Leadership: the gap between strategy and action; intention and execution

Marina Bay Sands and skyscrapers in Singapore's downtown Marina Bay area. Mr Lee Kuan Yew is often attributed as the founder of modern Singapore who vaulted his people from nothing to a global middle class. -- PHOTO: ST FILE 
Marina Bay Sands and skyscrapers in Singapore's downtown Marina Bay area. Mr Lee Kuan Yew is often attributed as the founder of modern Singapore who vaulted his people from nothing to a global middle class. -- PHOTO: ST FILE 

Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (later reproduced in The Straits Times on 4, April) refers to Asian Autocratic leaders who essentially said to their people 'we are going to take away your freedom, but we will give you the best education, infrastructure and export-led growth policies money can buy.'

He also refers to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew the founder/father of the Singapore nation as a moderniser who vaulted his people from nothing to a global middle class. The plan was simple- you give up your choice now for the longer term success as envisioned by the leader and eventually the country will be rewarded with a strong middle class and win more freedom.

Arab autocrats in comparison he said took away the freedom of their people and gave them the Arab- Israeli conflict instead to keep them distracted from local governance issues. Of course he does not talk about the Sheikhs of UAE who invested their oil induced wealth for longer term development that has made the local 700k Emiratis very rich indeed and the country is now posed to make a much bigger leap.

There is another country that he has not referred to with a rather unique kind of leadership that has at times been autocratic but has mostly pandered to the conflicting whims of the powerful electorate. That is India. This is a country where politicians have over the years mastered the process of playing on the religious and caste based sentiments of specific segments of the voting public by telling them exactly what they want to hear. Quite often this has led to compromising the long term development and future of the country.

K.Kesavapany in his article in Tabla of 3 April likens India's Prime-Minister Mr. Modi to Mr. Lee on the basis of many shared objectives. Mr Modi is a great believer in modernising the country, keeping it clean, build infrastructure, boost high end manufacturing, and improve the quality of people's living standards. On his recent visit to Singapore to pay his respects he described Mr. Lee as a source of inspiration, whose achievements and thoughts gave him confidence in the possibility of India's own transformation. This is what set me thinking in terms of how India is progressing and the challenges it faces compared to the more successful Asian countries.

I recall being in Beijing when the China Daily announced that the 2008 Summer Olympics would be held there. The very next day another news item appeared saying the local authorities had decided that all taxi drivers will need to start speaking English and that their licenses would be renewed only after they passed a simple test. This could never have been possible in India. The taxi drivers would have gone on strike, and the buses and rickshaws would also do the same in a show of support. Somebody would have got a stay order from court, the opposition parties would have rallied around and added to the mayhem by calling for a complete day of stand still, shops would close down, and the whole matter would have got completely out of hand. Utter chaos.

Mr Modi is now struggling to acquire land in many parts of the country to build the much needed infrastructure, like roads, bridges, dams, etc and the opposition parties have got an opportunity to whip up the public's emotions to fight against what is clearly in the best interest of the country. When Mr Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he saw the Tatas having a politically motivated problem with land acquisition in Bengal for their car manufacturing factory. In one day he was able to offer an alternative to the Tatas and the factory eventually got shifted to Gujarat.

As the PM now he is facing much bigger challenges that he finds hard to overcome. Further, his own party members and allies are busy trying to put a stop to the killing of cows that for so many years has represented the food of the relatively underprivileged and minority communities. The rape of women in the capital city of Delhi has made news all over the world and a BBC journalist added fuel to the fire by filming the anti- women sentiments of the un-repenting rapist. The Delhi based Mint daily produced a catalogue of events with dates showing the number of Churches that have been burned or attacked for no reason at all, right under his nose in the capital city and Mr. Modi has not been able to do anything about it. This has always been India's challenge- a story of two steps forward and one back, a land of permanent potential.

Salil Tripathi a journalist who used to be based in Singapore, recently wrote an article in an Indian daily where he presents the challenge of scale when it comes to running a country.

We have seen this in the case of Mr. Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat. He was a very pragmatic leader then, always doing what he saw was the best for his people, and executing all his plans within the committed timeframes. But in his new role as the PM we see him struggle to deliver on his promises, and we are hearing strong rumblings of disappointment even from many corporate leaders who are publicly expressing their frustration at the gap between intent and action.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had offered many suggestions to many ministers during his visits to India and during their visits to Singapore. Much nodding had taken place, many notes were taken, but nothing could be achieved. Prof Bob Kegan of Harvard asked me an interesting question "if 14 frogs are sitting on a log and three of them make a decision to jump off, how many frogs would be left on the log?" The answer he says is 14, because the three frogs have only made a decision to leap, they have not really acted out their intent.

There is much gap between strategy and implementation as the best CEOs would also attest to.

Leadership effectiveness depends on the ability of the leader to inspire action.

It is not always that the electorate knows what is good for them in the long term. Hence it is the duty of the leader to show them the way which Sun Tse refers to as Dao- The Way. David Ogilvy in his classic 'confessions of an ad man' refers to two Greek orators- when one of them speaks, people say "how well he speaks "but when the other spoke, they said " let us march against Rome". Getting the commitment of people inspired by the leader's vision produces the actions that bring the desired results.

In today's world we certainly need leaders who can command respect and galvanize their people to perform to their fullest potential.

Mr. Modi has found that on the larger stage he has not got the total support of his team and his cabinet ministers who are not walking the talk. One reason why LKY was as successful was because he had the total commitment of his team who themselves were extremely capable individuals in their own right. He was a highly visible and trusted public leader who was able to produce the confidence and the belief amongst his team who shared his optimism and were in turn able to fire up the imagination of the people.

The culture of the country also has a bearing on the leader's ability to get permission from the people to do what is right for them. I have lived in Russia for some years just after Perestroika and had the opportunity to converse with leaders like Gaidar, Chubais, and Luzhkov who have on many an occasion reminded me that Russians can only be governed by a leader who has an iron fist. Their concept of leadership revolved around a leader who was seen as decisive, bold and daring to do whatever it took to make the nation strong and powerful not only for them but also in the eyes of the world. Putin has proven that on more than one occasion.

India has a very fragmented and vociferous public with multiple agendas, and ideologies that presents a great challenge to any leader who has a long term perspective for progress. Several years ago I had asked a senior Cabinet Minister a question related to freeing up the Indian currency. He gave me a very honest answer- "how do you think we could do this without exposing our party from the risk of losing power?"

That is the approach of muddling through which never really produces the economic progress that the country needs.

There are times when the leadership needs to demonstrate deep conviction and the determination to overcome all opposition fearlessly without worrying about self-interest. Staying true to the vision and rallying everyone around it in-spite of short term challenges is the mark of a leader who knows the ultimate measure of success is the prosperity and well-being of the people.

Pratap Nambiar is the Executive Chairman of Thought Perfect Pte Ltd, a Singapore based coaching and mentoring organization that transforms leaders in the Asia Pacific Region