Sahana Chattopadhyay

Crisis of Leadership

Part 1: A lack of leadership has contributed substantially to the current pandemic emergency in India. It is a dual crisis of consciousness and conscience, created by arrogance and ineptitude.



I had intended to start this article differently, but couldn’t without acknowledging what is happening in India today. India is in the grip of the second wave of Covid 19; and as someone aptly pointed out — it is not a wave; it is a wall. A tsunami hitting the country every day; the daily numbers have crossed a mindboggling 400,000 and is continuing to increase. The prediction is that India will cross a caseload of 800,000 daily with more than half a million deaths. The hospitals have run out of beds, ventilators, oxygen, and medicines. Crematoriums have run out of spaces and wood for the funeral pyres. Makeshift pyres are being built in parks, footpaths, and parking lots. The forest department is getting requests for the felling of trees for kindling. Delhi, the capital of India, is ravaged. A black-market in life-saving drugs is thriving, fleecing people even in this calamity. As always, the poorest are the hardest hit. It is apocalyptic, unbelievable, and immensely tragic. All the more heartbreaking because the suffering was avoidable. For a country with a rickety health infrastructure at the best of times and 1.4 billion citizens, this is a humongous challenge of unspeakable and unimaginable proportions. And there seems to be no end in sight.

The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who loves spectacles, has failed spectacularly. Bolstered by a spineless and sold-out media, surrounded by sycophantic bureaucrats, and led by blind hubris, gloating arrogance, and callous incompetence, the Modi government has turned a pandemic into a nationwide tragedy. No amount of data fudging and information massaging can hide the truth. India is in shock. The government is either missing in action or trying to spin a narrative to save its image. In a bizarre, Orwellian incident almost straight out of 1984, 300 top government officials attended a virtual session on boosting image and perception in the midst of a raging pandemic. The Ministry of Truth is truly here. As George Orwell wrote in 1984:

"Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped." 

Having announced a brutal lockdown last year as a show of brute power, this tool is now out of bounds as the economy will crash. It has already rendered millions jobless. The already overburdened public healthcare wheezing from years of under-investment, has collapsed. Private healthcare has failed to provide succor, proving that essential services like education and healthcare cannot, indeed must not, be turned into a free market commodity. Neo-liberalization and defunding have crashed the country’s healthcare system today.

Doctors, nurses and all other frontline workers are staking their lives to save the lives of other humans — all strangers to each other. Mosques, gurudwaras, and temples are being turned into Covid centers and oxygen providers. Numerous people are volunteering to take food, medicines, groceries and other essentials to the Covid affected, to the sufferers, and the desperate. All strangers to each other. Autorickshaw drivers like Javed Khan are turning their rickshaws into ambulances to ferry the poor. All strangers to each other. This demonstration of humanity coming from all corners of India in the face of utter leadership and government failure and abdication of responsibilities is humbling and awe inspiring.

Ordinary citizens are turning to each other for help. Twitter is inundated with desperate please for ICU beds, for oxygen cylinders, for ventilators, for medicines, despite efforts by the government to muzzle these desperate voices because they are shredding the regime’s carefully constructed fabric of falsehoods called ‘perception management’. Communities of citizens have self-organized to ease the heart-wrenching grief and the benumbing pain, to provide all necessary aid to the extent possible. Overriding the untold misery, we are witnessing the collective rising of ordinary citizens from the ashes of this devastation and grief. What it has amply revealed is that there is an extraordinary power at work — the extraordinary power of ordinary people. Their plain human courage. And it takes the breath away.

People without any privilege, power, or wealth are giving of their time and effort to save a nation from the face of collapse. They are coming together in self-organized teams and communities across cities and towns and villages to answer and amplify desperate calls for help. They are not waving any political banner. They claim no credit. They charge no money. Their affiliation is to humanity, compassion, and dignity for all. They have risen as citizens, neighbors, communities to help strangers in need.

This is perhaps what T. S. Eliot meant when he asked:

"When the Stranger says: 'What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?'
What will you answer? 'We all dwell together
To make money from each other'? or 'This is a community'?
Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions."

