Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ruthlessness, Compassion and Leadership

Many years back, I came across a quote on Leadership which has stuck with me.  It said, to the effect, that the prime ingredient in a leader is ruthlessness.  That sometimes decisions need to be made which end up hurting someone or the other, and someone without the requisite thick skin will get too stressed over that decision.

Consider the role of a military general who knows that there will be casualties, including civilian deaths, in his campaign.  A more humane fellow will act like the emperor Ashoka and give up warfare altogether instead of hurting even a single soul.  Someone like Rommel or Patton will not bat an eyelid and plunge into the bloodbath.

Consider the role of a CEO who has to trim the workforce to remain profitable, and has to therefore dismiss many deserving employees.

Consider the role of a criminal judge, who has to sentence a guilty accused to years of suffering despite seeing tears of remorse on his/her face.

On a much smaller scale, consider a parent who cannot bear to see an infant crying but immediately gives in to its every demand and whim.  A stronger-nerved, less sentimental parent is a more successful parent.

A young person who leaves home in his twenties and enters the "big bad world" quickly learns that sensitivity, transparency and empathy that are the hallmarks of family life and of very small groups is a handicap when it comes to managing large groups and worldly success.

I am guessing that not only does a large group make it impractical for the leader to empathize with everybody, that even if he could, it would be a bad idea for his own psychological health.  He would feel paralyzed, guilty, and regretful at having chosen a course of action which caused suffering for some, even if it was the optimal decision under the circumstances.  His persona would quickly get shattered under this sustained stress of big-decision-making.

This might be considered controversial, but the preponderance of the nurturing and empathetic instincts in the human female might mean that she, as a generalization, has less capability to be ruthless in a sustained manner.

Moreover, I think that the Indian psyche, in particular, is predominantly sentimental, Machiavellian and feminine, unable to take harsh decisions and engage in direct conflict.  Instead of hurting someone else and confronting an injustice, we would much rather bear our pain silently.  Revenge and curative measures, rather than preemptive aggression, seems to run in Indian culture.

The greatest leader we have had in the last century was a man who was deeply religious and peace-loving (even if only as a show), considered meat-eating and sexual intercourse as sins, and whose main tactic was to arouse sympathy and consensus by starving himself.  Is this trait in our culture one of the factors in present India's alarming lack of strong leaders?

Universal compassion, wanting not to hurt anybody at all, giving everybody a chance, and so on, is an un-leader-like trait.  Nature rewards the ambitious and the competitive: just reflect on the fact that the fastest sperm wins the battle for fertilization.

Good leaders try not to make too many enemies, and "manage" the episodes which are painful to others by careful messaging and a show of some (perhaps genuine) empathy.

What do you think?


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Harman, there is an interesting article in same line which is true in any case.
I personally see a leader one who not only take a tough decision but also take responsibility/ accountability of people who suffers (not a guilty one) .Rather calling Ruthlessness as one important trait for leadership i would say a determined mind with vision who can foresee impact of his decision on others lives in long-term and know when to be tough and when to show compassion. One who knows that current suffering is needed for long term benefits of people/society/ Human. otherwise , ruthlessness will become trait of dictators not leaders.
Many famous leaders are known for strong characters/ decisions whenever needed and equally being compassionate for their people.

Anonymous said...

Situation is the mother of leaders. If there was no British occupation of India tere wud be no Gandhi. The scene in the world at that time with WWII etc happening was such that the Brits realized their colonization game was up and they needed to exit honorably while saving their face. Gandhi was a way for them to do this. So the Brits allowed Gandhi to happen. It is a two way street - Brits needed Gandhi as much as Gandhi needed the Brits. Leaders can happen only when there is this clapping with two hands. When the situation ceases to exist - the leader ceases to exist too. That is why most leaders make sure that the situation that creates them is kept alive as long as possible, otherwise once a situation is resolved there is no need for a leader. Immaterial whehter one does it with a show of compassion or ruthlessness. So India's biggest problem today is corruption/poverty/lack of ethics and morals. If this situation were to give rise to a leader who will lead the fight against it he will make sure that the situation that created him will remain forever so he can still be a leader. That is exactly what politicians/Gurus do in India to retain power.
So it is a big bogus to claim a leader resolved a situation. Hardly matters if they put up a show of compassion or ruthlessness.

Life like this and World like that said...

I think (maybe naively) a leader is one who knows his "why". Why is he doing what he is doing. When that why is really Crystal clear in his mind, I do not think the method matters. Gandhi, Martin Luther king, Nelson Mandela. People I do not think associate with the person or the method but the "goal" or "why" and if someone has a clear vision they go along with him making him a leader.

Anonymous said...

A woman who is ruthless is much more ruthless than a man could ever be. Durga,Kali,Indira Gandhi,Bandarnaike,Queen Victoria/Elizabeth I, Rani Laxmibai.... Even Mother Nature when she is ruthless makes a man feel puny and helpless. So be thankful if women choose not to bring out that ruthless Power within them.

Life like this and World like that said... is also a good watch.

Sridhar said...

Leadership is a complicated thing. Leaders can be highly effective with disastrous consequences (Hitler). To what end effective Leadership is used, matters.

I also find that obsequiousness, sycophancy, and group-think among followers seem to be part of the package with strong leaders. As a Libertarian, I want a society of strong and independent individuals, as opposed to Leaders and blind followers. By definition, a Leader and a follower is a totalitarian concept.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no anarchist, but I think the more we focus on ideas versus leaders, the better. In India of course, the reality is that too many look up to too few, be they quack god-men, politicians, or any other authority figure.

Anonymous said...

Even if Gandhi was never born- the British would have left India because it was time to leave. Even if Hitler was never born atrocities against Jews would have happened because at that time Germany was a nation humiliated and poor and Jews were made a scapegoat.
The issues or situation that gave rise to these men was far bigger than the men. But when the situations are unpleasant - people want to forget the situation and remember the men.
The reasons why India became enslaved by the British exist even today.The reasons why Germany became poor and weak exist even today. No one wants to address that. Instead they would rather blame someone or make someone great. Let us not forget that WWII happened which is why all these great leaders - Churchill,Mountbatten,Gandhi,Hitler got a role to play. The good thing that came out of WWII was that colonization came to an end.

Anonymous said...

Great pointers for a good leader!

kumar said...

I always wonder how can a sensitive person live in this ruthless world?