Mukesh Kapila

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Experimenting with leadership: trials and tribulations

November 2011 - www.ifrc.org

Dr Mukesh Kapila, Under Secretary General, National Society and Knowledge Development, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

Address at The University of Manchester, 1 November 2011

Vice Chancellor, dear colleagues and colleagues

Ever since your earliest origins in the early part of the 19th century, as a globally-renowned centre for learning in this great city, you have produced many leaders who have brought, in the words of your motto. "knowledge, wisdom, humanity" to an ever changing and ever-challenged world. They have discovered and invented things, founded whole disciplines of science and technology, spawned politicians, won Nobel prizes, stood up for human rights and fought against human wrongs. All these leaders have shaped the world of today, and you continue to produce the leaders of today and tomorrow.V

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is honoured to establish the partnership with you that we have just agreed.

But... what goes on inside the head of a leader?

This question of what qualities distinguish a leader has intrigued us for millennia. Some of humanity's greatest writings spanning many cultures, such as Sun Tzu's State of War written in the China of 6th century BC and Plato's Republic from 4th century BC Greece have pondered on this subject.

The philosophical writings of the 19th century such as Carlyle's classic on Heroes and Hero Worship favoured the notion that "leaders are born and not bred". However, the increasingly egalitarian and experimental 20th century saw a veritable explosion of writings on organisational theory and practice, typified by Max Weber and Peter Drucker, the father of modern management. This swung opinion towards the view that leadership was a skill that could be learnt.

Most recently - last year - the latest in science and technology was mobilised to settle the "nature versus nurture" debate. Experts from the Henley Business School teamed up with psychologists and neuroscientists to scan the brain of a well known leader. The leader was said to be much relieved when the scanner duly confirmed the presence of his brain. But, beyond that, we must await the results of a bigger brain scanning programme. The researchers are eager to hear from anyone who has pretensions - or delusions - of grand leadership!

More seriously, what may we usefully say here on the question of leadership. Goodness know... our fractured world needs good leadership as never before. I want to reflect on this from my personal experience and not by management textbook theory. Hence the title of my talk - the trials and tribulations of leadership.

Although the organisational and social textbooks are full of leadership definitions, style theories, and characteristics, the fact that that is the case leads one to suspect that there is no straightforward formula to leadership. But each of us knows it when we are the beneficiaries of good leadership or the victims of bad leadership.

All that we may say with certainty is that a leader is someone who acquires followers. We may go on to say that a leader is defined by his or her followers. We may develop this yet further by postulating that followers get the leaders they deserve. Perhaps more studies on followership could unravel some of the mysteries of leadership by asking: why do otherwise reasonable people lose their sensibilities and get manipulated by some of the "crazy" leaders that the world throws up only too frequently?

Let me elucidate further. A great deal of my professional life has been spent in crisis-affected countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Sierra Leone. As a senior official of the British government, one had privileged exposure to leaders there - for example the senior ideologues of the Taliban in Afghanistan or the extremist politicians of Republika Serbska or the blood-thirsty Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. It was clear from personal interactions with them that these were very smart people with huge personal charm, convincing logic, and persuasive appeal. And as a trained physician with some psychological skill in judging normal human behaviour, one could say that they could not all be excused away by being labelled as "mad". But they were definitely "bad" by any civilised standard of values.

It was also tragically evident that the communities that suffered there were ripe for the malevolent leaders that were spawned from amidst them. A key reason for that was they had no stake in their own future and the pervasive sense of hopelessness made them vulnerable to the blandishments of anyone that brought them a vision or a future prospect - however distorted.

History teaches us that even once contented and prosperous followers can become complacent and lose vigilance. Their carelessness can lead to whole nations losing their way: we could say that that was the case in Pol Pot's Cambodia or Idi Amin's Uganda.

On 27 January each year, we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day - anniversary of the day in 1945 when the Nazi concentration camps were liberated after millions had been killed by the evil charisma of Hitler. Leadership theory identifies charismatic leadership as a key leadership style. Apart from Hitler, some of the most charismatic leaders of the last century were Mussolini, Mao and Stalin. As were Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela.

