Good Governance | Speeches

The Role of a Leader in a Developing Country

Rotary International Inaugural Session

Cochin, India

September 18, 2009

I am deeply honoured to have been invited to deliver the keynote address at the Rotary Institute, 2009 session. I have had a long association with Rotary and its varied activities, mainly in my country and in India.

May I express my gratitude for the warm welcome and generous hospitality extended to me by Rotary, India - especially Rotary, Kerala. Thank you too, for giving me the opportunity to visit Kerala. Needless to say, that we are most impressed by the rich natural beauty and the warmth of its people.

Rotary has successfully implemented excellent programmes in our country. Sri Lanka is today polio free, thanks to the leadership given by Rotary. You have also played an active role in reconstruction of tsunami damaged infrastructure, in rebuilding 25 schools in my country.

I have had the privilege of addressing numerous Rotary gatherings in Sri Lanka and India, especially in the last few years since my retirement. Perhaps my friends, the Rotarians, believe that they should keep me constructively occupied, in order to keep me out of trouble!

I have talked to Rotarians on so many topics of current interest that I was at a loss to decide on the topic for today's meeting.

I am aware that the quasi-totality of the participants today are leaders in their relevant, chosen fields. Hence, it may be of interest to you that I speak of how I see The "Role of a Leader", in a developing country and share with you a few of my experiences as Leader in my numerous responsibilities in the past few decades.

In the course of our lives we encounter various types of leaders, good or bad. The good ones are those who possess a vision for a better tomorrow, not only for one's self, but for others - the group to which one belongs - a family, an enterprise, or as in politics- a State, a Nation or the entire world.

I would say a bad leader would be someone who does not strive towards accepted good moral, ethical and practical development, but primarily to better himself and may be his cronies, no matter whose interests are damaged. Such a leader does not usually adhere to the system of accepted societal values.

I propose to talk mainly about good leadership.

First, a leader must possess a framework for efficient action. This should consist of the following elements:-

A clear Vision which sets out the goals intended to be achieved
There must be a Plan of Action, formulated to achieve the goals. The Plan of Action could be called the Mission or Strategy
The plan has to be effectively implemented. For this a practical, tactical plan must be evolved
I dare say that all this must be based on a foundation of ethical values. For without this, Society would reject the leader sooner or later.

Secondly, leaders are expected to possess specific personal traits, attributes and behaviour. If I may mention some of these:-

Conviction in his/her stated goals,
Commitment to achieve them,
Confidence that he/she can do it,
Ability / Knowledge to develop the plan required to achieve the goal,
Credibility acquired when the above 04 factors are present.
A leader must be convinced of his Vision when others may have doubts about it. He must be committed totally to the challenges of realising his goals.

He cannot compromise on his vision, even though he can compromise for his vision. In other words, it is acceptable to compromise on tactics and be flexible to overcome obstacles along the path to achieving the final goal. But it would be most negative, if a leader begins to compromise on the principles of his Vision.
I believe that we are all capable of reaching great heights, when we see big and are confident that we can reach for the stars.

Mahatma Gandhi once said "The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would solve most of the world's problems". I think what the Great Mahatma tried to say was, that we are capable of achieving much more than we normally achieve.
I would like to talk to you about a few of my experiences as a Leader to illustrate my point.

There were times I was called upon to take difficult decisions, difficult because I was aware that such decisions would have far reaching consequences on an entire country. I wanted to be certain that I would take the right decision. For this, I needed to be well informed of the major factors related to the issue at hand. Hence an in depth study followed by an impartial analysis of issues had to be done by officials and experts. Then I would discuss the matter freely with the concerned persons and groups and arrive at my conclusions. Of course, my conclusions were always based on the moral and ethical fundamentals to which I have attempted to adhere all along my life. These were:-

The respect for basic human freedoms,
Honesty and transparency in all transactions,
Integrity and sincerity to the stated goals of my government,
I tried never to forget that the people were the masters, that we were only their agents, keeping their trust and operationalising their will.

I would like to give you a few examples of this:-

Corruption was rampant in Government at the time we took office in 1994. Most people believed that it could not be eradicated. I decided to adopt a 04 pronged strategy.
Firstly, to publicly and clearly denounce all forms of corruption and state that my government would act strongly against it

Secondly, we brought in stringent laws against bribery and corruption.

Thirdly, new systems, procedures and institutions (National Procurement Agency and Structural Enterprise Management Agency) were formulated and adopted to regulate functions of government, in order to minimize the possibilities of corruption.

Fourthly, we ensured that the laws, and systems and procedures were implemented effectively. For this I had to personally supervise and take a keen interest in these matters. There were times that I would send for files relating to tenders, on holidays or late evenings, when I had information that some irregularities were taking place. I would study them myself and take action.

In all of this it was crucial that I, as a Leader, behaved in an exemplary manner.

