Photo courtesy of The Guardian

When our president has jumped ship and we’re looking to the parliament to vote the right people into power, this seems like an apt time for Sri Lankans to think about leadership carefully. Specifically, what does leadership mean? What do we expect from a leader at this juncture? What qualities are must haves and what characteristics can be mere icing on the cake?

Most Sri Lankans are of the opinion that we need to appoint educated leaders; in a country where thugs and crooks enforce political power, education would be great. As someone who grew up in Sri Lanka, I’m well aware of the pedestal on which we place degrees and education and I believe that education can be the ticket out of poverty, misfortune, and intellectual confinement. But we need more than education from our next generation of leaders. Much, much more.

Education is a flawed system

I’ve met many educated people with exposure to diversity who have the most closed minds or make the harshest decisions that they can’t come back from. I’m sure you have seen the same, especially with our most recent voting patterns. Education is by no means the cure all and it never will be.

Most global primary and secondary education systems lack critical ingredients such as mental health, financial literacy, mindfulness, compassion, entrepreneurship, sex education, critical thinking, and building conviction, to name a few. Add to this the lack of child psychology training in our education professionals and the racial divisions of our religiously affiliated schools. How then will these flawed systems produce leaders of the caliber we need right now?

At this point in time, Sri Lankan education is a great teacher of hard skills such as mathematics, biology, economics, law and the like. Therefore, picking an educated leader may result in better policies but without the right people skills and emotional intelligence, these policies can lack sensitivity towards certain communities. These leaders may also not be able to get buy in from all parties and bring out the best in their teams during implementation.

Resonant versus dissonant leadership

In Resonant Leadership, Richard Boyatzis, one of the world’s leading experts in leadership development and emotional intelligence, differentiates between resonant versus dissonant leadership: “Resonant leaders are in tune with those around them. This results in people working in sync with each other, in tune with each other’s thoughts (what to do) and emotions (why to do it).”

Going by this definition, it’s clear that most of our past leaders have not displayed much resonant leadership. Some were so far removed that the asks of protestors fell on deaf ears and eyes. A certain kind of sensitivity is required to unequivocally see others’ needs and understand their pain.

In a country like Sri Lanka, which has a long history of racial and classist divisions, the cultural bearings of the leader will be one of the biggest determinants of resonance. While belonging to their own unique specimen, the leader must demonstrate a neutral or positive opinion of other races, religions, classes, castes, genders and sexual orientations.

One might wonder if this is way too much to ask for. Although it is humanly impossible to know the pain of all combinations of the human condition, the right leader can lead with curiosity and compassion in being willing to be open to understanding the other party without disgust or fear  –  something that has been lacking in our political sphere for ages.

Components of leadership

In the Boyatzis model for leadership, four components are highlighted as critical for resonant leadership: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Each component is measured by certain competencies. Although directly applicable to business settings, these competencies can also be extended to our political situation.

Self-awareness competencies

  • Emotional self-awareness: Is the leader in touch with their own emotions? Do they know when they’re triggered that they are triggered?
  • Accurate self-assessment: How well does the leader know their strengths and weaknesses? Do they know their skill level so they can bring in experts as needed?
  • Self-confidence: This is not the arrogant confidence that some leaders possess. This is having enough self-worth to understand that they are not perfect, but that doesn’t mean that they’re lacking either. The ability to take criticism from other politicians and journalists with no qualms.

Self-management competencies

  • Emotional self-control: Once they become present to their emotions, how do leaders manage their emotions? Do they lash out at their staff on media, throw stones at opposition members, or can they constructively manage their emotions without causing harm to others?
  • Transparency: Honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness of the leader
  • Adaptability: Can the leader quickly adapt to changes in the economy or pandemics like COVID?
  • Achievement: Does the leader have high performance standards for themselves? Do they know how to learn what they don’t know in the path to continuous improvement?
  • Initiative: Can the leader take the initiative to change the country for the better? Are they interested in doing so in the first place?
  • Optimism: Is the leader capable of seeing the good in everything and learning from mistakes quickly?

Social awareness competencies

  • Empathy: Understanding and validating concerns of others, especially those different from one’s own life experience
  • Organizational awareness: Is the leader politically savvy? Do they know what the informal decision networks are and how to operate within these networks with genuine intentions?
  • Service: Does the leader truly want to serve our people and country? What legacy do they want to leave behind?

Relationship management competencies

  • Inspirational leadership: Having a compelling vision that can get all Sri Lankans excited about our future
  • Influence: Does the leader have the skills to mobilize the public towards the said vision?
  • Developing others: Can the leader mentor and guide their team to empower them and create joint ownership?
  • Change catalyst: Does the leader know what changes the country needs, and do they have the desire for change?
  • Conflict management: Can the leader resolve conflicts with others and disagreements between their team members?
  • Building bonds: Nurturing a host of genuine relationships and caring for others
  • Collaboration: Can the leader come together with others and bring out the best in their team?

As leadership is mainly about working with others, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management are key skills a leader must possess to lead the country effectively. Education can only lend hard skills and some soft skills that don’t necessarily lead to these four leadership components.

Situational leadership

Given that the country is in the worst turmoil right now, it’s worth looking at situational leadership, which prescribes that leaders should adapt to the environment and change their leadership style. The four main styles a leader can draw from are:

  1. Directing and guiding: Being more directive in nature works well in times of crisis if the leader is trustworthy and has leadership skills. When the leader has ingenuine intentions or lacks the skills, this could lead to authoritative regimens, as we have witnessed.
  2. Influencing and selling: The leader still decides what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and when it needs to be done. But to influence others, the leader will provide context as to why something needs to be done.
  3. Participating and collaborating: This leadership style is more participative and accommodating of others’ ideas and opinions. The team sets the agenda, and democracy will prevail most of the time.
  4. Delegating and empowering: This style calls for laissez-faire leadership with high levels of trust in the team. The team also needs to be highly skilled and need minimal supervision.

Although we are in a crisis and may benefit from the first two styles of leadership, we don’t currently have a trustworthy leader that can satisfy all of these leadership criteria. Furthermore, we need more skilled leaders in all political parties to lean towards more delegation and empowerment. This is why as already proposed, a more participative style of an all party government, with built in checks and balances, makes the most sense at the moment.

How best to move forward

It’s no more appropriate or wise to ring in a politician because we know them personally or our families have always voted for a particular party. Staying out of the voting process because you’re not interested in politics will also prove to be foolish, given the lessons we have just learned. The time is ripe for us to rethink our understanding of leadership as governing bodies, organizations, and individuals.

When we go out to vote in the next election, we need to seriously consider what is important for us in our leaders. If we can’t find such leaders and don’t foresee the emergence of such a caliber of leaders, we need to be the change and help in the creation of such leaders rather than simply resorting to siding with the better of the evils. Evil is evil, even if it’s of a lighter shade or hiding behind a nationalistic mask.