Lessons on Leadership Paradox

Published on : 10 Aug 2017
7 min read
Category : Leadership

Last week I saw a Tamil movie “Vikram Veda” and also read a piece by Sankarshan Thakur on Nitesh Kumar. My friend, Charles Assissi had shared with me the article “I Promiscuous power and improbable amorality of Nitesh Kumar” by Sankarshan Thakur.  He encouraged me to examine the interplay of Leadership with ambition, power and values.


Another friend Ramnath had recommended this movie. The movie is based on the dilemma that king Vikramaditya had about what is the righteous choice as a leader. Inspired by this the director tells the story of the interplay of ambition, power and values with the leadership choices of a cop and a gangster.  The movie has an innovative treatment, wherein the gangster Veda, time and again teases the cop with the poser “Oru kadai sollattuma?” “Can I tell you a story?” This is meant to make the cop reflect on what is the good or bad and right or wrong, leadership choice. 


Inspired by that let me ask you my readers, “Do you want to read a few stories and reflect on the eternal paradox: The Leadership Paradox?


On 1st January 1942 Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill formalised their alliance with “The Devil” a reference they had until then for Joseph Stalin. This was called the “Declaration of United Nations”. At Teheran in 1943 and later at Yalta in 1945 this arrangement had moved on from” saving the world to sharing the world”, power sharing arrangement. Yet by 1949, Joseph Stalin went back to be “The Devil” who had to be fought by the NATO, headed by the USA. Were Roosevelt and Churchill unaware that Stalin was the despicable and dangerous communist? Interestingly Hitler’s persecution did not start with the Jews, it started with the Communists. Dachau, the first concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich was started for the extermination of the communists.


2000 years back what history calls as the 1st Triumvirate: Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus came into being for a power sharing arrangement.  The power sharing purportedly was to save Rome from the anarchy and governance chaos after Sula’s autocracy. The Roman Republic was dead; it had to be resurrected; rid of venal corruption, degeneration of culture, insured from future tyrants usurping it. Pompey “the Patrician” brought the military might, Crassus the money and Caesar the popular support of “the Plebes”. Caesar outwitted Pompey and Crassus to correct the power sharing aberration, and made it exclusively in his favour. Rome was back in the clutches of a tyrant and he had to be “assassinated” for the Republic to be restored. 


On the death of Julius Caesar, who destroyed democracy, paradoxically through the will of the people; “Caesar” for ever become the term for “The Supreme Leader”, his nephew formed the 2nd Triumvirate, comprising of the Peoples’ General Marcus Antony, Amelius Lepidius another General of Caesar who was to keep Antony in check and Octavian. This too started with “save Rome” as the noble objective and ended with the 16 year old Octavian, who had no military credentials or popularity with the people, the nephew of Caesar achieving his ambition of ruling Rome exclusively as Augustus Caesar, for the next 50 years. The tyrant was restored and the Republic was dead forever; Long live Rome! 


Sankarshan has this quote about Nitesh kumar,  ” Satta prapt karoonga, by hook or by crook, lekin satta leke achchha kaam karoonga… I will take power, by hook or by crook, but having got it, will do good work.


The paradox of leadership with very few exceptions has been beautifully summed up by Sankarshan. The 3 historical references with which I have started this article will also bear this out. We all go pink and blue about the expediencies or even immortalities of alliances that leaders and aspirants strike. Leaders themselves take pains to cloak their power quest as “for the upliftment and welfare of the society/institutions”. Leaders agonise to place their ambition in an institutional or societal framework and seek to legitimise questionable power arrangements as for the “larger good for the greater many”.


Even Abraham Lincoln on the eve of the voting on the “Abolition of Slavery bill” in 1864, did the devil’s deal- two senators had to be bought out to get the numbers, to rid the society of the slavery evil. When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi refused to do the deal with the devil- Partition Deal with Jinnah, his sishiyas had to side line him and do the deal without him, of course for the “larger good for the greater many”. We also call this pragmatism as opposed to the cussed idealism. 


In fact at the start of the 20th century one J. Pierpont Morgan set out to save America and probably the world, by herding the steel and railroad majors into a room and making them an offer they could not refuse. This he could do by forming the modern Triumvirate of the President of USA, The Congress and J.P.Morgan. This was not about JP. Morgan using power to further his ambition; it was saving the world. Can these acts of saving the world be accomplished without pooling power?  


However, if Jeff Bezoz and Jack Ma were to forge an save the world alliance to rid the world of an evil monopolist, by partnering with the politicians/regulators to tweak a few regulations, would we all not scream murder, as we did with Nitesh? The immoral deal!


The ultimate power pooling “Deal with the Devil” was done by the Devas, when they had to churn out the “Elixir” from the depths of the Ocean. They made the deal with the Aasuras and in the end cheated them. That is why I have the Samutra Manthan plaque, welcoming our participants at Kautilya, our Leadership development Centre. 


Let us first settle the debate. Achievement of one’s Leadership ambition is impossible without power pooling. In my book, ambition is the fuel and power is the engine that moves the vehicle called leadership, to its chosen destination. Where do values fit into this? I wish values were the map or the controls of the vehicle. I fortunately do not suffer from naiveté.  


The debate whether end justifies the means has been well and truly settled over the last 5000 years of civilised world. The Italian Prince Machiavelli boldly articulated the “End Justifies the means” proposition. Wikipidea refers to him as, “Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli an Italian Renaissance historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer. He has often been called the father of modern political science.”  Hence the values question for leadership is “How far can values be up-held in the exercise of leadership”. What is the righteous leadership choice?


