Will a leader like Modi work for a democracy like India?

authoritative leader
The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they ought to be.
– Henry Kissinger

The stage at which India as a nation is poised, the question of ‘where we ought to be’ is a moot one. Irrespective of the current state of affairs w.r.t literacy, health and sanitation and globalization, India continues to be one of the most high-potential economies of the world. However, for all its potential, it is also a nation of multiple complexities – with multiple ethnic groups, a challenging set of neighbours, a legacy of not-so-wise economic policies and so on.
At this very critical juncture in its life-cycle as a nation , India was poised with a very important question about a month back – what kind of leadership is needed to guide this nation to ‘where it ought to be’. The nation very decisively chose a leader widely perceived as ‘authoritarian’. Is it a good decision? Only time will tell.. but there is merit in evaluating why the electorate thought as it did.
As per Lewin’s definition of ‘authoritarian leadership’, such a leader is one who believes in taking all the important decisions himself. It is the leader who decides how the work has to be done and by whom. The subordinates simply carry on with the work assigned to them. They are not allowed to give any input regarding how they should do their work or conduct daily activities. Every detail is pre-decided by the leader himself. This kind of leadership usually works well if the leader is competent and knowledgeable enough to decide about each and everything. Authoritarian (or autocratic) is considered one of the most effective leadership styles in case there is some emergency and quick decisions need to be taken. Such examples can be found in the real world in people like Bill Gates and John F. Kennedy. And more closely in the Indian political system, was Indira Gandhi.
Lewin also found that it is more difficult to move from an authoritarian style to a democratic style than vice versa. Abuse of this style is usually viewed as controlling, bossy, and dictatorial.
The Hay Group, however, too has studied leadership styles in detail and has come up with an alternative view of leadership where there is a clear segregation between a ‘coercive’ style and a ‘authoritative’ style. The difference lies not merely in the semantics but also in the entire approach that the leader takes. While a coercive leader tells the staff what is to be done and expects them to toe the line without any questions (much the same as an Lewin’s authoritarian leader), the authoritative leader is focused on communicating the long term vision and purpose and ensuring that everyone is aligned to and motivated by ‘the big picture’. He wins people over by convincing them that they want to do the job. He gives feedback to people about where they are vis-à-vis their goals and creates a positive climate. People under him too toe the line, but willingly and enthusiastically because they know what they need to do, why they need to do it and why their role is important.
It is early days to comment on Modi’s leadership style. A look at his past record presents a hazy picture. While by some he is viewed as a ‘change agent’ who made the right decisions and pushed them assertively through layers of inefficiency in Gujarat to create prosperity, by others he is viewed as dictatorial and self-centered in his leadership style. At the juncture that India is (emerging from the shadow of a lax government which made no decisive actions), what India needs for sure is a leader who is not afraid of making tough decisions and is ready to embrace the responsibility and accountability of taking his decisions to conclusion.

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