Compulsive Follies of Political Leadership

  • Here is a good analysis of behavior of political leaders by Talat Hussain. Well worth a read.

    Pakistan’s political progress can be likened to a rocking chair: moves much but doesn’t go anywhere. Most explanations of this state of perpetual stagnation centre on leadership. The popular, and to a great extent correct, belief is that leaders, both military and civilians, have brought the country to this impasse. If it wasn’t for their misdeeds we would have lived up to our huge potential and in more respects would have been dazzling in the comity of nations.

    But the critical question is this: why after nearly 70 years of experiments are leaders still seen conducting themselves in a fashion that is dangerously nonsensical, both for them and for the nation? Why does Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for instance, insist on governing with an incomplete cabinet, and refuses to loosen the hold of his family over the levers of power? Why is Imran Khan’s appetite for eating his words and undermining his party expanding with the passage of time rather than shrinking? Why does Asif Ali Zardari, sitting atop a growing heap of appalling corruption and ruinous governance in Sindh, persist with his traditional conduct, which is the cause of his party’s disintegration to begin with? Or why does Altaf Hussain not see how fast his past is catching up with him. And why does General (r) Pervez Musharraf, inspite of his service and political record, still believe he is a genius?

    The answer to this central query, which goes to the heart of the problem of leadership’s conduct and actions, lies in the pages of a book, in the lines of a column, in the layers of a national habit and, what’s more, in the depths of a desperate national situation that seems to have lifted the natural barrier against odd, abnormal behaviour by those in positions of influence.

    The book is by the twice-Pulitzer winning historian of immense intelligence, Barbara Tuchman, and it is appropriately titled ‘The March of Folly’. Meticulously, she presents case-study after case-study, from the battle of Troy to the war in Vietnam, of choices individuals and states exercised in total defiance of reason and self-interest. To her Folly (or Perversity) is fundamentally different from errors of judgement. A Folly or Perversity essentially means adopting a course of action that leads to misgovernment or disastrous consequences despite the fact that there was a perfectly sensible alternative available along with sound advice pointing to the right direction.

    She proves that “wooden-headedness” – refusal to benefit from experience or learning from mistakes and happily inflicting gross self-injury – is a trait that is “unrelated to type of regime: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy produce it equally.” Hubris, arrogance, ignorance, insecurity, rage, despair, lunacy, licentiousness and other such traits can get leaders to be married to failure even though they, by using common-sense and humility, could easily have won laurels saving their nations, countries, states and themselves humiliation, dishonour and some of the history’s harshest judgements.

    Pakistan’s leaders (though not the only ones in the world) are, to borrow her phrase, “ample in folly.”

    But why can’t leaders get out of the trance of Folly? Let us turn to the column – ‘Goodness and Power’. David Brooks, writing for the International New York Times, provides a perfect explanation that requires quoting him at length.

    “People who are dishonest, unkind and inconsiderate have trouble attracting and retaining good people to their team. They tend to have sleazy friends. They may be personally canny, but they are almost always surrounded by sycophants and second-raters….

    “Leaders who lack humility are fragile. Their pride is bloated and sensitive…They become consumed with resentments. They treat politics as battle, armor up and wall themselves off to information and feedback.

    “You may think they are championing your cause or agenda, but when the fur is flying, they are really only interested in defending themselves. They keep an enemies list and life becomes a matter of settling scores and imagining conspiracies…

    “It is a paradox of politics the people who set out obsessively to succeed in it usually end up sabotaging themselves. They treat each relationship as a transaction, and don’t generate loyalty. They lose any honest internal voice. After a while they can’t accurately perceive themselves or their situation. Sooner or later their Watergate will come.”

    This is universally-applicable. Essentially, Brooks’ main contention relates to practical or applied morality in politics, whose fundamentals, when ignored, set off a long-term degeneration of leadership values, eating up their capacity to think, act or speak straight. They remain married to Folly.

    In the more intelligent political or party systems, leaders are kept in check and their tendency to become inimical to themselves and the causes they preach is regulated by strong institutional frameworks. No sooner does a leader go off track than rules kick in to either rein him in or hold him accountable. This is how stupidity is isolated and its dark shadow removed from spreading over the whole order.

    This is where our problem becomes particularly striking: our systems are designed to protect leaders’ stupidities. There is a pervasive culture of tolerating exceptionally idiotic behaviour pattern at the top. Because everything centres on the personality of one man, or woman, crises generated by these individuals are embraced rather than critically examined. The higher you are, the bigger your licence to kill sanity at will. The more central your position is, the wider the field for you to indulge in bovine behaviour.

