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Karu Jayasuriya

"There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands."

So said Plato in his Republic where he advocated a philosopher ruler of advanced years. The only person I can think of at present who fits Plato’s idea is Karu Jayasuriya whose age, which some say is a handicap, is actually a positive. He has leadership qualities that modern students and writers consider necessary for a person to successfully lead a nation. He also proved his mettle during the October 2018 government fiasco.

The battle is on for the election of the President of Sri Lanka, with all parties announcing their presidential candidates, and the UNP today. With the clamour of events announcing contenders in the upcoming battle circulating all over our land, I picked up an outdated  New Yorker and  very fortuitously came across an article on leadership – most relevant at present. Written by Joshua Rothman as a critique of the literature on the subject, he quotes many books about leadership and leaders. The article is in The Critics section of the New Yorker of 29 February 2016, titled Shut up and sit down: why the leadership industry rules"


The concept of leadership has been debated about and pronounced from Plato (428-348 BC ) to Confucius (351-479 BC) and poets of the Bhagavad Gita (Circa 5/3 centuries BC) to Machiavelli (1469-1527), and many others. Steve Jobs (1955-2011) and Obama have been held up as true leaders. In Sri Lanka, D S Senanayake (1883-1952) is considered a great leader. He had an easy time, the British leaving him a united country to lead with an efficient bureaucracy. To me, John Kotelawala (1895-1980) was a true leader with clout to order others, charisma, and living life to the full, in colloquial terms a ‘man who ate and drank’.

Study courses in leadership are offered by Universities. The quality of leadership is often equated to good management, so excellent CEOs are good leaders. Experts from the mid twentieth century have studied leadership, psychologically, sociologically and even existentially-experientially. They see it as an unfolding process. The proponents of this prefer the bureaucratic over the charismatic. The trait model of leadership, example of which is Steve Jobs, succeeded due to his powerful personality. "Although Jobs had considerable charisma, his real edge was his thoughtful involvement in every step of an unusually expansive leadership process. He simply led more than others." Thus Jobs was both a ‘trait leader with charisma’ and a bureaucratic boss.

The idea of leadership has been made more appealing by some theorists. The notion that you don’t have to be officially powerful to lead has allowed more people to think of themselves as leaders because leaders elevate, empower and inspire those around them.

Virtues identified in popular leaders are modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness and selflessness. Most word leaders, the article points out, ignore these. "They tend to be narcissistic, back-stabbing, self-promoting, shape-shifters." This quite describes our leaders, most of whom ignore positive qualities and exhibit the latter. Maybe this is accepted by the hoi polloi as an admired, don’t care attitude. Nirbeetha, they’d say admiringly 

"Other selections explore the idea that leadership is a form of captivity, in which one is both separated from others and exposed to their judgment."

Opinions/ideas on the subject

Joshua Rothman’s first point in the article I quote from is that leadership needs crises. Quoting Elizabeth Samet in her introduction to ‘Leadership: essential writings by our greatest thinkers (Norton), Rothman notes: "The growing addiction to the narrative of crisis has gone hand in hand with an increasing veneration of leadership – a veneration that leaves us vulnerable to the ‘false prophets, the smooth operators, the gangsters, and the demagogues’ who say they can save us."

Considering that statement in the context of our country, we find it holds good. Isn’t Gotabhaya Rajapaksa blessed with a plus point, or many, due to the great national crisis of the civil war and its winning adduced to Mahinda R and his Defence Secretary? MR won elections in 2004 and 2010 to a large measure due to his war effort and winning. Field Marshall Fonseka came a very close second. Albeit, very many believe he was the winner but defeated in a ‘gilmart’ coming to light with the finding of more than 300 ballot papers later - the ruins of a rigged election. A crisis is on hand again – Wahabi Muslim terrorism. He who pronounces the best and most believable way to defeat this unseen but surely growing menace, probably nurtured by ISIS, will win the forthcoming presidential election.

Quoting Thomas Hardy who wrote his poem "The Convergence of the Twain’ soon after the sinking of the Titanic on 15 April 1912 with the iceberg increasing in size while the unsinkable ship was constructed, Hardy writes: "No mortal eye could see/ The intimate welding of their later history/ They were bent/ By paths coincident/On being anon twin halves of one august event." Here the theory is that history is something that unfolds through fated convergences and thus a theory of leadership too. "For leadership to exist, a leader must cross paths with a crisis; an exemplary person must meet the crisis - sinister mate." Thus trouble and meeting it and succeeding to circumvent the turmoil makes for leadership.

    We have enough recurring and new crises (long ago - poverty and now racial and religious tension). Yes, someone who leads a country out of a crisis is a leader. Remember Winston Churchill and WWII. But haven’t we had leaders who showed great leadership when the country had no crises like D. S. Senanayake? 

Local opinion

The people of Sri Lanka hold various opinions on who a true leader is and what they seek in a President of the country. Some like the thug – the strong man; some like a person with a ‘western’ attitude of polite reticence, humour and perhaps not being able to tolerate fools. Many are won over by personal charisma; most judge by previous performance. Quite a number decide only on the party. Our leaders too differ greatly in their personalities and how they approach voters. One feature however is the unshakeable truth: we are all so embroiled in politics. Many don’t like the shouting over mikes, reproduced by TV news. But at the present, the main topic of interest and thus discussion in elite drawing rooms, in restaurants, in kades, in trishaws, on the street, even via telephones is the soon-to-be presidential elections, with candidates torn to pieces!! To prove my point here is what a recent migrant wrote: "Well, I guess the political situation back home must be hotting up with the presidential election coming up. Somethings never change in good old Sri Lanka. I was mentioning this to a colleague of mine: how everything revolves around the political situation in Sri Lanka where as in my newly adopted country, it’s the least important consideration of who is running the country."  We Sri Lankans might add: because it is run well!

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