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– Dr C.K. Mathew, IAS (Retd)

I suppose there are many brilliant quotations on leadership; for it is indeed a fascinating subject. How is it that some men or women have the consummate ability to demonstrate leadership that enthrals or captivates those who follow them, and make the followers perform even better than their own capacity? A true leader, because he leads with the best of his abilities, is able to bring out the best in others.


I have only recently come across some admirable quotes on the subject: let me entertain you with some of them:

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


“To lead people, walk beside them …As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!’” [Lao-Tsu]


“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” [John Quincy Adams]


While leadership may be a subject on which much has been written, what I would like to touch upon in this article is what, at senior levels of the bureaucracy, the concept of leadership should mean. And how we can demonstrate leadership to those whom we lead in real and practicable matters.


I do know that there have been flamboyant and dashing heroes who have flouted convention and practice and charted a course of their own. But for those of us who are mere mortals and working in positions where we have to, by virtue of the jobs we hold, display traits of leadership, surely, there must be a book we can follow. Or, could we all get together and write the book?


Let us start with what may appear to be inconsequential matters. Let us start with the small traits of behaviour, which along with the major attributes of character, contribute to the overall image and perquisites of a leader. For example, even coming to the office in time, thereby establishing good example for others to follow, is a leadership trait. So is being punctual for appointments and not making people wait for you. If you adhere to the rigours of the clock, so will those who work with you. It is an essential characteristic of leadership.


There is no need to reiterate the obvious: integrity and character, straight talking and no hint of devious behaviour, the truth of your own self shining in the face, all these are sine qua non for leadership. The manner in which one conducts one’s personal life is also important. Of course, there have been great charismatic leaders whose personal morality may have been suspect though they have been the greatest of motivators and heroes for ordinary men and women. Perhaps none of us ordinary bureaucrats can hope to achieve those heights of universal leadership. What we can hope for at best is to be optimal leaders in the sphere in which we are working. And it cannot be doubted that high morality in our personal life is an additive that can make us better leaders in our official capacities.


The manner in which you talk to and deal with people is also a sign of leadership. If you are courteous, polite and respectful to them, then they will also be courteous, polite and respectful to you. And word will soon spread that the boss is a man of high quality and that you can expect a fair deal from him. There is a word in Latin that reflects that quality of character, earnestness, sobriety and seriousness that will come through like 24 carat gold in all that you do and say. They call it gravitas.


Promising only what you can deliver: this too is a sign of leadership. If you give your word and commit to a certain course of action, then it is of paramount importance that you fulfil what you have assured. Make no false promises; but ensure that what you have said is done. There is no greater sense of credibility in the minds of those around you than your adhering to the letter and spirit of your assurances.


When an issue is brought to you by your perplexed staff, who are uncertain of the course to follow ahead, then do you confound them further? or do you sit with them, understand the issue at hand and advise them in no uncertain words of how to go ahead? If your discussions result in further obfuscation, then you are no leader of men. However, if you are able to grasp the essentials of the problem at hand and provide a reasonable and satisfactory way ahead, then you have the makings of a leader.


This necessarily means that we need to be knowledgeable about the sphere of work that we are in. We need to upgrade our knowledge about the theoretical framework of our jobs and be the master of details that will help us to meet any situation that arises in the course of our work. The intellectual acumen of the boss has to be substantial if his workers are to accord him recognition and respect. However, bear in mind that the theoretical knowledge must be backed by sound practical wisdom so that one is not bogged down in trivialities that may threaten to derail the programmes of the department you head.


Again, are you able to alter the official life habits of those who work with you? Can you change a staff member from a cynical bystander to a committed and impassioned employee with ideals and ethics? Can you galvanise an indolent and lazy subordinate and transform him into an ardent and unswerving worker? True leaders can make their associates see things differently and nudge them into a higher trajectory. Not only that, if you are later gone from the scene, the values imbibed by those who have worked with you, must remain indelible in their minds; they should not vanish the moment you are no longer on the scene.


Are these difficult characteristics for ordinary bureaucrats to follow? In the first flush of enthusiasm when we join the service, we are filled with an idealism and a higher purpose that suffuses us in whatever we do. As time passes, that flush fades, and we start to live life in the light of common day. But I am sure we can do much more to our own lives. We need to remind ourselves why we are here and take our lives into that higher orbit: not only for ourselves but for those whom we lead. We are privileged in the jobs that we have and let us not take that responsibility lightly. Our primary role is to serve those not as fortunate as ourselves. Let us not be found wanting in this noble task.

Post Author: Public Affairs Centre