So, charisma can work both ways - for good and for not-so-good, and even for very bad. However, the good charismatics were born from the bad situation they were in: would there have been a Gandhi if there was no colonialism to resist? Would a Martin Luther King be needed if there had been no civil indignities to confront? Would Mandela have embarked on "his long walk to freedom" if there had been no odious apartheid?

In short: is it necessary for evil to first flourish for goodness to emerge? Perhaps prevention would be better than cure. Hence the importance of community development... so as to build robust, well informed communities to "inoculate" otherwise gullible people to resist dangerous leadership.

These are communities of individuals able to judge what is right and wrong for themselves: we might say that that is the ultimate goal of human development. We might also call this building-up good followership from the bottom-up so that they can hold their leaders to account. Conventionally, this is known as democracy-building, and voluntarism is one of the best trainings in democratic involvement. That is why I am so privileged to work now with the Red Cross Red Crescent - the greatest of all voluntary movements.

Let me turn to some specific things I have learnt about leadership - through many trials and errors. It has certainly not been a straight journey.

My professional career started in public health in the UK and specifically in the early struggle against HIV and AIDS in the 1980s. At that time, there was limited knowledge and no treatment. But we knew what to do to prevent spread and we knew who we must mobilise to do so effectively. So I witnessed the courage of these earliest of AIDS victims who I learnt to dignify as "people living with HIV". I learnt that prostitutes were "sex workers" with as much professionalism as many another occupation. I came to admire the commitment of gay men who were to be called "men who have sex with men" and I learnt that drug addiction was a health condition and that it was self-defeating to criminalise the person so suffering. Associating with these representatives of the underbelly of the-then very conservative Britain was not to be recommended as advancing the career of an up-and-coming government official. But something of the leadership shown by the people most affected by the epidemic rubbed off on me, and we set out to confront furious social and bureaucratic prejudice.

The only weapon at our disposal was the evidence of public health science. Would that be enough? It was a proud moment to hear Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who had famously said that it was not her government's job to enter British bedrooms announce in Parliament the creation of the country's first National AIDS Programme. Shortly afterwards, despite having acquired an early reputation for being a somewhat maverick civil servant, I was nominated as its first Deputy Director and then asked, by the World Health Organisation to host, in London, the first World Summit of Ministers on HIV prevention and control.

My boss paid a price for this grudgingly accepted radicalism and had to leave. But I learnt an early lesson about leadership. To adapt Henry Kissinger's words: it is about getting people from where they are to where they have not been or indeed where they don't necessarily want to go. Perhaps that is why I am proud to now work with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the 186 National Societies of which came together recently to adopt a collective new Strategy 2020 with the ambition "to save lives, to change minds".

My next lesson came from my time in the UK Government Department for International Development (DFID) where I set up and headed the new Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs function with the arrival of Tony Blair's first administration in 1997. My boss was the indomitable Clare Short, the first Secretary of State (Cabinet Minister) for International Development.

My first task was to contribute thinking on what we then called the "new humanitarianism" at the heart of which was not just the traditional notion of relief provision in crises but to be proactive in tackling the underlying causes of conflict and disaster through mobilising all other policy instruments as necessary, such as political, diplomatic, economic, and military pressure.

Today the concept of risk reduction is well accepted. A decade ago that was not the case, and an early test came in the shape of the contradiction in the Labourite British Government's new "ethical foreign policy" whereby the UK was both the world's third largest arms exporter as well as the world's third largest bilateral aid giver. Thus started the internal policy struggle between competing interests ultimately resolved through a concession to my department to be given the right to review the appropriateness of all licences to export arms to the lesser developed countries which were also in receipt of British aid. Clare Short ultimately paid a political price. But I learnt another lesson in leadership. As said by Thomas Jefferson: in matters of style, swim with the current: in matters of principle, stand like a rock. Perhaps that is also why I continue for now in the Red Cross Red Crescent whose bedrock fundamental principles are a sustaining inspiration despite the many challenges of our imperfect world.

My third lesson came from my time with the United Nations, one assignment of which was as special adviser to the then High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

The task given to me was to review the field operations of human rights which spanned, for example, Cambodia, Burundi, and Central America. The background challenge was that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was a Geneva-based policy entity while the requirements of modern human rights protection needed strong field presences. The main obstacle to this was bureaucratic i.e. administrative and personnel procedures that made it difficult to operate effectively and efficiently on the ground.

