National Law University, Jodhpur, India.
Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. are a few unforgettable leaders the world saw. So are Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Stalin. There must be something in the way one handles leadership which distinguishes the former group from the latter. Why is it that some leaders become immortal sources of inspiration, while others are remembered only for the sake of keeping historical records?
Leaders are chosen by the society to give it direction, to take it forward. In this way, leaders are entrusted with faith and enormous responsibility. The fate of any society depends greatly on the kind of leaders it has. Therefore, discussing what attributes one must possess in order to be a moral leader is of considerable importance.
To be a good leader, one needs ability and positive character. Out of the two, the second is probably more important. In his own assessment, Mahatma Gandhi considered himself “an average man of average abilities”. Yet, a diminutive figure, armed with an iron will, became the beloved leader of millions and led one of the most populous countries of the world to independence.
Leadership is invariably accompanied by authority. Sadly, many a time it is the authority associated with leadership which becomes the object of one’s desire for leadership. A moral leader, on the other hand, knows that the authority he holds is merely an instrument he is entrusted with in order to facilitate his higher responsibilities. His prime motivation behind occupying his position is not his lust for power, but service of others.
“If you want to test a man’s character, give him power”, goes a wise saying. How moral a leader one is can be adjudged to a great extent from the way he exercises his powers. There have been kings in the past who have spent all their resources in seeking to augment their frontiers. Also, there have been rulers who have used the advantages they held to lead their people to higher levels of spiritual and intellectual progress, instead of meaninglessly expanding their dominion to quench their thirst for power. Obviously, the latter qualify as moral leaders, while all that the former did was to squander away the opportunity they had to bring about a positive difference to the lives of those they led. To give an example from contemporary international relations, the powerful nations today are primarily concerned with broadening of their sphere of influence. Hardly any nation seems to think in terms of promoting welfare of all of humanity. Because power is being treated as a means to further selfish ends, our world is characterized by a moral vacuum at the global level. In this scenario, organizations such as United Nations, which espouse values of international cooperation to achieve some noble objectives, can be counted as moral leaders. However, still a lot remains to be done to turn leaders into moral leaders as far as the international community is concerned.
So, a very true indicator of how moral a leader is is the way he uses the authority he holds. As soon as the authority becomes the chief perk of leadership, as soon as the aim of leadership becomes to have more and more people under your influence, we can infer that the leadership is not moral.
A leader is often called upon to guide society out of difficult situations. The choices he makes at this juncture are once again an indicator of the moral content of his leadership. When confronted with difficult choices, a moral leader possess the capability to resist being populist. As an Indian, I am forced to once again refer to Mahatma Gandhi to illustrate my point. At the peak of the struggle for independence, the raging masses of the country were at risk of becoming militant. Mahatma Gandhi, however, prevailed upon his followers to stay non-violent, telling them that a non-violent struggle may take longer to achieve freedom, but making friends with an evil to get rid of another is inherently immoral. Years after its independence, India continues to be a country which espouses non-violence. Only because correct choices were made in the past does India sustain a resilient secular, inclusive and welfare-oriented social fabric today. Therefore, a moral leader bears the strength to not choose the easy way out of difficult circumstances. He holds certain basic values non-negotiable and as a result, yields his society greater benefits in the long run.
Another attribute of a moral leader is that he does not consider himself above others. Many succumb to a ‘higher-than-thou’ attitude no sooner than they attain a position of influence. Instead of seeing himself a superior, a leader considers himself the chief servant. Work and service are the paramount objectives of a moral leader. The privileges are subsidiary. The respect and recognition are merely by-products. What matters the most to a moral leader is whether his leadership is translating into welfare and progress of those he leads.
This brings me to probably the most important point – an upright leader need not have his leadership formally recognized. He knows that it is not just business executives or political authorities who lead and shape the society. It is in everyone’s means to inspire others. A teacher instilling virtues in his students, a parent sowing seeds of nobility in his children or a worker inspiring his fellows with his diligence – all are leaders in their own way. Therefore, moral leadership eventually boils down to executing one’s own task with utmost sincerity and honesty.
Each one of us has a set of individuals who look up to us. Leadership, in its broadest sense, is all about setting the right example, which others may emulate. In this way, a leader creates more leaders. He acts as the lighted candle which bears the potential to light thousands of other candles.
To conclude, I would like to quote John Quincy Admas, whose words succinctly and beautifully capture the essence of moral leadership:
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are leader.”