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Ambassador’s blog: Global Leadership in 2020

I was invited to participate at a panel discussion at the Global Leadership Summit organized by the Meridian International Center on 12 October, 2012 in Washington DC. I spoke at the Ambassador’s panel on “What a Good Global Leader (and Citizen) Looks Like in 2020”. I thought I should share the text of my remarks here: 

“Leadership involves certain constants regardless of the era or time zone in which we are placed. Human beings are not very different from each other regardless of the languages they speak or the cultures they belong to.

Of course, the scale and extent of the challenges that humankind faces today is of a different order from even fifty years ago. When I was growing up in Bangalore, we would never have imagined the evil of suicide terrorism, or the rise of Al Qaeda. Today we have leaders and leaders. Leaders who advocate hate and violence have a larger following across the planet than ever before. Good leadership and good leaders have to develop effective strategies to overcome and vanquish this opposition, and the fear, ignorance and the alienation that fuels violence and terror.

It has been said before, and I would like to repeat it here, there has never been greater need for an equal representation of women in positions of leadership and responsibility in government, in parliaments, in business, in the non-profits and NGOs, and in academics. It’s a fifty-fifty representation we must aspire for. That should be the mission for our century.

Everybody recognizes the need for inspirational leadership. The word charisma is also a natural attachment to this definition. To be inspirational and charismatic means more than just inspiring with words and flights of eloquence. It is about walking the talk and moving people to walk alongside you, as Mahatma Gandhi did when he defied the might of the British Raj in India, when he led thousands of people to march to the seashores to harvest salt and defy the pernicious salt laws.

In 2020, the revolution of rising expectations in the developing world is going to define the character of our times. The youth demographic in countries like India is going to acquire overriding importance. The demand for better education, for jobs and livelihoods, for equality and inclusion and better opportunities, will be topmost on the people’s agenda in all our democracies. Our leaders will have to listen and read the faces well.  They will have to be leaders who deliver. The people will ask for no less.

If our people, especially our young, have to be global citizens with open, searching minds, we must have leaders with a global outlook. Leaders who value diversity, leaders who are sensitive to the needs of minorities, who propagate the importance of education, the protection of the environment, sustainability and conservation, the need for a civil society that is tolerant and not divisive, who promote inclusiveness and who eschew narrow and religiously intolerant agendas.

Leaders in our century will also have to be, as they have been through history, better and better communicators. They will have to embrace the power of social media, and understand the need for instant response and setting the tone and getting the message right so people are not misled by wrong and motivated messaging from vested interests and groups who wish to cause social unrest.

Leaders also will need to be ever more sensitive and comprehending of the voices of the people. They will have to be able to develop the ear and the capacity to grasp and absorb the mood of their citizens, to be able to respond to their legitimate demands and obviate a deterioration of morale and confidence that often leads to social chaos and violent confrontation between the state and the people.

Leaders have to possess not only intelligence but also good instinct. They must expend their energy and their time wisely and with a sense of balance. They must walk the middle path, they must be focused but also have peripheral vision, they must be structured and methodical, that they must always be authentic because people are wise and they see through you.

Finally leaders must get their content right. And they must be able to explain that content to the people, listen to their responses, and be responsive, not aloof or distant. They must know what their people think.  They must inspire trust.

And most of all, leaders must have not only a vision for the people. They must believe in that vision, they should embody that vision through irreproachable conduct, ethical behavior, and incorruptible practice.  They must not be chauvinistic, vengeful or nepotistic. They must provide moral and political leadership. They must be passionate for passion inspires, it is contagious!

What leaders need today and in time to come is a portal to the thoughts of the community, of the people. A leader is born when he or she recognizes the import of an issue that faces a group of people, that affects them, and that change is desperately needed with sustainable action and thoughtful planning.

The Arab spring showed us that we are all born leaders. Ordinary young people with access to information can inspire people’s movements and revolutions. We are witnessing the true democratization of leadership. It is no longer exclusive or hierarchical. We are in the age of a true people’s leadership and the consequences of that will dictate the history of our times.”