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Stick before the carrot, cart before the horse

05 Dec 2021

It would be safe to say that Sri Lanka is on trial with the very future of the country at stake; yet, as Sri Lanka’s tailspin nose-dives into a vortex, the solution – leadership – seems increasingly yoked to political arm twisting, that is spreading across all levels of governance like a bad rash. The bottom line is that such a pervasive attitude that seems to colour virtually everything that the Government does, and which results in everything it touches turning to the very antithesis of King Midas’s touch, is dangerously counterproductive, not only because it backfires, as in the case of the 100% organic fertiliser policy with debilitating consequences, but also because such a mentality contains within its fertile soil the destructive seeds of both subservience and revolution. But how much of this can be blamed on leadership, more precisely, a malodorous brand of leadership, best exemplified by the British jurist John Austin’s command theory of law, in which law and policy are seen as commands, directives, instructions or orders from a sovereign, backed by sanctions or the threat of such, in this case, punitive sanctions. It seems that there is more than a fair share of those in the Government, including in the Executive and Legislative branches, who subscribe to this problematic school of political and legalistic thought. In equestrian parlance, not only has the Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa increasingly sought to place the cart before the horse, but even in the instances where the sequence has been properly ordered, it has all but forgotten the carrot, and is wielding only the stick. The Government is stuck in a shtick that is becoming only too unrealistic, as in the case of the Central Bank’s import restrictions and the proposed freezing of the bank accounts of those who distribute and receive money through unlawful money transmission methods, which affects remittance collection. It is exceedingly humourless, as in virtually every pronouncement by the Public Security Minister, and the since replaced literal bully pulpit style of diplomacy of the former Foreign Minister, and the ominous “kill a crow and hang a feather” appeal against Presidential and Governmental leniency by the Chief Government whip, and the President himself implying that officials who criticised aspects of or dissented from the 100% immediate organic agriculture policy were dishonest when he stated that he needed a team of honest officials to take his hurried policy forward and for those who could not fall in line to leave on their own volition. President Rajapaksa has his own “my way or the highway” method of doing things, which smacks more of garden variety authoritarianism. This has been seen in its increasing rejection by multi-sectoral professionals and technocrats who do not take to having freedoms and independence curtailed beyond a certain limit. Most dangerously, this governing with the stick approach has met its match in the governing by trade unions that has proven deft in wielding the hefty gait of collective bargaining as a potent weapon of bringing the Government to its knees, as was demonstrated by the teachers’ and principals’ unions, a feat the over one million strong public sector has sought to emulate with an approximately Rs. 20,000 salary hike via the Budget 2022. Dealing with trade unions requires strategic compromise and pragmatism based leadership. For British analytic philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell, “the fundamental cause of trouble in the modern world” was that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”. Why then are our elected leaders so unwilling to entertain criticism, at least those of the kind founded more upon the spirit of enquiry. The people who exercised their franchise neither sought nor elected a Government of enlightened men and women. They however, must have had, no matter how meagre, some lowly expectations. Where are, they may have queried, the antidotes to stupidity, the doubting Thomases? It seems that this rare open-minded breed are either relegated to the professional doldrums, or ignominiously targeted with canards such as in the case of the ex-Consumer Affairs Authority Executive Director turned whistleblower and preeminent thorn in the Government’s side. The Government by not understanding the tactical advantage of a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush is effectively making foes out of allies. Troubleshooting, which is a prominent part of the Governmental role, requires driven, purposeful, and mature leadership reliant upon negotiation and persuasion and give and take, rather than sophomoric blame games and dogged adherence to the doggerel of dogma.  It is therefore a pity indeed that the wise men of the Government have not sought to establish a Ministry of Human Resource Management. In its absence, perhaps a popular school’s anthem’s call to learn of books and learn of men and learn to play the game, with the emphasis on continued learning, could be the path to turning a new leaf in the direction of governance. During the ill-fated bid to conquer the South Pole, Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton, leading a group of marooned men afoot on floes with paltry supplies, surrounded by mother nature’s inhospitable bosom, and with no means of communicating with the rest of the world, let alone co-ordinate the organising of a rescue mission, was reduced to the most starkest of circumstances, with the most insurmountable question before him – how exactly was he going to accomplish the goal of his men’s survival. N. Koehn noted in her book Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times that even though the answer to the question was anything but clear, the most important part of the answer however, despite acute doubt in Shackleton’s own mind on the “how” factor, was clear as crystal to Shackleton. She wrote: “What Shackleton did know was that he was committed to bringing all his men home alive, and that he was willing to do whatever it took to accomplish this. In the midst of disaster, he had made a conscious choice to lead. He was all in (and most importantly)...whether or not he acknowledged his own culpability, he was prepared from the onset of the crisis to take full responsibility for the outcome of the enterprise.” Leadership is an attitude and Sri Lanka is in need of a sea change. The change is of humaneness in the exercise of authority in a nuanced manner.

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