Leaders, words and deeds Dawn

14th August 2018
by Javed Jabbar

PERHAPS there is no better point at which to take a brief look at the connection between leaders, words and deeds than the 71st milestone of our country`s Independence. As the inspiring quotes cited from the speeches and statements of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Quaidi-Millat Liaquat Ali Khan testify, there can be a coherent continuity between spoken or written words and the actions taken to give them material form.

Be it the personal conduct of leaders or actions taken in public to achieve shared goals where Pakistanis can take justified pride in the legacy of consistency bestowed by our two great leaders, it may be useful today to glimpse examples in this context among great leaders from other parts of the world.


Let us commence with a provocative, contrary challenge to the virtue of consistency. This comes from Winston Churchill. In his first speech as prime minister delivered in the House of Commons on May 13, 1940, he pledged to resist the threat from Nazi Germany with, among others, the following famous words: “... I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat ... we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, on landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender ..”.

In all his subsequent speeches and actions up to the end of the War, Churchill sustained his rousing, unshakable determination to secure victory eventually made possible by British grit as also due to the crucial multi-tiered support provided by the USA, both before and after the entry of America into the War following Pearl Harbour. And due to the largest-sacrifices of lives ─ over 20 million ─ rendered by the Soviet Union.

Yet neither the British people proved to be consistent in their support for him Churchill`s Tory Party heavily lost the elections held within two months of victory because the voting majority preferred the Labour Party`s post-War domestic agenda nor did Churchill himself, in general terms, held consistency to be sacred. After once stating the obvious that `Changing circumstances demand different tactics` , on a broader level, in an exchange with Lord Moran, Churchill said: “I’d rather be right than consistent. During a long life I have had to eat my own words many times, and I have found it a nourishing diet.”

The price that leaders sometimes have to pay for unavoidable inconsistency between words used over several years, or between words and eventual actions is to be seen as being hypocritical or opportunistic.

Hazards and unknowns :

By its nature, leadership is a minefield. The landscape on which politics, competition for power and statecraft are featured comprises both visible heights that are formidable to climb and invisible layers of potentially explosive issues just beneath the surface which erupt without warning. If leaders are obliged to change methods or reverse positions, make unpleasant alliances, do such summersaults necessarily also include rejection of basic values and ethics? The jury is still out on that question because of the sheer variety and individually different conditions in which leaders face choices.

In the struggle against the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s, the otherwise mutually antagonistic forces of the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kaishek and the Communists led by Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai collaborated against a common foe.

Once the Japanese were overcome, fierce hostilities between the two erstwhile allies resumed.

But even when there is no foreign occupier of a nation`s territory which may unite domestically divided elements, other factors can bring together strange bedfellows, even if only for some months! Recall the fact that, following the polls of February 2008, the PML-N willingly joined a federal cabinet led by PPP Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani and its ministers took the oath of office administered by their nemesis, President General (retd) Pervez Musharraf . The fact that the PML-N left the cabinet after three months does not erase the reality of the 180-degree swing.

Freedom movements:

During the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the struggles against exploitative monarchies and colonialism defined noble, unequivocal goals to achieve independence.

Those struggles were not affected by the ambivalence and harsh realities which come with freedom and the tasks of governance. The American War of Independence against the British of 1775-1783, the French Revolution of 1789 , Simon Bolivar`s phenomenal success against the Spanish in South America between about 1810 and 1830, the South Asian resistance against British rule in 1857 and in the first half of the 20th century, the movements against Dutch occupation in Indonesia and against French occupation in Vietnam in the 1940s, as also the brave confrontation with apartheid led by Nelson Mandela, imprisoned from 1966 to 1990 those segments of history, and others , afforded fertile soil from which both unforgettable oratory and unmistakable success bloomed and flowered.

Character and conduct:

The moral character of leaders is the anvil on which the continuum between the words and deeds of leaders has to be forged and tested.

From prolonged possession of power to unexpected, shattering defeat, from being able to deal judiciously with factors within their own ambit to how leaders respond to elements entirely beyond their control, from extended tenures out of public office to how leaders balance the demands of their private lives and needs, with the pressures of their official duties, from their immunity to temptation to their capacity to sustain an open mind, how they speak, write and act by all these measures are leaders assessed and ranked in the record of history.

Some aspects of leaders` lives perhaps remain forever inaccessible. Their intensely personal inner realms, the intricacies of intra-family relationships, self-doubts, bad dreams and even nightmares!

Prosaic governance:

In governance rather than in freedom movements, entirely new factors intrude into how leaders can attempt to ensure continuity and consistency between earlier pronouncements and actions taken later regarding those previous statements. And this dilemma may not have to do with entirely new, objectively changed conditions in society at large, conditions different from the time at which the earlier statement was made.

New factors that shape the options for decisions may be part of whether leaders decide to accept a bad bargain some semblance of power and authority, diminished and limited, yet nevertheless power, after all. Or leaders can opt out of power and give up the chance to make a small or big difference for society at large only because the leader does not want to compromise on an issue or value that s/he believes to be sacrosanct.

