October 3, 2023

The Incendiary Appeal of Unconventional Leaders in Our Time

The Incendiary Appeal of Unconventional Leaders in Our Time
The Incendiary Appeal of Unconventional Leaders in Our Time

Let me start of by saying that these are such strange times! Who would have thought that the second decade of the 21 st century would be marked by a resurgence of nationalism and populism? If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have never hazarded a guess as to how the political winds would change so dramatically in such a short span of time. But as things stand today, we are seeing the most unconventional array of global leaders standing forth today, the likes that have never been seen before in the history of the new age world!

Love him or hate him, no other president has made me think so much about the very concept of leadership as Donald Trump. He’s known to be brash. He’s known to mock people and even name call. He says what he wants to and does not stop to think through the ramifications of those 140 characters. The former FBI chief James Comey has even recently described Trump's leadership style 'strikingly similar' to a mob boss! In just a year and a half of his administration, Trump has completely turned around the ideal of global leadership in so much that he embodies its antithesis. His unceasing propaganda of “Make America Great Again” and a my-way- or-the- highway management style has created a deeply polarized nation. And in this agenda for “America First”, Trump has introduced a new wave of economic nationalism that comes at the expense of other countries – almost a step back to the pre-globalization era. But his followers adore him and perhaps will even re-elect him for a second term. Does this point to a change in what people expect their leaders to be? Or are we polarized even on this point – with a specific segment of the people wanting a certain type of leader while the other half looks for a polar opposite?

Meanwhile in China, President Xi Jinping is probably the most powerful leader the country has seen since Mao Zedong, the founder of modern Communist China. Xi Jinping is a major player among the resurgence of strongman populist leaders across the world; and his China Dream of a domestically unified and international super power stands in stark contrast to the American dream in such Xi rejects the vey rights of the individual as they are asked to put the country above all, including themselves! Under Xi’s growing power, the Chinese military is expected to flex its rising clout on the international stage in an attempt to become the top army in the world – a worrying development for its neighbouring countries and US allies. Now Xi stands on the brink of becoming even stronger as
the recent party proposal to abolish the two-term presidential limit comes into effect. It paves the way for Xi to transform his deep-rooted nationalistic dream for China into a reality as he remains set to rule for life, much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin who has been in power for nearly a quarter of a century. Should the world’s most populous country reconcile itself to a patronising, strong arm leadership style? Will it work in a China that has evolved economically and opened up to the world more than ever before?

And then we have Narendra Modi in India, whose critics and supporters alike have a consensus on his authoritarian style of leadership and concentration of power. While Modi is undisputedly India’s most popular leader to emerge in recent years, therein lies the question of his ability to lead the country as a leader liked by all segments of the society. Modi’s staunch silence on varying issues ranging from farmers distress, clamp downs on free speech, or communal violence to corruption charges against several ministerial colleagues is nothing short of disturbing. And as a young girl’s rape in India becomes Modi’s latest crisis, his deafening silence and late taciturn speech does little to calm a troubled country. Its times like this where leadership goes far beyond just political or economic matters; it becomes a question of being willing to lead from the moral front as well.

Elsewhere in South East Asia, Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte has attracted intense controversy worldwide for his handling of an ongoing brutal drug war that has consumed the country and left thousands dead. And like Trump, Duterte is also known for his colourful language and undiplomatic remarks that have ranged from a tirade against former US President, Barack Obama, to even insulting the Pope! Since he won the office by a landslide in June 2016, Duterte is popular among the Filipinos for his hard stance against corruption and crime in a country that is hungry for change, but the fact remains that his policies are tantamount to mass murder and gross violation of human rights.

Which brings us to this burning question – how is that the majority of these leaders, be It Trump or Modi or even Duterte, were elected to don the mantle of the most powerful position in their respective countries?

I believe their claim to leadership lies predominantly in the way they invoked the age-old leadership psychology mantra of “us” versus “them”. For example, despite Trump being a billionaire businessman, he was so successful in projecting himself as the one who ‘got’ the working class through an intricate mix of tactics and language. Most prominent of all, was the way he portrayed himself as the ‘rebel’ against the political class and in doing this he validated his status as being one of the people; “one of us” against “them” – the ruling elite. The same goes for Modi and Duterte who came to power in an era of fragmentation and ineffective governments that were marred with corruption. And in a world where the bureaucracy is seen as working against the people, it only makes sense for the largely antipolitical public to take that risk and vote for unconventional candidate who represents everything that the system is not! Interesting experiment for sure, but ultimately at what cost to the people – that is yet to be seen. Will history judge this period as the “lost years” or will it be known as the era that produced “real” leaders??

No items found.