Seventy-five years after Independence a managerial perspective | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Seventy-five years after Independence a managerial perspective

5 February, 2023

I am delighted to write my one hundred and fiftieth column on Strategic Strides. It is indeed a challenging task to write on a weekly basis despite my personal and professional commitments. I must confess that I never felt writing as a torture but always as a treasure. Being here or overseas, being well or ill did not deter me from quitting from my column. Today it is all about regaining independence from a managerial perspective. 


We, as a nation, celebrated our seventy-five years of regaining independence yesterday. It was Peter Drucker who said that there are no good or bad institutions but well-managed or ill-managed institutions. I believe that it is equally applicable to countries.

Has Sri Lanka been a “well-managed” country during the past seventy years? It prompts another question. Are we really independent in a truly holistic sense? I think it is an opportune time to reflect on relevant managerial thoughts.

It reminds me of the great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore’s (1861 – 1941) beautifully composed poem, titled, “Let my country awake”. 

Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

I believe the relevance of the above to Sri Lanka is immense. It is worthwhile to reflect how “independent” Sri Lanka is in the context of the continuing crisis . In essence, it is a search to see the level of presence of Tagore’s “heaven of freedom” in multiple dimensions. 

Rhetoric and reality 

What is obvious is that we gained our independence from the British in 1948. Has it been a real transformation of power to locals or a mere replacement of British rules with Sri Lankans under the Dominion status? Did we have “statesmen” as opposed to politicians with a strategic vision as to where the country should be directed to?

Did we align our actions to a set of strategic priorities such as agriculture and industry growth? There are more questions  than  answers. Having become  a republic in 1972 and moving beyond to have  an executive presidency under  a new constitution, Sri Lanka moved ahead but certainly with a multitude of teething challenges.

Did we see the continuation of pragmatic decisions of a  previous regime  by an incoming regime or   the opposite? When Singapore wanted to be  like Sri Lanka, and when they surpassed us in style, we were crawling with the bleeding wounds of political blunders. Where  were planning, organising, leading, and controlling? The harsh reality emerges. 

The crushing of terrorism and re-establishing civil rule  around the country heralded a new  era of opportunities for much needed national  reconciliation. Absence of war  versus   the  presence  of lasting peace  are  paradoxically different in the Sri Lankan context. We are yet to reach consensus on the way to rule the country with the  best possible governance structure.  The way  Nelson Mandela created a “rainbow nation” with black, white and brown communities living in harmony is a guiding example in front of us. 

The much publicised bond scam and associated wrong doings highlighted the need to have better  financial discipline. It also exposed the ugly head of corruption which has been a regular phenomenon in the  administrative system of the  country. As we sadly saw in the  Meethotamulla mayhem, mismanagement overpowered management on many fronts. The frustrating fuel shortages that crippled us last year highlighted the absence of proactiveness.  Ethnic and religious tensions also have added  fuel to the fire where social harmony is concerned. In essence, we see the need for a holistic approach towards  national  prosperity with right decisions and actions. 

From Independence to interdependence 

“Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being. Without inter-relation with society, he cannot realise his oneness with the universe or suppress his egotism. His social interdependence enables him to test his faith and to prove himself on the touchstone of reality.” That’s how Mahatma Gandhi viewed interdependence. 

Moving from independence to interdependence is not moving back to “dependence”. It is much deeper and delightful. Interdependence is important to individuals, interactive teams, institutions, industries and independent nations.

The primary aspect in interdependence is synergy. Stephen Covey, in his bestseller “seven habits of highly effective people”, describes synergy as follows: “Synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It shows that the relationship, which the parts have to each other, is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but also the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.”  Synergy we see in nature is associated with the complex term symbiosis. It is close and often long-term interaction between two or more different biological species. In other words, a close prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may benefit each member. 

In 1877, Albert Bernhard Frank used the word symbiosis to describe the mutualistic relationship in lichens. It is also described as the living together of two dissimilar organisms, as in mutualism, commensalism, or parasitism.  The term, “symbiotic relationship” is often used in the area of sociology. The word symbiosis has first been used to describe people living together in a community.  It is, in fact, a true adaptation from the biological meaning of “living together unlike organisms”. 

Leading towards interdependence 

It is worthy to  mention  the  most vital need of leadership at  multiple  fronts in taking the country  forward. Leaders, by default, should be performers. They should practise what they preach. They should inspire, influence, and instruct in such a manner to initiate result-oriented action. In contrast, laggards are passengers. They hamper progress by being lazy and lethargic.

Indecisiveness resulting in inaction is often common in their approach.  Do we see more leaders or laggards? The answer lies in the results they achieve. Let me focus more on the business managers and public administrators leaving politicians aside. It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. Living with leaders and laggards leaves us with fewer choices for achievement.

Leaders have to be far more effective to overcome the ineffectiveness of laggards. My preferred choice is the servant leader, in engaging laggards or even transforming them.

The nation needs more servant leaders who see  their role  as an obligation to serve others. They  should also  possess  required  competence and confidence. This offers fresh insights about our traditional leadership hierarchy. Instead of looking up to see how your boss is doing, you should look in front to see whether your customers are delighted or not.  

Subservient laggards do the contrary. It is frustrating at times to see them in abundance in offices that are supposed to serve people. Seeking personal glory instead of serving the public has become a painful experience for many. Living with leaders and laggards is not comfortable. Yet, it is the reality. Transforming laggards to leaders is not so easy but essential. Recognising and rewarding true leaders is one key step towards sending a clear message to laggards. Leadership development at all levels needs fresh thinking and focused action. The often quoted maxim echoes in my mind. “Those who serve deserve leadership.”

Empathy in high demand 

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 leaders and 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 and more empathic leaders as opposed to much dominant psychopathic laggards.

Way forward

On one  hand, the Sri Lankan corporate sector needs such interdependence more than any other time in converting the declined economic growth to a more holistic, transparent, and inclusive one in being more ethical and effective.

That is how  it should be  playing the  role  of the  “engine of growth”. On the other hand, the public sector, as  the “driver” of that engine, should be playing the role of a facilitator. Here  is  another  vital need for  inter-dependence involving public and  private sectors.

As Aristotle said a long time ago, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” This applies to interdependence very much.

It all should begin with the right positive attitude towards prosperity. Becoming  “an enriched country” can  only  be  possible  with proper management at all fronts. There is no better time to reflect on interdependence than now, where we celebrate seventy five years of independence.