This kind of choice is obscured by the fog of ambiguity. Is the leader unduly driven by ego or by other genuinely non-personal motivations? If s/he prefers only the option of momentarily dramatic and ethically comforting resignation from office on a matter of principle, is that not also an easy way out to avoid the daunting challenge of administering , coordinating, subsuming conflicting interests, sustaining the unglamorous, hum-drum facets that keep a system going? Faced by inexorable realities, some leaders take refuge in evasive words. Such words become large shelters of platitudes and predictability that protect the leader from the hailstorms of conscience and bitter truths.

Some leaders do prefer the more difficult option. And it is they whose words and then their deeds become imprinted in the memory and pride of humanity.

There are major instances where prosaic consistencies as well as dramatic contradictions appear in the words and deeds of political leaders. Neither of these necessarily and conclusively negates the stature of the leader such being the ambivalence of human nature, of the cross-currents that shape leadership, of the immense differences that mark conditions in which different leaders have to function.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal:

In his first Inaugural address as President of the USA delivered on 4th March 1933, when his nation was still reeling from the Great Depression of the late 1920s – early 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt outlined what was to become known as the New Deal. The Federal Government committed itself to making substantial financial investments into the construction of major physical infrastructure, creation of new jobs, revitalization of agriculture and rural areas – bold, high-risk measures in harmony with the economic philosophy of the British economist John Maynard Keynes but facing scepticism and hostility from the purists of capitalism who opposed a major role of the State in the economy. But Roosevelt persevered with his plans, successfully initiated economic recovery and subsequently led his country into the Second World War after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. He achieved the unprecedented feat of being elected Head of State for four terms. (The two-term limit was introduced in 1947, ratified in 1951). However, he passed away on April 12, 1945, just two months after his fourth Inaugural and was succeeded by Vice President Harry Truman – who later took the fateful decision to drop the first atomic bombs – on Japan – in August 1945. The following excerpts illustrate how closely deeds followed words:

“President Hoover, Mr. Chief Justice, my friends: this is a day of national consecration…so first of all let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

“…values have shrunk to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the current of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone…”

“I shall ask the Congress for … broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe…”

Simon Bolivar and authoritarianism in South America:

Known as the Great Liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar lived only for 47 years. Yet he was so extraordinary as a visionary and so capable – both as a brilliant military leader and statesman that he is regarded as the Father of the Independence of six South American countries: Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Bolivia. In the excerpt below from his Inaugural address at the Second National Congress of Venezuela in Angostura on February 15, 1819, Bolivar’s belief in democracy is robustly asserted to warn against authoritarianism and dictatorship.

“…the continuation of authority in the same person has frequently proved the undoing of democratic governments. Repeated elections are essential to the system of popular government, because there is nothing so dangerous as to suffer Power to be vested for a long time in one citizen. The people become accustomed to obeying him, and he becomes accustomed to commanding, hence the origin of usurpation and tyranny. A proper zeal is the guarantee of republican liberty…”

Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese revolution:

On two consecutive days, 23rd April and 24th April 1945, as Mao Tse-Tung, Zhou En-Lai and colleagues approached the culmination (in 1949) of their long struggle against Japanese occupation of China and the ideological conflict of their Communist Party with the Kuomintang forces led by Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao first made a speech at the 7th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Next day he presented a comprehensive political report in which as part of Section-6 titled: “The land problem”, he dwelt on the power of the peasantry. Both mirrored the incisive far-sightedness of the leader of the Long March.

Speech on 23rd April 1945:

“…is it possible for our hopes to be realized? We believe it is. The possibility exists, because we already enjoy the following conditions:

1. A powerful Communist Party with rich experience and a membership of 1.2 million people.

2. Powerful Liberated Areas with a population of 95.5 million, an army of 910,000 and a militia of 2.2 million.

3. The support of the masses throughout the country.

4. The support of the people of all countries, and specially of the Soviet Union.

…we should be modest and prudent, guard against arrogance and rashness, and serve the Chinese people heart and soul…”

Report on 24th April 1945:

“…it is the peasants who are the source of China’s industrial workers. In the future, additional tens of millions of peasants will go to the cities and enter factories. If China is to build up powerful national industries and many large modern cities, they will have to be a long process of transformation of rural into urban inhabitants.

It is the peasants who constitute the main market for China’s industry. Only they can supply foodstuffs and raw materials in great abundance and absorb manufactured goods in great quantities.

It is the peasants who are the source of the Chinese Army. The soldiers are peasants in military uniform, the mortal enemies of the Japanese aggressors.