There were instances when people close to me were sent to me with offers of monetary gain. I had no difficulty in rejecting these "kindnesses". It is not to say that I did not need extra income, I resort to regularly selling off inherited assets to sustain my income. But, my upbringing and my commitment to honest governance gave me the strength to resist such temptations.

I must say that all this did have a positive effect to minimize corruption in my governments.

I would like to give you another example from my experience as a Leader which could be of interest to you.
At the time we took office, the burning issue was the violent civil war between the State and a separatist terrorist group, caused by a long unresolved question of the Tamil minority. For the first time, my government accepted publicly that there was a problem that needed to be resolved and that it could be done by means of dialogue between the antagonists, rather than by war. I was almost alone as a leader of the majority community, to have stated so in public.

But I had spent many years traveling from village to village, ascertaining the views of the majority people. I was convinced that the majority of the peoples preferred a peaceful solution to the violence of war. The problem was that no political leader had had the courage to express these views publicly. I decided that I would be the person who would do so. A vast majority of my Party leaders thought I was being foolish.

Yet, I had the strength of my commitment to democratic means of resolving the conflict, together with my knowledge of the views of the silent majority. I talked on every political and election platform of my views. I won resounding victories at 03 elections within a period of 1½ years, with record majorities that increased from one election to another.

With this I learnt a powerful and lasting lesson - that commitment to a just Mission, whatever may be the challenges, will eventually bring success. I was even willing to have the period of my Presidency reduced by one year, in order to call an early Presidential election, to ask the people for a mandate to resolve the ethnic question by instituting a new power sharing arrangement through a Constitutional amendment. The LTTE terrorist group who only wanted a separate State and not devolution of power, attempted to assassinate me at this time.

Even though I was seriously wounded, I persisted in inviting the LTTE terrorists to come to the negotiating table. It was not easy to resist the shrill calls of some in my government and other extremists outside, to undertake an all out military bashing in the North, where the LTTE lived and operated, without concern for the civilians who lived in those areas. My conviction of the justice of our Vision for the resolution of this conflict, gave me the strength to withstand all pressure.

One could ask what positive results did this strategy produce?

First we successfully weakened the terrorists and took back about 75% of the land area which they held under the previous governments.

Because of our commitment to Human Rights of the Tamil civilians, whilst fighting a war against terrorism, we were able to clean up the image of Sri Lanka, internationally. For the first time many governments of other countries agreed to ban the terrorist group. Sri Lanka obtained the highest ever amounts of foreign aid for development. This, together with an effective development plan gave us the impetus to undertake an accelerated development of the economy.

Per capita income and GNP doubled in less than 10 years.

Vast programmes of infrastructure development were undertaken etc:

Also largest amounts of foreign and local investments took place during this period.

Finally we successfully negotiated a 04 year long Ceasefire with the rebels. The economy grew significantly during this period.

Those of us here today are leaders at various levels in government institutions, private business enterprises, Non Governmental Organizations, and political organizations and so on. I have presented a couple of examples from my experiences, because I believe that they are relevant to any leader, including those such as you, from the private sector and voluntary organizations.

Role of Voluntary Organizations as Change Agents:-

Voluntary Organizations can play an essential role in a country's life. By definition they are apolitical and independent of political pressure and influence. Such organizations are often comprised of skilled professionals and experts, who by their very adherence to Voluntary Organizations demonstrate a commitment to betterment of society.

Voluntary Organizations can have positive action, in circumstances where political parties and even governments may be ineffective, because they are not allied to political groups.

They foster a sense of solidarity and citizenship, providing the essential underpinnings of democracy. There is no doubt that Voluntary Organizations make a profound and indispensable contribution to democratic life.

But of course, I must hasten to caution anyone who may believe that Voluntary Organizations can take over the functions of the Government and do it all by themselves. Voluntary Organizations cannot replace the State in its complex responsibilities of managing the affairs of a country. But the advent of globalization has certainly made it possible for Non Governmental Organizations to take over certain portions of the responsibilities of the Government in close collaboration with the latter.

When we attempt to transform our vision, our dreams into reality, we must formulate Action Plans. There are many factors that we have to take into consideration when doing so.

The prevailing socio-political and economic environment forms the basis of our daily lives. This is the foundation on which we construct and design our actions. The factors which impact upon the given socio-political and economic situation have to be studied and understood by us all, if we are to live our professional and even our private lives, successfully.

Let us now fast forward to the present moment. You and I both live under very similar circumstances in our respective countries. We need to be aware of the major factors and problems that impact on our societies and our Nations at the present moment. Time does not permit me to talk about them all. I shall attempt to underline the few which appear important to me.

Extreme poverty,
Violent conflict between different social groups living in our countries and the failure to weld a cohesive society out of the diverse communities,
Restriction of fundamental freedoms in some South Asian Nations,
Corruption in Government,
Inefficiency, stemming from blind adherence to worn out traditions, as well as nepotism and corruption.
As leaders, I strongly believe that none of us can say that these issues concern only the politicians and look the other way. They affect us all deeply. We must all commit ourselves to the task of changing the situation.