    This is our national tradition, but this is also our habit. We don’t want the ones we root for to be questioned and put in the dock for their deeds. Our preferred leadership model is not that of a giver, but of a taker. We seem to have a special liking for villainous streaks in characters we love and are very generous in accommodating deviant conduct as long as it is directed at our opponents. Nice, truthful, self-effacing – this does not do the trick for us. There is no high in it. It is boring.

    What has promoted this warped model of leaders (allowing them complete mandate to trash rules of sanity) is a new generation of support base. The youth bulge, while an attractive and promising prospect for the country’s future, has brought with it traits that directly clash with sober politics. High on emotion and frustration, addicted to text without understanding the context, trigger-happy and combative in expressing wild opinions the new entrants into the political mainstream demand action.

    They want things to be turned upside down in Die Hard 4 fashion. They want the political speedometer to move at a fast and furious pace. For them stability is another name for status quo; reform means delayed or postponed action that might never arrive; a sweet-sounding lie is better than a disorienting truth, and being misled is better than not being led at all. This generation has come out of the womb of shattered dreams and unrealised goals. It is desperate. It is angry. It is an ideal recruitment ground for anyone who does not want to play by the rules.

    The sense of restraint that societies build against ambitious and prone-to-folly leaders by threatening to deny them support and by withdrawing loyalty from them in case they persist with their insane actions has become very weak in today’s Pakistan. It is almost nonexistent. This is a country where leaders can do anything and get away with it. For them there is no premium on compulsion for being stable, sane and rational. Thus their march of follies continues – unhindered and on a dazzling daily display.

    The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.


    Twitter: @TalatHussain12

  • Nice share. Once started read thru the end. Thanks.

  • I agree with Talat lack of accountability is forcing our leadership, both civil and military, to repeat same mistakes over and over again.

  • Indeed a good write up, but unfortunately, Talat dint nail it. He mentioned symptoms but not the decease itself. His mourning for lack of leadership in Pakistan ignored factors and forces presenting 3rd class personalities and Pseudos as leaders to public and not providing condusive environment for genuine leaders to grow.

  • ignored factors and forces presenting 3rd class personalities and Pseudos as leaders to public

    2 GP bhai

    جی پی بھائی طلعت تو خود ایجنسیہ حرامیہ کا پٹھو ہے توانکانام کیسے لیگا--وہ انہی کا گیم تو کھیل رہاہے

    عوامی طاقت والے کسی لیڈر کو فوج اسلئِے آگے نہیں آنے دیتی کیونکہ مجیب الرحمان نے جو مارماری اسکے بعد انہیوں نے فیصلہ کرلیاکہ کسی عوامی لیڈر کو نہیں بخشنا--تمام کرپٹ لیڈروں کو الیکشن میں دھاندلی کرکے انہیں وزیراعظم اوروزیراعلی بنادیتے ہیں --نوازشریف سے لیکر عمران خان تک سب کی پیدائش وہیں کی ہے -یہ جیسے چاہتے ہیں اورجب چاہتے ہیں کسی کو وزیراعظم بنادیتے ہیں اورجب چاہیں دوتہائی اورتین تہائی اکثریت کو لات مارکر باہرپھینک دیتے ہیں ، اسلئیے کہ انہیں عوام میں انکی حیثیت پتہ ہے --جو عوامی ہیں انکے تو سیکٹر انچارج اوریونٹ انچارج کو بھی کہتے ہیں کہ دہشتگرد ہیں --اس عوامی طاقت سے انکی بری طرح سے بجتی ہے ---انہیں پتہ ہے کہ انکے اگردوسرے صوبوں سے پچاس ایم این اے بھی آگئے تو دمام مست قلندریوحائِگا

  • @Gulraiz Bhai

    You nailed it - couldn't agree more.

  • How do you balance good governance, responsibility, accountability and popularity in a patronage system? Any ideas.

  • @Parvez bhai

    Are you tasked to present the white paper to Sharif family to improve governance w/o breaking the close family net? Impossible Boss! In patronage system they can only retain popularity and that too because our people respect blood lines. You have to sacrifice governance, responsibility and accountability to keep the blood line intact.

  • @Shirazi, If society respects blood lines it becomes part of the system. Right now the PM is not that powerful after 18th amendment. If there are good people somewhere, they will shine. Give it time. Are you suggesting any revolutionary steps?

  • @Pervez Saab

    PM is weakened but not by 18th amendment but by GHQ backed PTI sit-ins. As far as revolution is concerned only I see only one direction, from Nawaz Sharif democracy to Raheel Sharif's revolution. And bravo Miyan saab blocked all those chances leaving Zardari behind in bending backwards.