It is the peasants who are the main political force for democracy in China at the present stage. Chinese democrats will achieve nothing unless they rely on the support of the 360 million peasants…”

Ataturk and the re-direction of the Turkish State:

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk radically altered the direction of the Turkish State in the 1920s. He enforced two revolutionary decisions: the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate which was regarded by most Muslims of that time as the sole Caliph for Muslim societies across the world. He also excluded a substantive role of religion in the State. In his comprehensive biography titled: “Ataturk” by Andrew Mango published in 1999, the author cites Ataturk in these two contexts in the following words on page-407:

“Mustafa Kemal remarked in his 1927 speech that when the Assembly abolished the Caliphate, the leader of a Turkish delegation which had gone to India to thank Indian Muslims for their support of Turkish nationalists informed him that Muslims abroad wanted him to become Caliph. Mustafa Kemal said that he rejected the proposal as ridiculous. A Caliph was a Head of State, and foreign Muslims had their own governments and were in no position to implement the orders of a Caliph residing outside their borders…the abolition of the Caliphate signalled Mustafa Kemal determination to exclude Islam from the public domain. Barely a month later, on 8th April 1924, religious courts which applied Muslim Canon Law in matters of personal status – marriage, divorce, inheritance – were closed down…the first full Republican Constitution adopted on 20th April 1924 still described Islam as the official religion…(but Mustafa Kemal, as he said in 1926, saw this as a “concession at the time”).

A question of will:

Leaders` words of intent and words of promises beget actions that affect millions, for better or worse. If words do not lead to related actions, leaders` words become orphans that are abandoned or disowned. Leaders need to balance the will for words with the will for deeds.

The rhetoric of leaders seduces the speaker as much as it captivates the listener. The roar of the crowd, the music of applause can tempt the leader into intensity of emotion and extremity of pledge. But often, in the lonely silence of office where conflicting interests have to be reconciled and unpleasant decisions taken, echoes of rhetoric fade out as realism rises to a crescendo.

Used with callous, manipulative intent but cloaked in deceptive empathy which stokes a responsive chord in followers, grievance is inflamed into angry populism. Some leaders use words like the conductor of an orchestra uses a baton.

Mandela and Lee :

Placed together, Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore offer stark contrasts. One a black African. The other a fair Chinese. One who was educated entirely in his own country. The other who graduated from the London School of Economics and became a Barrister from the Middle Temple in London. One who at some point became a secret member of the Communist Party of South Africa. The other who was fervently anti-communist.

One who spent 27 years in prison (1963-90) and only five years as President (1994-99), while declining to serve a second term even though it was permitted by law and despite huge popular demand for continuation in office. The other who served as Prime Minister for 25 years (1965-90), then as 1st Senior Minister (1990-2004), and finally as Minister Mentor (2004-11).

The list is endless. One was from a population of about 50 million in which about five million whites oppressed 45 million blacks through apartheid. The other was from a population which at the time was less than five million living in a consciously multi-racial, inclusive policy. One a passionate democrat. The other a strict yet benevolent authoritarian who acknowledged the need for electoral validation.

Yet Mandela and Lee shared some fundamental traits. An iron will. Steel-like self-discipline. Minds open to new facts even when these new facts undermined their own long-held articles of faith. Single-minded, unwavering commitment to the well-being of their nations, and not to their personal material gain. Immutable financial integrity. Rejecting vengeance and defining and implementing a new vision. In one case through a policy of Truth and Reconciliation. In the other, through the transformation of a poor microstate without natural resources into a macro-economic power house with one of the highest levels of human resource development.

Sharp contrasts and splendid commonalities in which words and deeds fuse in seamless harmony to mark truly great leadership.

Words that shaped decisive actions :

Let us note some of their words. For Mandela, excerpts from what is possibly the most famous speech by him would do. It was delivered in July 1963 at the trial in which he and his colleagues were sentenced to life imprisonment: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Quoted by Paul Shoemaker and Steven Crupp in their 2014 book on how strategic leaders shape the future, Mandela`s views on nationalisation of economic assets at two different points reflected his capacity to replace long-held opinions with new perspectives in the light of new facts.

“The nationalisation of mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the African National Congress and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.”

But when, after he was released in 1990, and he saw how the USSR and others had fared, he said: `They changed my views altogether.

On his part, Lee delivered a marathon speech in February 1977, welcoming new Members to Singapore`s Parliament, in which he stressed the primacy of taking tough decisions in the public interest:

“If you want to be popular, do not try to be popular all the time. Popular government does not mean that you do popular things all the time ...

Popular, representative government means that within each five-year period, your policies have demonstrably worked and won popular support. That is what it means. And if we flinch from the unpopular, we are in deep trouble ...popular representative government means that, sometimes, even when 55 per cent ... are against you, if it is right, proceed. When it works out all right, they will swing back. But if you flinch, then that 55 per cent becomes 65 per cent, and you are out.”

Elsewhere, Lee extolled courage, above all, saying: “Fear is just an illusion”.

Great words from great leaders who rendered great deeds for their respective nations. In essence, true leadership. Our Founding Fathers, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Quaid-i-Millat Liaquat Ali Khan were in the same league. As a nation we should give concrete expression to their inspiring words.

(The writer is the author of the award-winning anthology `Pathways ─ selected writings` and other books & a former Senator & Federal Minister www.javedjabbar.com)