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The difference between good leaders and great leaders

By Ismail Kassim

Lately, I have been thinking about the nature of political leadership.

What is the difference, I ask myself, between good leaders and great leaders and between the former and those regarded as average, ‘’Ok, can-do or so-so’’ leaders?

I think we can all agree that good leaders are good managers. They are relatively hard-working, efficient, and to some extent, able to deliver the promised material goods to the people.

Great leaders, on the other hand, need not necessarily be good at managing, but they have a grand vision and the ability to inspire their people towards a common goal.

They are leaders who are ready to sacrifice their lives for a cause they believe in. They become great only after emerging victorious after a struggle against great odds.

History is replete with such great leaders: Mao, Nehru, Uncle Ho, Thatcher, Reagan, Mandela, Deng Xiaoping and our very own LKY. I will also put Mahathir and Putin, despite their shortcomings, in the same category.

In short, the underlying common factor is struggle. It is only through a tough battle that a leader can stamp his authority and forge group cohesion and solidarity around him. There is no other way.

Camaraderie cannot arise in the absence of a battle against deadly opponents and certainly not through devious means to achieve victory without fighting.

How about good leaders who lived in stable, post-revolutionary times? Is there any hope of them becoming great?

Of course – lots of hopes. One way is to create your own challenges through manipulating the internal or external landscape.

Abe, I think, is on the way to greatness if his efforts to remould the Japanese mind after the traumas of WW2 succeed. Duterte and Modi too have a chance if they could last the distance in their valiant goal to reshape their nations.

So good leaders can become great, but if they are not careful they can also be downgraded one rung down to the level of the ‘’so-so’’ leaders.

Badawi is a fine example of a leader considered good initially but later downgraded. He had great dreams and goals, but he could not control the greedy warlords and also the religious misogynists in and out of his party. Under their combined onslaught, his vision evaporated into thin air.

Cameron, after winning a second term, was on the road to greatness, but then he stumbled badly over the Brexit issue. After his defeat in the referendum and subsequent resignation, history will put him under the ‘’so-so’’ category.

Other leaders who are currently classified as good will also meet the same fate as Cameron if they mishandle or spurn the challenges facing them.

Actually, leaders who have to face tough but winnable challenges during their rule should consider themselves lucky. They do not have to manufacture a crisis. All they need is to brace themselves and rally their good-minded people to battle.

But if they take the soft or easy option, shifting the goalpost and disqualifying their opponents through dubious constitutional manoeuvres, then they risk slipping from good to the ‘’so-so’’ category.

Such ‘’so-so’’ leaders, of course, can still console themselves. At least they are one rung above the bottom group of rotten leaders; the corrupt who steal their people’s money to feed their family frenzied overseas shopping sprees and bribe or buy political support from friends and foes alike.

There are so many of these rotten apples, near and far, that I don’t think it is necessary for me to mention any by name. Readers should not have any problems in identifying at least some of them.

What, if in the process of dodging a fight, a good leader makes a monumental blunder, an error of judgement, with grave consequences for his people in the coming years?

Will he just be demoted to ‘’so-so’’ or kick down two rungs to join the rotten lot?

I will let history make that call.

spurns greatness
falls from good to rotten
ah! what a fate

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