Leadership, crisis, opportunity

Published June 17, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

PAKISTAN today is at an inflection point. It faces unparalleled challenges in an environment of political polarisation, economic fragility and institutional decay. The polycrisis it confronts involves multiple overlapping crises — governance, economic, political, security and human development. All of them are converging to reinforce each other and create an overall challenge more formidable than any single crisis. This at a time when national self-confidence is at a new low. Successive public opinion polls have found a dispirited nation lacking much hope in the future. An Ipsos survey in May found 82 per cent of people felt the country was heading in the wrong direction.

True, Pakistan has weathered many storms in the past and rebounded from crisis. Its underlying resilience has enabled it to overcome its troubles of the time. But present-day challenges are fundamentally different as they are the cumulative consequence of decades of misgovernance and squandered opportunities. Solving these problems can no longer be postponed. In fact, the country is already paying the price of postponed reforms, especially economic reforms, to deal with structural issues, which lie at the root of its perennial financial crises. All these challenges have to be addressed if Pakistan is to move forward and embark on a path of economic development and political stability to meet the needs and aspirations of its people.

The polycrisis today has resulted from and reflects the persisting gap between challenge and response, between rule and governance and between power and purpose. Successive governments have simply muddled through without a plan or strategy to deal with long-standing problems. The overarching missing element over the years has been leadership because wielding power doesn’t make for leadership. Nor is a manager a leader; managers uphold the status quo while leaders are standard bearers and agents of change. This distinction between a leader and manager has long been made and discussed in debate on this issue.

What then is leadership? What are those essential qualities in a political leader that can enable him or her to shape the environment, unite people and lead a country to transformation and change? It is above all a vision that can capture the public imagination, inspire the people and chart a way that goes beyond the moment to what is possible in the future. A vision is what makes for transformational leadership, which is needed in challenging times. Leadership is also strength of character, commitment to ethical practices and setting an exemplary standard of integrity. It is about building institutions and learning from the past, not living in it.

The gap persists between challenge and response and between rule and governance.

Leadership involves fashioning a strategy to execute a vision, and then staying on course to achieve that. Visionary leaders set a clear direction, confidently embark on that path, are willing to take risks and are unafraid of the opposition they inevitably face from vested interests and entrenched elites. Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s leadership embodied these qualities and serves as an example of how leaders can change history. But most of the country’s leaders who came after the Quaid were both uninspired and uninspiring. That has also been Pakistan’s more recent experience.

Effective leadership not only requires setting out a vision about the future but also a strategy to implement it and forging a national consensus to support it. Evaluated against this criterion, it is apparent many of the country’s ‘leaders’ have fallen short of this test. Politics here has long been about power, privilege, patronage and vanquishing opponents rather than offering a coherent programme of policy actions. Slogans there have been aplenty but platitudes have substituted for policy and rhetoric for solutions.

Leadership in government also means executing a strategy by placing the right people in the right positions. Only by assembling a competent team can a vision be translated into reality. Pakistan’s experience over the years shows that factors other than merit and competence were given more importance. A personalised approach to team-building took precedence over considerations of expertise or competence. The premium was on proximity to the ‘boss’ and other ‘connections’, not on who was qualified to get the job done.

A third ingredient of leadership is the ability to motivate and inspire people to support the government’s policy goals. This involves connecting to citizens, understanding what they want and winning their confidence. It also means communicating effectively to influence and shape public opinion. The answer to the question whether the country’s leaders are able to do this is obvious. The paradox that defines the country today is that leaders are elected to public office but without the vision or means to enthuse and unite the country.

Looking at the experience of countries that have faced economic crisis but used it as an opportunity to bounce back stronger and more resilient, the distinguishing factor that made this possible was the quality of leadership. Success depended on leaders who ran a competent government that was committed to structural reforms and had the motivation, political will and credibility to take measures that were painful in the near-term but yielded rich and enduring dividends in the long run.

Countries that achieved such an economic turnaround, for example in Southeast Asia and Latin America, all deployed capable teams of professionals who assisted their governments to craft and implement reforms. This enabled the country to navigate through the crisis towards sustained recovery and growth. In every successful case of a country that took the path to a better economic future, the quality of professionals who shaped and oversaw the reform process was significant. But again, it was the leadership that chose the right team and then guided and inspired them to deliver.

In his thoughtful book, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, the late Henry Kissinger wrote that “Without leadership institutions drift and nations court growing irrelevance and ultimately, disaster.” Leaders who Kissinger deemed to have provided strategic leadership were all bold, courageous, decisive and had a powerful vision and strong sense of reality. They did not hesitate to court controversy or take on entrenched interests. That he regarded as “the price of making history”. Do we in Pakistan have leaders who can forge history and extricate the country from its polycrisis?

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2024

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