On leadership

March 30, 2023 06:00
Photo: World Economic Forum

What makes a good leader?

Folks beg to disagree over this seemingly innocuous yet fundamentally divisive question.

Some posit that leaders are defined by their ability to inspire and motivate others - they must be a ‘people’s person’, but also a ‘person of the people’, driven by the ethos and natural talents of transforming the hearts and minds of individuals, convincing and converting followers to even the unlikeliest and wildest of causes, and spearheading changes and progress amongst trying times. Leaders need not be the smartest in the room, yet must be able to draw the best out of those whom they lead. Leaders should be well-liked, appreciated, and fundamentally affable.

Other suggest that true leadership rests with intellectual acumen and profundity. Leaders serve as sages - old, wise men/women of the contemporary era, who can pioneer new ideas, experiment with long-standing traditions, and push boundaries. Leaders are visionaries, who must generate sufficient impetus and momentum on their own, as to push those around them, and society at large, to advance. An affable, well-liked leader may pale in comparison with a trailblazer who is unfazed by the prospects of attempting something never done before - going down the road not taken.

In face of such heterogeneity, it is tempting to conclude that leadership is an inherently multi-faceted process. There’s a point to each and every one of these accounts: after all, who’s to say Churchill was a better - or worse - leader than Indira Gandhi? And who are we to judge the merits and demerits of contemporary national leaders, each presiding over territories and polities that are so eclectically divergent in nature and dispositions?

To some extent, this pluralist move is a reasonable one - after all, it conveniently sidesteps discussions concerning the best and optimal means and mode of leadership, and allows us to subscribe to the wishy-washy stance, that “anything goes” in leadership, so long as “the context fits”. Yet this claim misses the bigger picture - leadership is as much contingent upon the individual agent in question, as it is on the context in which leadership plays out.

Real leaders are those who are capable of acting within the parameters and conditions in which they are situated, in mobilising the largest number of quality individuals (quality x quantity), in striving towards a common goal or purpose. Leaders may have to be intellectuals or practitioners, foxes or hedgehogs, depending upon the circumstances in which they are needed. A veteran civil engineer, in seeing through a large-scale infrastructural or developmental project, would indeed be behaving ultra vires in seeking to devise an academically robust philosophy and intellectual tradition that accounts for their actions - after all, it is best that they lead through action, as opposed to intellectualisation.

On the other hand, a philosopher that seeks to lead amidst times of moral ambiguity and anomie, would be best served in crafting a compelling framework of ethics that can enable the public at large to make sense of what the good life is, and how they can strive towards it. Treacherous circumstances call for resolve, fortitude, and a willingness to take risks and make calls that few others are willing to. Both the philosopher and civil engineer could be great leaders in their respective contexts, yet what differs - clearly - is whether their dispositions and approaches to leadership are in conformity with the demands of their context.

There’s a Chinese term, shi, which is incredibly difficult to translate into English. Some would translate it into momentum. Others would term it fate. I’d personally translate it into contextual alignment. Those who possess shi, are in the position of seizing upon and leveraging their alignment with the times, contexts, and networks in which they are situated; in contrast, those who lack shi would - even with the best of efforts - struggle to lead. There is more to leadership than the individual, or the collective. Indeed, context matters.

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Assistant Professor, HKU