Effective leaders need moral as well as legal authority

24th April 2016, ECONOMIC TIMES

An effective legal system can function if it is built on a strong moral foundation in society. The civil engineering principle is relevant—poor foundation, wobbly skyscraper!

(Promoting products that don’t deliver is a waste of money because advertising has to be honest, so wrote Rosser Reeves. Does this apply to public services?).

24th April 2016, ECONOMIC TIMES

An effective legal system can function if it is built on a strong moral foundation in society. The civil engineering principle is relevant—poor foundation, wobbly skyscraper!

When issues like Bofors, Commonwealth Games, 2G, and coal mines arise, there is vehement denial by the people concerned. A long wait follows as the law courts churn and twist through lies and facts. When the Panama leaks were reported, South Asians denied everything, whereas the PMs of Iceland and Britain accepted the facts and explained. In India when insider trading in shares is suspected, there is neither acceptance nor speedy resolution by the judicial process. A rare corporate leader, who denied the allegation, voluntarily stepped down as Chairman, and gracefully returned, was Mr. Vellayan of Murugappa Group! I wish his moral conduct had attracted wider kudos.

Leaders should not and cannot lead by resorting only to the courts of law. The court of public opinion matters; it has a pervasive influence on perception. This reality should influence the behaviour of all leaders–companies, institutions and nations. Public opinion bestows the moral authority to lead because conduct and intent are perceived to be of high standard.

In 2001 Goldman Sachs global economist Jim O’Neill popularised the acronym BRIC. Of the four countries, currently India stands apart. I cannot help recalling what Allama Iqbal wrote of Hindustan in 1904, “Yunan- o-Misr-o-Roma sab mit gaye jahan se, Ab tak magar hai baaki naam-o-nishaan hamara.” From an unassailable position of economic dynamism and leadership, Brazil is enmeshed in a web of intrigue and allegedly sordid corruption. Russia could have been a liberal democracy, but has emerged as a Kafkaesque kleptocracy. Sure-footed and amazing China is now perceived as a wobbly entity. Despite its numerous internal contradictions, India continues to grow economically, and to attempt to be liberal. India is a candle in a dark global economy.

Public perception demands more than self-esteem. Public perception is influenced by the four estates of democracy—the results achieved by the executive, the behaviour of legislators, the performance of the legal system and the projection of matters by the media. Our system seems to rely excessively on the media and the judiciary.

Particularly with respect to the judiciary, all sorts of matters are referred to the already over-burdened courts: Bollywood squabbles over personal rivalries, which words affirm nationalism, whether women can enter a place of worship, cricket administrators’ egoistic forays of fancy and power, and businessmen’s larger-than-life personal activities. If the courts do decide (as in the case of IPL matches), critics say there is judicial over-reach. If they don’t (as in the LGBT issue), then the courts are accused of not stretching themselves. India has only ten percent of the per capita judge strength compared to OECD countries. The delivery of justice in the country is in urgent need of being bolstered, but we don’t have to burden the courts.

Public credulity is offended when a person in power behaves without the moral authority of leadership. For example: a lavish wedding in a poor area, a sports event amidst drought; a union minister offering an offensive expansion of the three letters that describe an opposition party (which elicits reciprocally offensive epithets); an uncouth response, “Yes, I did; and I will do so a thousand times again” when the Election Commission enquires from a chief minister whether a promise was made during campaigning.

If people without moral authority expect to lead their members effectively, they are no leaders. The challenge is not only within our companies, political parties and governments but also within clubs, gymkhanas, building societies and NGOs.

The onus rests very much on the ‘ruler’ to reach out to the ‘opposition’, thus “dignifying the political morality of the rivals with their attention” (The key to political persuasion, NYT). The collaborative leader needs to step back from the war posture of politics and be vulnerable. The methods were so well exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Patricio Aylwin (Chile). As commentator Roger Cohen pointed out, “Liberalism demands acceptance of our human differences and the ability to mediate them through democratic institutions….Liberalism may appear to be feeble as a battle cry, but nothing is more important for human dignity and decency.” As I close, I recount an incident from history.

After the zenith of Aurangzeb, the Mughal throne was occupied by a failing Muhammad Shah from 1719 until 1747. According to historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar, “although he was a mere cypher in respect of his public duties, there were some redeeming features in his private character.” A soldier, whose job was to guard the imperial jewel house, stole a valuable necklace and was arraigned before the emperor. In self- defence, the soldier stated that his salary had not been paid for twelve months, and regrettably he had no choice but to steal–from the place where his salary was locked up rather than elsewhere! A shamed Muhammad Shah paid the arrears and retained the guard.

What would have happened if such a situation arose today?