May I stress at this point, the importance of a functional democracy:-

At the present moment some of our countries are suffering painful and at times horrifying traumas stemming from the acts of oppressive regimes. We have seen a dangerous breakdown of accepted values and norms, resulting in the massive increase in crime, drugs and alcohol abuse, not to speak of the use of violence in the political arena in supposedly democratic States.

I wish to state emphatically, that I believe the major cause for all this could be the serious disintegration of democratic value systems, mainly among the political leaders and subsequently leaders at other levels.

We are aware that the fundamental freedoms of individuals is an essential pre-requisite for progress as well as a strong and stable society. The freedom to think, speak, write, to oppose that which one sees as wrong, are the germs of human creativity. If these freedoms are fettered, creativity and innovation in a given society will surely ebb away. The innovation and dynamism, which are required for increased production and economic development would be absent from such societies.

Hence the guarantee of fundamental freedoms is not only the vain dream of an idle bourgeoisie, but a necessity for modern development.

Democracy and Democratic Governance were born and nurtured by modern society,
not only because it was a beautiful concept, but also because the basic tenets of Democracy and its systems of freedoms are required for the functioning of a modern free market economy.

A Democratic State is founded on People's Power, as expressed by the free vote, freedom of thought and expression and freedom of action. This also means the freedom to oppose.

The weakening of the fundamentals of a Democratic State would cause unending whirlpools of destruction that will necessarily affect the efficient functioning of the other aspects of the State such as the economy, its ethical value systems. Finally it will lead to the collapse of the State as a functional entity.

For instance a capitalist or for that matter even a small farmer, living in fear, does not
invest money or effort. This would lead to a slowdown in economic activity and finally to the flight of capital to safer environs.

People in fear migrate to safer shores, made so much easier in our globalized world. This leads to a serious dearth of skilled and able professionals, managers and workers.

Terror perpetrated by various groups or by the State leads to an overall pall of depression and unwillingness to act, resulting in the loss of productivity in all sectors. A State that refuses to be democratic will refuse dialogue with its people and increasingly depend on a small coterie of "yes" - men and women, who are incapable of giving the State an effective vision or Action Programme.

Also the refusal of dialogue and intolerance of others views, especially if they are critical even in a constructive manner, leaves room for lack of dynamism, low productivity and inefficiency in government and private sectors as well as every type of dishonest and immoral conduct. This leads to corruption, intimidation and physical violence against anyone who dares to cross the paths of those in power.

Even the use of the free vote comes to be considered an act of hostility against the powerful. Oppression and suppression of those who do not agree on one hand, and shamelessly disseminated lies to propagate the myth that all is well on the other hand, begins to be considered the natural privileges of the powerful.

My experience during over 12 years of governance in Sri Lanka is that bridges could be built even across the sharpest divide and that dialogue and positive demonstration of goodwill, are the only means to resolve conflict in a durable manner. The modern communication revolution has brought the furthest point of the world to the feet of the smallest man, living in the remotest village. This gives dialogue the prime role in human communications. Do we still require weapons to resolve problems between people?

Voluntary organizations could do much to help in the process of educating, especially the young, to become good citizens. Innovative programmes could be designed in the educational and cultural spheres.

We live in a globalized society. Modern scientific and technological developments, together with the communications revolution, have made redundant, geographic, ethnic, religious and other barriers. They have also blurred the boundaries between the State, private sector and voluntary organizations. The latter have seen a remarkable blossoming of their activities. Free market systems have ushered in the dwindling of the scope of State activity, replacing these with the activities of private business and voluntary organizations.

So I would say that this is the moment for you, as Rotarians, to play an even more important role in your relevant societies, countries and the world to make the changes required, rendering our world a better place to live in.

Non-governmental voluntary organizations can and have played an essential role in changing societies. The Rotary is a great organization. You have a wide out-reach across the world. You can take up programmes to promote change in some of the areas I have talked of above. We know that your organization, as well as other similar ones, have successfully completed numerous projects in the fields of education, health, building infrastructure, skills training - faster and cheaper and in a more cost effective manner than the relevant governments would have done.

Take for instance the problem of Poverty. There is much the Non Governmental Organizations could do to alleviate poverty, by means of skills training and micro-credit for self employment

the provision of basic amenities, with the objective of improving livelihoods and so on.

Education and Health care is another area in which much has been done and can still be done by Non Governmental Organizations.

Then in the sphere of Conflict Resolution, Non Governmental Organizations could engage in projects to build understanding and social cohesion between diverse communities, without getting involved in the politics of the conflicts.

Voluntary organizations are well equipped by their independence from the State, to engage in promoting sound ethical values, especially among the youth.

The Rotary International has the necessary commitment and experience to do even more than the great projects you have undertaken in the past. Seize the opportunities with both hands and resolve to become the "Change Agents" our societies and Nations need so much at this hour.

I wish you continued success in your noble task.