The Stranger has arrived in the shape of a nano-virus invisible to the eye. And the people have risen as a community.

What is even more heartwarming is the dissolving of polarization and fragmentation that the government has tried so extremely hard to sow. The forces of separation and schism have been temporarily pushed to the background; the crisis is demonstrating the power of collective will and action directed towards the common good. While the pandemic is creating havoc because of the government’s shortsightedness, arrogance, ineptitude, and megalomania, it has also become a portal to our humanity.

What is profoundly evident is the lack of leadership. It’s a dual crisis of consciousness and conscience. A crisis created by arrogance and ineptitude. This seems to be the overarching crisis today — all over the world.

Authoritarian, strongman, demagogic leaders like Modi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, and Johnson, are symptoms of a civilizational narrative that is flailing and failing. Centuries of colonization, extraction, exploitation, and oppression have created huge divides between nations. This is further exacerbated through neocolonialism in the form of deregulated capitalism and a ‘free market’ designed to benefit a handful at the cost of billions. The narrative of neoliberal capitalism propounded by Hayek and Friedman and, thereafter, propagated as a force of progress and development has been carefully nurtured and circulated by powerful institutions — media, academia, think tanks, and of course, big pharma, big tech, and the fossil fuel industries. How is this linked to the pandemic, you might be wondering. Profoundly, I say.

There is the fact that the virus is a zoonotic virus that jumped species because a poor human had to resort to eating bats for lack of nutrition. The other possibility is that we, humans, have trespassed into territories we shouldn’t have. We have forgotten our limits and have invaded the wilderness thus leading to this pandemic. Whatever the case maybe, the reality today is a world ravaged by a virus. All the promises of big tech have failed, but their profits haven’t plummeted. On the contrary, amidst this virus mayhem you learn with every passing day of their surging, near-surreal profits (discussed later). Extraordinary performance in extraordinary times!

While Elon Musk dreams of space travel (for the super-rich), billions on earth are dying. India sent a photograph of Prime Minister Modi into space aboard a satellite, but we are unable to provide ICU beds to the sick and oxygen to the dying. The ludicrousness of our situation today is only matched by the enormity of human folly. Techno-fantasy (nay, techno-lunacy) have turned the powerful and privileged into inhuman zombies disconnected from the unfolding reality on a fragile and fractured planet.

Most tellingly perhaps, we are experiencing a complete collapse of leadership. The current civilizational narrative founded on imperialism and colonization followed by neoliberal capitalism has hollowed out the very foundations of humanity. Axioms like ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘winner takes all’ have led to a world order that glorifies competition over collaboration, aggression over altruism, dominance over democracy, and ruthlessness over benevolence. The former qualities are rewarded today — in organizations, in institutions, in academia, in politics, in business. Is it any wonder that these qualities have seeped into leadership as well? The hierarchical, command-and-control organizations and institutions thrive on dominance, obedience, and subservience. Compassion, cooperation, empathy, affection, love, care, beauty, and joy are ‘useless’ feelings to be strictly avoided.

When profit and wealth of any organization gets disproportionately concentrated in the hands of the few with others making barely living wages, we not only get an extortionist organization but also an inequitable society. Actions such as these have added up over time to create fractured nations that are now collapsing in the face of a pandemic from underlying inequity, injustice, fragmentation, and polarization. We also have deep leadership vacuum because those who are only out for power, profit, and privilege cannot be leaders. ‘Driving a hard bargain’ is the sign of a broker, not a leader. So, coming back to my earlier point, we are globally facing a crisis of leadership. Barring a few exceptions like Jacinda Ardern who are demonstrating what leading can be in the face of catastrophe, most countries are compelled to confront with rising authoritarianism and plutocracy. The world is facing a pandemic of authoritarianism, said the Nobel Laureate economist, Amartya Sen.