Sergio was not known for his patience with the nitty gritty aspects of UN management reform but my recommendations eventually made it, with his strong support, to the UN General Assembly agreeing a major reshaping of the human rights machinery. I learnt a valuable lesson: the manager asks 'how' and 'when', the leader asks 'what' and 'why' (Warren Benns).

Sergio was subsequently assassinated when the UN headquarters was attacked in Baghdad. As fate would have it, I had - just a few week previously -declined his offer to continue working close to him in Iraq as his special adviser. So I was spared to learn another lesson.

The fourth lesson also came from my next assignment with the United Nations, this time as the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator - or the head of the UN system as a whole - in the Sudan. My appointment was sold to me as providing the chance to preside over the anticipated peace in Africa's largest country blighted by the continent's longest running conflict that had generated the world's largest number of displaced and refugees, and spawned the UN's biggest humanitarian operation. My first job was to get embroiled with gusto into bringing the divergent self-interests of the different UN agencies "under my coordination" to make the United Nations system fit to lead the peace.

That dream was shattered by the emergence of the 21st century's first genocide - in Darfur. I had also witnessed at close hand, as a mid ranking official, the 20th century's last genocide in Rwanda when we had sworn "never again" - and here it was happening again, this time "on my patch". I was challenged on many fronts simultaneously: the internal UN battles, member state politics, the safety and well-being of my staff at the shadowy frontlines of this new conflict, and intense heat from my host government. Was there some crafty way to negotiate these pressures?

The answer came one afternoon when a young Darfuri woman clamoured her way past all the bureaucratic obstacles and physical security that surrounded me to recount in painful detail how she was raped along with other women and girls by many militia and soldiers in front of all their families. In her courage to find her way 1000 burning kilometres across from Darfur to say what she had to say, I discovered, with absolute and crystal cold clarity, where my duty lay:

If the world's governments would not listen to Darfur's agony, I would take the case directly to the world's peoples through the only means left after exhausting all diplomatic channels: the global media. And so it came to pass that slightly short of the tenth anniversary of Rwanda's genocide, Darfur leapt into the headlines across the world. Complacent governments and a feeble-minded United Nations were shamed into action. Too late - as the worst of the ethnic cleansing was over by then. But better late than never. For me also it was too late. My potentially promising UN career also died in the bloody sands of Darfur.

The Darfur story is now well known. For me, I learnt a painful lesson, as elegantly stated by Peter Drucker: management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

So, here are my four key lessons learnt across nearly four decades of a professional life that has, on more than one occasion taken some un-asked for turns and twists. I am still learning, I hope, in the spirit of John F Kennedy who said that "leadership and learning are indispensable to each other". You know this a centre of learning.

However, it must be said that my learning often tries the patience and endurance of my boss - Bekele Geleta - in my current role in our beloved Red Cross Red Crescent. He is himself a visionary leader whose own struggles to come to head the world's largest humanitarian and development network have not been straightforward. In searching for an apt quotation to capture his leadership style, one might go with Eric Hoffer who said that "the leader has to be practical and a realist, yet must talk the language of the visionary and the idealist."

In concluding, let me revert to my own four earlier hard learnt lessons. Cross- cutting them are three insights:

  • First, leadership comes at a price. In my four personal examples, one leader got killed and three were delicately eased or roughly pushed out of their roles.
  • Second, though leadership training courses are much in vogue nowadays, would they have helped me in Darfur - my ultimate test? One has a sneaking sympathy with Antony Jay's observation that "the only real training for leadership is leadership itself".
  • Third, I still don't know if leaders are "born or bred". Suffice to say that if one did not set out consciously to be a leader, one found leadership thrust upon one by circumstances and especially by witnessing the uncompromising courage and trust of others be they those with HIV and AIDS, or be they conviction politicians, unconventional bureaucrats, or the survivors of extreme violence... Perhaps the great poet Lord Byron was right when he said ."..And when we think we lead, we are most led".

Leaders, therefore, are everywhere - in the most surprising of places and they emerge in the most trying of circumstances. This is my challenge to the collaboration we have just signed between the IFRC and the University of Manchester. As we journey along that partnership, our work together must constantly challenge and innovate to "find the leader" that is lurking somewhere in all of us, that we need so much for the sorely troubled world we live in.

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