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Leadership cults retard national development

Sep 09, 2012 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Travel is great for a variety of reasons. One of the most important is the possibility of serendipitously coming across something you might not otherwise have seen. This happened to me recently when I opened a magazine on an airplane to find the following:

“There was this one instance when a woman in her early 60s arrived at Zurich airport after a long international flight. A friend of mine, Jean Daniel Ruch, met her there and the two of them got onto a train headed for Bern, the Swiss capital. Because the train was crowded, the older woman occupied a seat near the door while my friend stood next to her.

When the ticket controller came in, he pointed out politely to the lady that her seat was reserved for the physically challenged and that she ought to vacate it. The lady complied. Passengers witnessing the episode didn’t offer her their seats either and she travelled standing all the way to Bern.

She was Micheline Calmy-Rey, foreign minister and former President of Switzerland. She is to Switzerland what Sonia Gandhi is to India.”

Are you clapping? You should be. This was written by Sundeep Waslekar in Forbes India recently. Mr Waslekar has spotted something very important in national development: “Where disproportionate importance is given to leaders, societies don’t progress.”

Here’s a test: can you name any of the leaders of Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark? Hong Kong? Japan? Taiwan? And we can all name the despot ruining North Korea, but would struggle to remember the names of those leading its more successful southern neighbour.

Yet these are some of the world’s most evolved societies, offering extremely high standards of living to most of their nationals.

Mr Waslekar does not think this is a coincidence. He posits that India will not develop meaningfully until it reduces the importance it gives to its leaders (and, I might add, to its cabal of showy, attention-seeking CEOs and its absurd Bollywood celebrities).

Let’s get back to Ms Calmy-Rey, the lady in the Swiss train. Can you actually imagine this? That a former president gets on a train, and is not permitted to remain on a seat reserved for the disabled, just like any other citizen? Or that people do not give up their seats for her, knowing full well who she is? Ms Calmy-Rey, I should add, was subsequently re-elected President.

Let us now weep together. For we live in a society where leaders are given obscene privileges, including the right to commit hideous crimes without suffering consequences. Here, leaders can trample all over you and you won’t be able to do a thing about it. Far from standing on trains, our leaders move around in massive convoys, inconveniencing everyone else.

We live, in short, in a society constructed for the benefit of leaders, not subjects.

We will not move forward until we evolve past this mediaeval, feudal state. We must applaud societies that have outgrown personality cults. We must reject the outdated concept that leaders are the only grown-ups in the land, and everyone else is a helpless child. Maturity in society is about equivalence and parity of rights.

We won’t really move forward until we can harness the energy, knowledge and productivity of every citizen. The idea of monarchs in palaces controlling the decisions as well as the riches of the land is an anachronism. Even countries that maintain monarchies, such as the United Kingdom or Holland, have neutered all the powers of those families, retaining them only for ceremonial purposes.

So it is not important for subjects to “know people.” What is important is the reverse: that leaders must know their people. Know that the people are in charge; that the people hire and fire them; and that the people must benefit from the leadership.

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