True leadership in turbulent times | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

True leadership in turbulent times

26 June, 2022

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Living with leaders and laggards leaves us a smaller number of choices for achievement. Leaders must be far more effective to overcome the ineffectiveness of laggards"

We are in the middle of a  socio-economic turbulence that demands right leadership to ensure proper management on all fronts. It is sad to observe the dire need and the dearth of it in critical positions. We see a mix of “empathic leaders” and “psychopathic laggards”. The former may bring clarity to the scene while the latter may create chaos. Their nature and features are worth exploring in the context of the current crisis. Today’s column is an attempt to do so.


The typical dictionary describes a turbulence as something disorderly or confused, not calm, or controlled. It relates to an irregular flow of things. Peter Drucker, in his seminal book titled, “Managing in Turbulent Times” states that, a time of turbulence is a dangerous time, but its greatest danger is a temptation to deny reality. We see this very often with the fuel or the power crisis where contradictory statements are often made. 

Drucker refers to a collision that takes place in the human mind. According to him, the greatest and most dangerous turbulence today results from the collision between the delusions of the decision makers, whether in governments, in the top management of businesses, or in union leadership, and the realities. In other words, there is a gap between the reality as it is and how it is perceived, the way people want. It points to the fact that human beings typically resist change.

Yet, as Buddha said a long time ago, the only permanent thing in the world is change. What we experience today is a rapidly accelerated change on all fronts, resulting in change, change and more change.

Empathy vs psychopathy

Empathy is high in demand. It goes much beyond sympathy. It simply highlights the need to understand the thoughts and emotions of others, by way of “getting into their shoes.” Stephen Covey of much acclaimed “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” fame, states that “when you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it; that’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

He has devoted the fifth habit in his seven habits to empathy, in mentioning the need of “seeking first to understand, then to be understood.” It has a high relevance to listening where he advocates the virtues of “empathic listening.”

Psychopathy in contrast is simply the absence of empathy. It involves being manipulative with one-sided decisions with callous respect to their implications on others. It might turn to being anti-social and even criminal causing much harm to others. A psychopath is someone who demonstrates psychopathy in action. Anna Salter, an American psychologist observes that “despite the psychopath’s lack of conscience and lack of empathy for others, he is inevitably better at fooling people than any other type of offender.”

We have discussed the presence of leaders and laggards many times. Leaders should be performers, in practicing what they preach. They inspire, influence, and initiate in such a manner to instill result-oriented action.

In contrast, laggards are passengers. They hamper progress by being lazy, lousy, and lethargic. Indecisiveness resulting in inaction is often common in their approach. Ironically, we see empathic leaders and psychopathic laggards in key positions having wide implications to society. It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Living with leaders and laggards leaves us a smaller number of choices for achievement. Leaders must be far more effective to overcome the ineffectiveness of laggards.

Ecstatic features of empathic leaders

It is interesting to note the versatility of empathic leaders in being “caring, sharing and daring.” I attempted to adapt from Roman Krznaric, who wrote on “six habits of highly empathic people.” The relevance of those to Sri Lankan business leaders is in focus.

1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers

It all begins with curiosity in a positive sense. Empathic leaders will have no hesitation in talking to strangers. It is a way of retaining the natural inquisitiveness we all had as children, despite the societal trend of ignoring it. As the historian Studs Terkel advises, “don’t be an examiner, be the interested inquirer.” Being curious, Sri Lankan managers can be more innovative in interactively engaging in new initiatives.

2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities

We are famous for labelling others, mostly in a negative manner. “Tamil terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism,” “Sinhalese chauvinism” are some of the common terms, sadly to note. Empathic leaders challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they can do to unite people rather than dividing them. This is a thorny issue with many nations where opportunistic politicians thrive on chaos.

3. Experience another way of living

It reminds me what late Prof. Nandasena Rathanpala did in becoming a beggar to write a research-based book on ‘Beggars in Sri Lanka’. There is a Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticise him.” It is good for empathic leaders to experience the hardships and discomforts of the average person before taking decisions that are harmful to them. The ready excuse of “taking unpopular decisions for long-term well-being” could be a lame excuse for not doing the fundamentals right.

