Students and observers of politics have been recently pondering over a phenomenon that the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta summarised (‘Simply vishwas’, IE, August 26) in relation to the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “You can preside over poor economic performance, suffer a military setback, inflict suffering through failed schemes like demonetisation, and yet the trust does not decline.” I have a few comments on one layer of the protective Teflon that shields the trust that the public reposes in the leader from objective facts.
My observations derive from a different context than the leadership of a nation. They are based on years of co-teaching a 4-week course on leadership at INSEAD, one of the top schools of management in the world. The 400-odd participants who took this course over the years were in top leadership positions in their organisations, mostly in the corporate world but also in public institutions such as the vice-chancellor of a Scandinavian university, the head of a country’s railroad system or the mayor of a large Dutch city.
One of the instruments used in this course was a leadership inventory: A participant was rated on various elements of his or her leadership by their colleagues, and by the people who worked for them in their organisation. An interesting finding was that a leader who was rated high on the element of “vision”, was generally also rated higher in other elements of leadership, such as planning and executing, encouragement of team work, communication skills, emotional intelligence and so on. In other words, a leader seen as a visionary is given a bonus on other leadership skills, even by people who work closely with him and who may be expected to be more objective in their assessment of very different skills.
A visionary leader is generally understood as a big picture person, not bogged down by details, someone who is constantly envisaging a future different from the status quo. This visionary leader has goals that the followers’ minds may reject as improbable but that nevertheless stir their hearts and visualising the goals enlivens the imagination.
What I want to suggest is that vision may indeed be the most important aspect of leadership, the crucial ingredient engendering trust in a leader. Whether the leader’s vision is faulty, has little substance in reality, becomes unimportant; what is decisive is the belief that the leader is a visionary.
This is illustrated strikingly by the story of a Rabbi in a Polish village who had acquired a reputation of being a visionary. A sceptical journalist from Warsaw decides to travel to the village to check the veracity of the Rabbi’s visionary gift. Politely asked to provide proof of what is being claimed by the villagers, the Rabbi climbs up on the roof of his house and peering into the distance loudly proclaims that he can see a huge fire that has broken out in another village 50 miles away. The journalist decides to verify and travels to the other village where he finds that there was no fire. On his return to the Rabbi’s village, he tells the villagers that contrary to what the Rabbi had said, he can assure them that there was no fire in the other village. “Ah”, they chorus. “It does not matter if there was a fire or not. Aren’t you thrilled by how far he can see?”
The belief in a leader’s vision is impervious to facts that may contradict the contents of the vision. What is important is that he is a visionary, “how far he can see”.
One element of the story highlights why most people who are generally sceptical, if not downright cynical of leaders, especially in the political arena, are prepared to forego their critical faculties to repose their trust in a leader who they believe is visionary. They are prepared to do so if they sense or are persuaded by the leader’s authenticity.
Authenticity is difficult to define without simply evoking its synonyms — integrity, genuineness — or its antonyms — manipulation and hypocrisy.
The Rabbi in the story does not have to persuade the villagers of his authenticity. Jewish cultural tradition has already certified his authenticity which, irrespective of the man’s personal qualities, attributes to him the virtues of humility and caring that are integral to the authenticity of an ideal leader in the tradition.
Is there an Indian cultural ideal of the authentic leader? Most people would say that Rama as king in the mythical past, and more recently Gandhi as leader of India’s independence movement, incorporate the ideal leader of the Indian cultural imagination. That leader’s characteristics are a radical selflessness in service of the people, that is prepared to sacrifice personal interests, especially of family life and even the welfare of family members. Such renunciation, tyag, has an especially powerful resonance in the collective psyche in our context where “family-ism” is so highly valued, even when at times it is experienced as suffocating. Tyag gains deeper respect in a context where people accept that run-of-the-mill leaders will always look after the interests of their family first; a context where they can empathise with a political leader’s incredulous reaction to a journalist who questions the appointment of the politician’s son to a high post within his party: “Who else will I appoint? Your son?”
But the typical political leader is not the ideal leader of the collective psyche. Like my own individual ideal of the person I wish to be but of which I often fall short, the siren song of the collective ideal operating from our “higher” nature never loses its pull. If a leader who is seen as embodying the traditional ideal ever comes to the fore, legitimate doubts and misgivings are overshadowed. Many Indians believe — the sceptics would say, have been wrongly persuaded by propaganda — that Modi adheres closely to the traditional template of tyag and selfless service, and thus like the Rabbi has been granted an authenticity that lends credence to his vision.
However, reality always reasserts its sway over a longer period of time. Paradoxically, the reassertion of reality tends to take place in calmer and less challenging times for the nation, where a visionary leader is even more trusted. Then, if the soft but persistent voice of reality reveals the leader’s vision to be hollow or his authenticity as fake, the disappointment is likely to be not politics-as-usual but eruption of rage at the betrayal of deeply cherished ideals that have been invested with strong emotions.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 2, 2020 under the title ‘How far the leader can see’. Kakar is a psychoanalyst and writer