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Calling for tenders to govern Sri Lanka

by Somaweera Sirisinghe, New Zealand

(This article appeared in The Island -19 March 2005)


The pioneer banker and business leader Rienzie Wijetilleke's extra-ordinary statement in last week's Sunday Island is a reflection of the exasperation noticeable in every level of Sri Lankan society. The enragement caused by the failure of successive national leaders to steer the country out of the present morass is manifested in the widely held belief that Sri Lanka lacks leaders of the calibre of Lee Kuan Yew or Nelson Mandela.

Hailing from the business sector where quick decision-making is needed to protect the shareholder value, he cannot be faulted for suggesting the "out-sourcing" of the governing of the country to a foreign consultant on a five-to-ten year management contract. Otherwise the entity would soon become a failed enterprise and end up in the hands of a "corporate raider" who would use draconian measures to turn around the company and dispose it after pocketing out the quick profit!

Wijetilleke's outpouring is based on commonly held criteria of evaluation of leaders. The lack of inspirational leadership at a time when the nation is facing dual calamities -man-made and natural is one of them. He quotes wartime leader Churchill as well as more recent leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Nelson Mandela who played the inspirational leaders role well and steered their countries away from disaster.

Perhaps Wijetilleke may have had, in the back of his mind, fairness and straight forwardness of conduct with uprightness in character and refusal to deceive (Honesty), firm adherence to a code of moral value that implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility (Integrity) and tried and proven honesty or integrity (Probity) as other criteria. When you are selecting a Chief Executive Officer or a Consultant for a company you could easily look for these attributes from the track records of a contender.

The sad truth is that the qualities and attributes of political leaders are determined in a totally different way. Academics say that leadership is highly contextual. "What leaders know, do, and say depends on the situation in which they operate" - Philip Heymann. This is particularly true in political leadership.

There needs to be a fit between the characteristics of the individual and the specific situation to bring out positive leadership outcomes. Churchill is known to have achieved success during the crisis time of World War II but in his earlier political career he showed only mediocre results. Hence "out-sourcing" leadership does not guarantee positive results. In the context of Wijetilleke's statement it is interesting to look at some comments made by Lee Kuan Yew at the Conversations on Leadership sponsored by Harvard Centre for Public Leadership a few years ago.

These quotations are from the official website. He is reported to have said " No one picked me out as a leader. It just happened in the process of natural elimination. Or as the communists used to tell us, they emerge through struggle. If you didn't have it, you got melted in the crucible".

Lee who was elected eight terms as the Prime Minister of Singapore referring to his experience in leading an anti-colonial struggle is reported to have reminisced " The skills required to be a leader in an anti-colonial struggle are simple: enormous charisma and exuberance, and you've got to command the trust and belief of your followers that you're going to give them a better life. And most of them say, 'Look at all those fine big houses and big white farms. Now that we are in charge, you will have those.' That's what I did, too. I said,`A0 'Look at all those big offices and stores. They're all British and we're in charge. You will be running those big stores.' By the time I got in charge-we started in 1950, we got in office in 1959, and so in nine learning years we knew that wasn't true. We did a quiet U-turn. I said, of course, if you get rid of them too quickly, there'll be an empty store. Better go slow and make sure of this, that, and the other. If we hadn't done that and we chased the British out, we would have collapsed."

Although Wijetilleke is correctly reflecting the current mood and the widely felt frustration about Sri Lanka's leadership from both sides of the divide, his solution is out of place and out of time.



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