The Gods themselves have answered it. For a noble end, a means which is less questionable and not entirely unquestionable is acceptable. Do you see the paradox in the very construction of the proposition? At least that is my understanding of what Krishna told Arjuna on that fateful day in Kurushetra! Or when Harry Trueman flagged off Enola Gay the B2 Bomber, to nuke Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 and followed it up to lay Nagasaki waste three days later. What did innocent civilians have to do with General Tojo’s madness? Harry Trueman is the saviour of the World! 


Don’t we all thump the table for pragmatism and mock at foolish idealism, when our ends have to be met! Why hold others to live up to onerous requirements, when we choose to be practical? 

Is it acceptable to use “influence” to get admission for my children in a prestigious educational institution?

Is it acceptable to arrange for a call to the hospital CEO to jump the queue and wrest a room or the OT booking for my father?

Is it acceptable to “get someone to lean on” a regulator or Government official to “Favourably” consider our proposal?

Is it acceptable to collaborate with few friendly competitors to neutralise the “extra-constitutional power” of “an unscrupulous” competitor?


All these are power pooling arrangements, righteous or not, I leave it to your judgment. I can go on and on, but will leave it to you to construct the many such pragmatic power pooling arrangements, we all indulge in, to achieve our many ambitions- leadership or other ambitions.


Unfortunately the field of leadership has evolved as a pragmatic one. “Duty drives the action” is what Krishna tells Arjuna; not very different to the 15th century thought from the much vilified Machiavelli.


This brings us to the question whether leadership ambition is and should be a personal one or for the society, institution etc. Take a step back and ask the question how can any ambition be rooted anywhere but inside a person? We can further build it and ask, for what purpose – personal or for the well-being of greater many. A personal ambition for an institutional end; Paradox again! But in any which case the well spring of ambition cannot be outside of a person; hence ambition is deeply personal. It is a motive. It is an emotion. It is the driver of risk taking. 


Charles asked me where “Courage” fits into this debate. Courage is your risk appetite. It is shaped by your ambition. It poses the question, what consequences are you willing to accept for adopting the means to achieve an end- personal or for the community. Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon, Gandhi when he was prepared to be isolated and be alone, J.P. Morgan when he was prepared for the spite of his peer Industry leaders and eventually that of Theodore Roosevelt and Nitesh when he accepted that he will lose his moral sheen; made this choice


Ambition, especially for leadership counts for nothing without power! If Ambition is the motive force that moves you; Power is the motive force with which you move others. In my sessions with those who seek to discover their leadership, we explore the limits of how much one’s own power will help each of us to achieve complex leadership outcomes. We after much debate invariably conclude that it has its limitations. 


Even popular and charismatic leaders like Julius Caesar and Narendra Modi have discovered that without power pooling, their leadership ambitions will come to a nought. Rajiv Gandhi realised that 400 MPs and Nehru dynastic pedigree did not give him the power to cleanse his own political party, despite his ambition for it. Power pooling is the force multiplier and in most instances the basic necessity for leveraging diverse resources. When viewed through this lens, it will become clear, why power pooling cannot be achieved without negotiation or what I call power trading. 


Hence power pooling will be still-born without trade-offs. Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill understood it well. Without engaging Hitler on a two front war and without the European toe hold (in 1943 Britain and USA did not have a toe hold in mainland Europe, Russia had), the war was lost. Hence they had to choose what to them was “the lesser evil- the good Devil” so to say. Paradox! Much like the Devas had to make the deal with the Aasuras for the elixir. In both the cases, eventually one party sought to establish their dominance after dealing with the pressing immediate issue. The Indian National Congress had to trade-off Gandhi and the concept of united India for accelerating India’s Independence – The greater good and the lesser evil had to be chosen. A Gandhian movement without Gandhi; Paradox!


Can we question Subash Chandra Bose credentials as the upholder of values such as freedom, right to life, humanism and equality? Yet Bose was prepared to make a deal with the arguably the 3 evil most regimes and people of the modern world: Mussolini, Hitler and Tojo. Quest for freedom from an imperialistic force with the alliance of the imperialists; Paradox!


Power and ideals trade-off is the central dilemma of leadership from legislative forums of governments to the board rooms. Whether the ambition is personal or institutional without power pooling and power trade-off, there is very little chance of it fructifying. This is where the “Dharma Sankhat” or “Values dilemma” is born. In the retrospect, when the dust has settled, it is easier to sit in judgment. But when in the fog of the battle, when your or your collective’s survival is at stake, it is difficult to make a call, which future would extoll as sacrifice for “upholding Values”. This is easy when we review or hold others to it, but near impossible when we have to live up to it. 


Why do leaders agonise to put a values spin on their power pooling arrangements, which we call alliances? Because all of us crave for legitimacy! Even Hitler justified racial supremacy and his German people concurred with him for a decade. Hitler can be dismissed as immoral and evil, but what will you say of the German people? They all cannot be mad; Paradox!


A just cause, a holy war, saving the world, preserving the culture, bringing economic well-being to all, jobs; all these are legitimate justifications, which we all citizens and ambitious human beings accept and give sanction to our leaders, to trade-off values, for the greater good of the greater many of us. 

Is Leadership the means for achieving personal ambition and can institutional ambition be independent of personal ambition?

Is power the means to leadership or is leadership the means to power?

How much of one’s ambition can be achieved with righteous use of power?

Can power pooling and power trading be done without compromising the values?

Should we believe that the “Good vs Bad” and the “Right or Wrong” kindergarten moral education defines our choice of power alliance and pursuit of leadership choices?

Finally are leaders to be guided by the noble ends or the right means?

This is then is the eternal Leadership Paradox, my friends. 


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