining society acceptable outward appearances. However, their true colours are seen when they are under pressure in responding to tough questions and/or are faced with unanticipated events. As I stated earlier, the leopard cannot change its spots. Neither can a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
- Looks for scapegoats most of the time. Never takes responsibility for mistakes and problems. The buck magically stops just before them!
- Not open to advice. Has a dislike of coaching and mentoring. Believes there is no way other than ‘my’ way.
- Lacks empathy. Most evident when they have not experienced real hardships in reaching the top.
Sensitive to criticism. Give him/her a “litmus test” in this regard and see how he/she reacts.
- Gets very defensive when confronted with negative feedback. Even if he/she keeps a straight face, his/her body language betrays them.
- Not an allrounder. Has a limited set of interests and activities. Stated in a plainer language – “not much of a normal, eating, drinking person.”
Whilst integrity, honesty, fairness, accountability, transparency, servitude, humility, and ethicality are the foundational traits we must look for in a leader when casting our vote, we must also consider the following.
Will the subject leader:
- Fulfil his or her constitutional obligations without fear or favour,
- Put the public interests before his or hers,
- Provide the essential/basic public goods and services which the leader is mandated to deliver,
- Be a servant to the people who elected him/her.
While the above may sound utopian, I suggest that we give the above our careful consideration when electing our next set of leaders.
It is just a handful of leaders who recognise that leadership is less about the leader and more about those he/she leads. This explains, to some extent, the dearth of leaders who enter the hall of leadership greatness by exhibiting selflessness. It is only when leaders accept that leadership is not about him but that it is about serving his followers that he/she portrays selflessness and does what is right for his country and his people without thinking what is right for him/her.
Courage, candour, empathy, justice, equity, love, compassion et cetera come naturally to selfless leaders and when these are role modelled, brought alive and made visible to the voting citizens, they will unhesitatingly support the shared vision and willingly follow their leader even to the valley of death. Such is the power of an inspired vision.
As history confirms, the memories of leaders who successfully developed their countries, and movements, by inspiring shared visions and selfless behaviour remain alive in the minds of the people well after their retirements and after their deaths. They have indelibly imprinted themselves in the minds of those they led by making the wellbeing of the country, and its citizens, their top priority. Sri Lanka’s need for such leaders has never been greater. We, the voters, must select wisely. We must select leaders who inspire a shared vision. It was Abraham Lincoln who rightfully stated, “Elections belong to the people. It is their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
(The writer is currently a Leadership Coach, Mentor and Consultant and boasts over 50 years of experience in very senior positions in the corporate world – local and overseas. www.ronniepeiris.com.)