4. Listen hard — and open up

We are gifted with two ears and one mouth to listen more and speak less. Strangely, we mostly tend to do the opposite. Empathic listening involves looking from the speaker’s frame of view then being one-sided with one’s own frame. “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” so said Stephen Covey. I have heard many times; how powerful people call others for meetings and keep on talking for the entire duration without listening to others’ views. Empathic leaders have mastered how to grasp others’ emotional state and needs, be it an issue involving either the professional front or the personal front.

5. Inspire mass action and social change

This is how empathy becomes a potent force in awakening the collective consciousness. One global example could be the massive movements against slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. We saw the power of such a move in the aftermath of Tsunami and of course during current pandemic times.

6. Develop an ambitious imagination

Empathic leaders go the extra mile with a helping hand to the needy as a key outcome of empathy. Being creative in handling complex problems towards “win-win” solutions. On a global scale, rather than merely campaigning against global warming, understanding the challenges the industry leaders face in shifting towards less-polluting modes, would be the needed empathic response. In Sri Lanka too, the debacle of “rushed” organic farming or debate on renewable vs. fossil fuels for power generation should be better handled with much needed empathy.

Pathetic features of psychopathic laggards

While empathic leaders tend to caringly contribute, psychopathic laggards demonstrate a pathetic display. Preston C. Ni writing to Psychology Today magazine highlights the features of those who “consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others.” I attempted to adapt from him in describing six features of psychopathic laggards.

1. Frequent lying and manipulation

We have often heard the statement that “if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth.” Psychopathic laggards in their desire to demonstrate power, will resort to distortions and deceptions, in the typical blame game. Manipulation can be a way of mustering the mussels to cover the incompetence. Strangely, in such cases, solid evidence is ignored and dismissed with contempt.

2. Lack of morality and rule breaking

Psychopathic laggards are convinced that “rules are meant to be broken and that is the way to win.” The win for them is not necessarily a win for a wider society, well being is the issue here. The typical approach of “might is right” is not uncommon in most regions in the world. Being humane could be branded as a sign of weakness, in showing a sheer lack of morality. Needless to demonstrate Sri Lankan examples any further.

3. Showing a false superiority

A key term associated here is “Narcissism.” It is the extreme self-involvement to the degree that it makes a person ignore the needs of those around them. Psychopathic laggards often demonstrate it in harming and insulting others’ dignity. They may exploit people for their selfish gains with the society in jeopardy. Being “better” than others will drive them to be nasty and harsh, in winning “either hook or by crook.”

4. Gaslighting and bullying

‘Gaslighting’ is a psychological term used to describe a form of persistent brainwashing resulting in someone doubting oneself and ultimately losing one’s own identity. Bullying is seeking to harm others through forceful means. Psychopathic laggards may demonstrate both of this in their family, workplace, and society fronts. It may lead to “psychological violence” in affecting others and damaging their self-worth.

5. Lack of repentance with flimsy excuses 

Even with “daylight robberies,” not showing any regret or remorse is one adamant feature of psychopathic laggards. Finding scapegoats for their own errors is one frequent act they demonstrate. Attempting to draw sympathy from others, showing themselves as victims of others action could be a trick they often use.

6. Exploiting situations indifferently

Psychopathic laggards know how to treat some and mistreat others in ruthlessly picking their favourites. Targets of such indifferent treatments can occur based on factors such as gender, class, race, sexual orientation, and social status. This social division results in viewing some as human and others as objects, commodities, and less human. The maturity of standing on moral foundations in accepting people as they are and treating them as they deserve is acutely lacking here.

Way forward

Empathy can be viewed as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” We have seen the presence and absence of it with both empathic leaders and psychopathic laggards in action. During the turbulent times that we are traumatically going through, empathic leaders are much in demand.

As we have often observed, the needed leadership should be holistic, humble, and humane. As Oprah Winfrey stated, “Leadership is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” Mother Sri Lanka needs more empathic leaders as opposed to the much dominant psychopathic laggards.