Ideally, qualities of command and leadership should go together; but they do not always do so. Being a former soldier, my experience is confined to the military. However, it is my opinion that the same principles apply to commanders as do to leaders in every sphere of life.
There have been some individuals, in recent times, who have acquired leadership skills by adapting their personality to theoretical definitions of leadership qualities; but most such individuals usually ring false under trial. It is, however more common for individuals to hone their natural abilities.
Leadership is difficult to pin down to quantities or combinations of qualities. Suffice it to say that a leader’s qualities are such that they instil in all those who come into contact with them, the desire to be subordinated to that leader in times of trial.
I have come across quite a few such individuals during my military career — not all of them my seniors. In my case, I can state with certainty that I found myself hoping to serve under some such gifted individuals in times of war. Each of those who inspired that desire in me were the ones who immediately stepped to the fore in crises and, without losing their cool, took decisions that dealt with the crisis of the moment.
Some of these individuals were harsh, autocratic and at times inflexible, but time proved them right. Others sought opinions before deciding, were considerate and soft-spoken, but all were supremely confident in themselves.
Perhaps the final quality that defines a good leader, therefore, is the combination that gives him/her supreme confidence and the desire to assume responsibility during times of difficulty.
In this discussion, let’s focus on command, a function which even less-gifted people like myself can find imposed on them.
There are really only two important functions of command. The first is to take decisions and the second is to train his/her subordinates; more specifically, to groom a successor. There is a third desirable, which I will refer to later.
An unfortunate corollary to taking decisions is that you have to assume responsibility for your decisions. Presumably, Harry S Truman’s famous dictum, which reputedly adorned his desk, “The buck stops here”, intended to say the same. This corollary is what causes problems. The majority of people tend to avoid responsibility and therefore, avoid taking decisions, particularly, unpleasant ones. A good leader, on the other hand, seeks responsibility. Among those appointed or elected to command, we often face such problems. This is frequently obvious in our political leadership; when they seek consensus or pass the buck to joint parliamentary ‘committees’ for recommendations.
There are parliamentary committees for many day-to-day functions, but these are, conceptually, mini-lower houses, used to pre-debate issues to be put before the entire house. The idea is to accelerate routine matters through mini-debates.
Conceptually, the democratic process is merely to seek a leader by the process of election. In our parliamentary leadership, it goes a step further, i.e. the party elects its choice for leader of the house: the prime minister. But the democratic process ends there.
How can a country be run on consensus? It is impossible for all political parties to agree on all, or even a single issue.
Once elected to office, the PM is the chief executive; the one responsible for taking all decisions and, therefore, assuming responsibility for all decisions taken by him, or on his behalf. It is he, the leader of the house, with whom the buck stops. And no committee or consensus with those whom the public did not consider fit, can enable him to pass the buck.
I am told that General Raheel Sharif has often told his commanders, “You can delegate authority but not responsibility”. He obviously referred to himself and was clarifying that, while he delegated authority to them, the responsibility for the use of the authority delegated by him, remained his alone.
But this applies equally to our sorry lot of politicians.
And this brings me to the third ‘desirable’ function of command. Whereas it is essential for a leader to delegate authority, it is unrealistic for him alone to assume sole responsibility in running a country. Therefore, he should have the ability to pick the right person for the job. If he selects the best of his sycophants, which is frequently the case, he is doomed to fail.
A leader must also groom a successor. There is really no harm in grooming members of your family as successors. The problem is again of selection. So long as the person selected is the right person for the job, their parentage is immaterial; but if selected merely based on blood-line, as is invariably the case in our country, we may continue to inherit mediocrity.
In a democracy, the leader of the opposition, too, plays a role and in the appointment to a post such as chairman of NAB a consensus might be preferable, though not necessary. Democratic shackles on an elected chief executive should be minimal. After all, interim relief is available via a vote of no-confidence.
And democratically, the people will comment on the elected leader’s performance with their votes in the next election.
Can this ever happen here, or are we doomed to hopelessness on our political horizon?
Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2016.