Growth, empathy and authenticity: Leadership lessons from the Bengal elections

May 24, 2021 12:26 PM

The first lesson that we can take away from the election is that the ideas of growth and development are important values for humanity, organisations and society.

west bengal electionsIt is unfortunate that the Bengal election results have given rise to post-poll violence. (Photo source: IE)

By Vishal Gupta, 

The results for the West Bengal’s state election were surprising as well as sparked a hope for many. While the BJP had sent almost all of their top ministers including their top leaders such as the Prime Minister Narendra Modi , the Home Minister, Amit Shah and the Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath , for election campaigning, Trinamool had their lone and sole big leader in Mamata Bannerjee who stood up against the BJP and its leaders, and that too with one leg injured and campaigning on a wheelchair. How could this happen? This election victory is a stuff of fairy tales and provides us important lessons on leadership, both for organisations and politics.

Growth and collaboration versus identity politics: The first lesson that we can take away from the election is that the ideas of growth and development are important values for humanity, organisations and society. Our organisations and political parties need to formulate visions that keep growth and development as foundational stones for organizational (and societal) progress. A vision that focuses on growth, development and collaboration are inspiring and motivating.

Time and again, it has been found that the values of division and hate are weak against the ideas of development and growth. While BJP, through its many leaders and slogans, did also make promises of growth, they also tried to polarise the voting community into an ‘us versus them’ mentality . BJP’s high-pitched campaign centered on a lot of things, the core amongst them being a high-pitched campaign emphasising Jai Shri Ram slogans , talks about illegal migration , Muslim appeasement , and anti-Romeo squads . Unfortunately, the message of development got missed in the many other things being said by the BJP leaders during the campaign. Mamata Bannerjee, on the other hand, promised growth and development for all in her party’s manifesto and emphasized that “we all live together, eat together, and together we save each other's lives.” In the end, the language of growth and collaboration trumped that of identity and mistrust.

Leaders (of organizations and political parties alike) must take Bengal’s election as an opportunity to introspect and learn. Language of growth is inspiring while the language of hate is negative and confusing for the audience. Lokniti-CSDS’s post-poll survey shows that BJP failed to retain the Hindu support it had secured during the 2019 general elections, and that many respondents (including Hindus) gave secular answers to questions on issues such as protecting minority rights. Questions of development and livelihood may be more important to people that that of social identities.

Empathy and connect: A common trend that can be seen in elections that BJP is losing in various state elections is that the party fails to project a chief minster candidate when they fight state elections. On the other hand, when it comes to the general election people know that the Prime Minster is going to be Narendra Modi. On the other hand, Trinamool had a leader and everyone knew that Mamata Bannerjee would be the chief minister if the party comes to power. People need a face with whom they can connect.

Every organisation needs leaders who can form a connect with their employees and can understand their pain points. To do this, the leader must be present on the ground and must communicate directly with the people. In BJP’s case, leaders flew from the outside, did mass rallies and went back to their respective cities and states. There was no one who could forge that connect with the people. The local leaders were masked by the big leaders who were flown in from various parts of the country.

Our organizations (governments and political parties included) desperately need a lot more understanding, empathy and care. Flying visits, a flurry of election rallies, road shows can produce excitement but not connect. To form connect, we need leaders who can stay on the ground, spend time with people, learn and understand what our people want and then work for their development. Local leaders do this job the best.

Authenticity: Authenticity is the value of doing what you preach (walk the talk) and leading by example. The strongest form of communication is leading by example. No number of rallies and road shows can achieve what actions can. While on one hand the leaders took out massive rallies and road shows in election-bound states where people gathered in large numbers, on the other hand the same leaders were talking about following social distancing and COVID-appropriate behaviours in Delhi.

Authenticity is the hallmark of truly great leaders. Such leaders strive to follow the path of truth and fairness when dealing with others. When leaders do not do what they say, it creates a dent in their popularity, people’s perception of their personality as well as their honesty. One of the problems that the Indian politics faces is the glaring absence of authenticity in the conduct of our leaders. It is ironic that while BJP accused Trinamool of corruption and violence, it happily inducted Trinamool as well as Left leaders in its fold. So much for leading by example!

BJP would agree with Nelson Mandela’s quote, “after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” BJP scaled the great hill (of coming to power) in the 2014, and then again in 2019 general elections. However, its performance in smaller hills (state elections) has only been poor (barring a few exceptions such as UP and Assam). Hopefully, the party leaders will realise that scaling these peaks will be as challenging (if not more) as scaling the highest peak.

It is unfortunate that the Bengal election results have given rise to post-poll violence . Mamata Bannerjee must realise that her win comes in the backdrop of significant change in Bengal’s electoral politics. BJP has emerged as the clear opposition of Bengal and the party’s performance, while below expectations, is not meaningless. As the chosen leader of the state, the elected Chief Minister of Bengal must now fulfill her electoral promises and stand true to the values of growth, empathy and authenticity. She must realise that leadership is a continuous process and it never stops.

Gandhi ji once said, “what you do says what is most important to you. Action expresses priorities”. Our organizations need leaders who can act on the values of learning and growth, empathy and authenticity in order to set the right examples before their followers.

(Vishal Gupta is Associate Professor in the Organizational Behavior Area at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. He is the Chairperson of the Ashank Desai Centre for Leadership and Organisational Development at IIM Ahmedabad. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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