Disappearing Role Models, Crisis of Nations and the Urgency of ‘Socially ConsciousLeadership’


This would have been early eighties,then as a public servant in Bangladesh I visited a district called Kushtiato inspect progress of implementation of development projects. At that time I was working at the central monitoring organization of the government of Bangladesh.

Upon arrival in Kushtia after I met the concerned officials to discuss my project inspection itinerary the officials told me that as most local officials were attending a farewell function of a retiring headmaster of a schoolwho is much loved whether I could reschedule my visit on another day. Instead they suggested I attend the farewell party of the headmaster who I was told happened to be a very special person in the sense that after obtaining an MA degree in English literature from the Calcutta University (this was before India/Pakistan partition in 1947) he returned to his village in what is now Bangladesh to the local school where he served first as an assistant teacher and later, as its headmaster for the forty years. I did attend the farewell meeting and I am glad that I did, for the retiring headmaster’s farewell speech left an indelible impression on me.

Disappearing Role Models

To this day every time I recall his speech I ponder what a truthfully worrying message he gave us all that day. He said, “It was my good fortune (kismat) that Allah gave me the opportunity to serve this school. Over the years, I have produced many magistrates, engineers, doctors etc. and I am proud of what I had accomplished, but as I retire I am also quite saddened”. He said, “I am saddened because I recall when I was a child my father used to tell me, my son when you grow up be like philanthropistHaji Mohsin or like Swami Vivekananda, ChittaRanjan Das or Ishwar Chandra ViddhyaSagar etc. etc. I tried my best to conduct myself following the examples of these noble beings and when my son was growing up I told him be like Gandhi, Nehru, Dr.Ambedkar, Jinnah, Sher-e-Bangla A. K. FazlulHuq etc. etc.” Then he added, “But what worries me these days is that as my son’s son, my grandson is growing up we have no contemporary role model to project to him. Even his text books do not mention any of the genuine heroes that are worth following, unquestionably, not of the present nor of the by-gone days” and he continued, “ Furthermore, what he sees around him on a daily basis and in TV etc. at the public domain are anything but morally uplifting and this is worrying. Not having role models to follow and be inspired by is the saddest thing that can happen to a people and a society, it is like being a blind person not knowing where to put the feet and hands on.”

Crisis of Nations

Indeed, when Ilook around and see the Trumps, Modis and Netanyahuof the world that have made hatredthe core capital of their political enterprises where Jefferson sound like a joke, where Gandhi is an irritation and where the concept of neighbourly peaceful and fair cohabitation is an abhorrent idea. Indeed, we are nations marching to the dungeon of moral decayfor we have none to guide us to ‘put the feet and hands’ at the right place.

A number of reasons seem to have contributed to thisemerging crisis ofleadership. Many argue that the principal reason for the rise of morally degradedself-seeking leadership patternis due to the rise of neoliberalism, a global economic system that is corporate drivenand is consumerist/materialistin contentwhich is also iniquitousand most importantly, a system that is invited and facilitated by the state meaning that leaders are eitherpart or product of the system.Indeed, neoliberalism has changed our world viewsso drastically that these days in the name of growth all we are promoting is a set of maximum/minimum: at one side, maximum of greed, maximum of need, maximum of consumption, maximum of work, maximum of exploitation, maximum of profit and maximum of production and at the other, minimum of rights, minimum of ethics, minimum of accountability and minimum of conservation. The result has been that we weglorify the superfluous and celebrate waste and prioritize self over collective.  Indeed the cobweb of maximum/minimum is devouring the very foundation of our societies.

Thus time has come for us to say enough is enough. We must all unite against this dangerous trend and cut lose the tentacles of evil that have entrapped if not enslaved usespecially by re-invocating morally nourishing leadership lessons.

‘Socially Conscious Leadership’ Values

A recent United Nations study (2008 World Public Sector Report, “People Matter: Civic Engagement in Public Governance”)[2]reveals thatamong other things changes of fundamental typesoccur through leadership especially those that are socially conscious. Calling them ‘Socially Conscious leaders’ (SCL) – leaders that demonstrate sensitivities to social ills, take actions sometime at personal risks and promote changes that transform societies and in doing so they harness positive emotions of people and mobilize them to contribute to the goals of social justice, equity and sustainability collectively –the report suggests that societies that have had SCLs and have followed them, promoted inclusiveness and produced outcomes that are equitable, fair and just.

Few contemporary examples of SCLs are worth flagging–the 4th king of Bhutan HisMajesty Jigme SingyeWangchuck, whose radical thoughts  of ‘Gross National Happiness’that prioritizes environment sustainability and spirituality where economic growth (GDP) is to complement and not contradict these values is a ground shifting notion to the way we pursue and measure ‘development’ that in some way may have also influenced conceptualization and formulation of the UN adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that prioritize people, society and environment over the economy;José ‘Pepe’ Mujica who was until recently the President of Uruguay someone who never stayed in the presidential palace but in his wife’s small farmarguingthat presidential palaces, red carpets, flagged cars etc. are all colonial legacies that separate the ruler from the ruled must not be the norm in a democratic polity,has set up a new standard for all democratically elected leaders to follow so that they“live like the majority [the poor and the disadvantaged whose votes elect them] and not like the minority [the rich and the privileged]”; Pierre Trudeau, the former Prime Minister of Canada, the father of Justin Trudeau, the current PM rejectedthe idea of mono-identity for Canada which ismulti-ethnic multi-religious stressedand instead suggested that, “what…we must continue to cherish are not concepts of uniformity but human values: compassion, love and understanding” – that provided the policy parameters Canada’s national identity which over the years has evolved as one of the culturally most inclusive and humane societies in the world;  Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus whose genuine empathy with the poor contributed to an intellectual shift in conceptualising poverty in anon-conventional way and his introduction of microcredit and ‘social business’ as remedy for poverty reduction that exploitsstrength of the poor and their weaknesses helped them to overcome the constrains of structural inequities in a self-empowering peaceful market friendly manner and move out of poverty with dignity; and finally, Late Mayor Jesse Robredo, 5- times elected Mayor of Naga City, Philippines and later a cabinet member of Benigno Aquino III, who died in a plane crash in August 2012 introduced the notion of ” improved stakeholdership” through incorporation of direct citizen participation in city governance that allocated 25% of council seats to poor’s representatives, transformed what used to be one of Philippines’ most dysfunctional cityto one among the “Most Improved Cities in Asia.”

These are high profile role modelsand their examples and works have indeed been inspirational and transformational. But make no mistake, there is a socially conscious leader just around the corner, waiting to be recognized and to emulate. Take for example the case of Ms. Shrestha Thakur, a junior police officer in Bulandshar, UP, India whoagainst the counsel of the ruling political authorityrecentlyjailed five local ruling party leaders for traffic offences for which she was unceremoniously transferred to a remote district as punishment. What she said in response to her unwarranted transfer is truly inspirational and at the same time, forward looking. Shrestha said that it did not matter that she was transferred because, “Lamp spreads its light wherever it goes, it does not have an address”.

Indeed, what we need to do is harness these examples of SCLs so that the light of their inspiring lessons is spread everywhere to recreate socially conscious values among all our citizens to help re-building our societies that are vastly and rapidly degenerating!

 Professor M. Adil Khan is a Professor of Development Practice at the University of Queensland, Australia and a former Senior Policy Manager of the United Nations. This paper is an abridged and an amended version of a paper presented by the author at the ‘Exploring Leadership and Learning Theories in Asia’ Conference at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok, Thailand, 25-27 July, 2017

[2] The report is a work of several years of research right around the globe which the author led and he is also the principal author of it.


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