Deregulated capitalism and the façade of ‘free market’ neoliberalism have laid the groundwork for the rich to get richer and abetted the rise of demagoguery and authoritarianism by destroying the bulwarks of democracy and welfare for all. It has also created a deeper and more invisible damage. It has destroyed the underpinnings and ethos of leadership. Thus, over centuries and decades, by emphasizing certain values, we have arrived at this point where there are deep leadership lacunae across nations, organizations, communities, and societies. The very meaning of leading has been distorted.

Modi, Bolsonaro, Johnson, and Erdogan are mere symptoms of a deeper malaise — a collective civilizational dis-ease that has led us to the brink of ecological, economic, and spiritual disaster. I see them as mirrors of the brokenness beneath. A culmination of all that is obsolescent and crumbling — a global order that is primarily based on exploitation, extortion, extraction, and expropriation. In direct contrast, we can see the rising of citizens as communities embodying the lost values of compassion, collaboration, empathy, care, giving, and receiving. I believe that the pandemic is a portal — a portal to a world that is regenerative, thrivable, and resilient, a world that works for all.

Situations of crisis are becoming opportunities for the unscrupulous and the powerful to grab more power, make more profit. Between 18 March 2020 and 19 February 2021, the combined wealth of US billionaires increased by $1.3trn, a 44.6% increase in the space of just 48 weeks. Indian billionaires saw their wealth go up by Rs 12.97 trn during Covid-19. Evidently there is deep rot in the system that allows for this obscene accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few even as much of the world is dying of a pandemic. Leading has come to be associated with aggression, arrogance, competitiveness, cunning, political games, sycophancy, and ‘power above everything.’ In effect, leading and leadership have been replaced by power, profit, and privilege. CEO compensation has grown 940% since 1978. Typical worker compensation has risen only 12% during that time.

We have to reclaim and redefine our civilizational narrative and craft a leadership narrative that is regenerative. The underlying narrative that has been ruling the planet for at least five centuries has given rise to the leadership we are experiencing today across the world. Are there any examples out there? Sure. There are leaders like Jacinda Ardern, who was derided for being too soft and empathetic but who has been way more successful in uncertain and ambiguous times. Some obvious traits like empathy, compassion, and an ability to collaborate and listen are easily seen. But I believe there is more beneath the surface.

To quote Bill O”Brien, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance: “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervener.” Ditto for leadership. The inner condition or Source from which thoughts, words, and actions arise are absolutely crucial for leaders. In this context, Otto Scharmer refers to

“Presencing — a blended word combining sensing (feeling the future possibility) and presence (the state of being in the present moment). It means sensing and actualizing one’s highest future possibility — acting from the presence of what is wanting to emerge.”

Uncertain times calls for such leaders — leaders who practice Presencing. People can lean into and embrace unpredictability when leaders have unyielding belief in them. Such leaders become wayfinders and stewards of their nations, organizations, and institutions by holding space for everyone to contribute and co-create, by listening generatively, and by moving away from ‘power over’ to ‘power with’.

When they move from taking control to facilitating sensemaking and emergence, a space opens up for the future possibilities to manifest themselves. When people feel genuine inclusion, respect, and autonomy, and have a shared awareness of the whole system, they operate from their best selves. They cease to hold back, be defensive, be fearful, be competitive, be jealous or bitter, and all the other emotions that hold us back from fully participating in the unfolding of a regenerative way of being.

To embody Presencing, leaders need to have the courage, faith, and vision to slow down, step back, soften their gaze, and widen their perspectives. They have to develop their ability to see and listen beyond the obvious, beyond the immediate, and become pattern seekers. Move from reaction to responsiveness, from manipulation to communication, from influencing to creating impact.

This requires a different set of skills and qualities which I will discuss in part 2.

Link to part 2.
Words by Sahana Chattopadhyay
Sahana Chattopadhyay is a speaker, writer, facilitator, catalyst and coach. She works at the intersection of human potential, regenerative leadership, organizational transformation, systems thinking and emergence. Her passion is to help organizations, communities and individuals develop the capacities to stay with uncertainty, lean into chaos, and co-create a REGENERATIVE FUTURE – a 'world that works for all'.