12 March 2014

Reflections on the quality of atthagngnu in the matter of leadership

Elections are about representatives. Leaders.  Candidates believe they are leaders or at least that they can be leaders.  Maybe they know everything there is to know about leaders.  Some, though, may benefit from some salient points made more than 2,500 years ago by the Enlightened One, Siddhartha Gauthama, the Buddha. This is the first of a five-part explication, first published three years ago in 'The Nation'.

In the Raja Vagga (discourses referring to kings) of the Anguttara Nikaya (Numerical Discourses) is recorded some very interesting observations by Siddhartha Gauthama, our Budun Wahanse, about the ideal attributes of the Chakravarthi or the Universal King.  In addition to the more widely discussed discourses on governance such as the Dasa Raja Dharma, there are two sutras that are extremely instructive. 

The first, Pagnamakkanuvattanasutta or the ‘First on the turning of the wheel,’ lays out five characteristics of the (successful) universal monarch and can be applied in the modern context to any ruler or indeed any leader of any institution, public, corporate or cooperative.  The second, Dutiyaccakkanuvattanasutta or the ‘Second on the turning of the wheel’ is an elaboration of sorts referring to succession, i.e. is the qualities that the monarch’s son ought to acquire and as such applicable to a person designated or aspires to replace a leader. 

The monarch is required to know about profitability, be conscious of the righteous, tempered enough to ascertain appropriateness of action, have a sense of timing and take cognizance of the gathering or the public.  Beginning this week, I shall offer comments on these five attributes with a view to throwing light on issues of governance which, sadly, seem to borrow uncritically from notions developed in other countries by scholars and practitioners who are naturally inclined to draw from location and time specific examples in their formulations and which are not necessarily adequate or even useful in understanding our context and advocating for the same. 

That which in translation is called ‘profitability’ has very little to do with the general meaning of the term in current usage.  It is not necessarily about rupees and cents. The Pali term is Atthagngnu, which means ‘acting with full understanding of meaning’.  In the matter of governance, the ruler is required to operate, weigh options and make decisions, after availing him/herself of all relevant information so that the logic of a particular course of action is informed by previous experiences and moreover there is reasonable understanding of possible consequences.  In this manner, a ruler will issue edict and pass judgment in a manner that has a superior chance of producing a greater collective good.

How does a leader acquire such qualities?  We have to assume, first and foremost, that the leader is fundamentally disposed towards doing whatever necessary to ensure the well being of his/her people.  The greedy, the self-seeking, the thieving, the arrogant and the power-hungry are therefore not relevant to this discussion.  It is not about politicians, then, but about statesmen and therefore not about those interested in the next election but those who focus on the next generation and beyond. 

In this sense Budun Wahanse’s formulation can be called an ideal type.  However, to the extent that ideal type is benchmark and a destination, though not reached, nevertheless can take one from here to somewhere instead of turning here into nowhere, these eminently cultivable attributes make for self-assessment (on the part of those aspiring to be more than just another petty politician) and for evaluation of representative or representative wannabe in today’s election-oriented, let’s-make-a-revolution and let’s-change-regime context. 

 In the case of a leader of say a maranaadhara samithiya (Funeral Donation Society) or a Dayaka Sabhava of a Temple (a lay committee associated with and devoted to the proper conduct of all matters pertaining to a temple), a leader or an aspiring leader, if he/she is of the community and possesses basic intelligence, has an analytical mind and is willing to work with and learn from the rest of the community, obtain a decent score on the matter of embodying the quality of Atthagngnu.  As group size grows, as the areas of jurisdiction expands and becomes more and more complex, a leader cannot with casual survey and reflective engagement alone obtain a data set that is statistically and otherwise significant.

The true or approximate meaning of things pertaining to the full gamut of issues that a leader has to contend with, especially in the case of governing a country or a large polity or a large and complex sector of the economy, cannot be obtained without proper and reliable information channels.  Certain things compromise information flows.  First, arrogance on the part of a leader can lead to horrendously erroneous readings of things and processes.  A ‘know-all,’ history has shown, knows little and typically is made to pay for it.  This can be further aggravated by a tendency to give ear to sycophant and treat all criticism as malicious and exaggerated articulations of enemies with agenda that have nothing to do with ground realities. 

A manifest insecurity about position and political future, itself an indicator of unsuitability to lead, can persuade leaders to impose censorship, direct and indirect.  While this could obtain respite from political pressure for a while, today’s information technology has made censorship untenable. Information will reach people somehow and those who want to know will find ways of knowing.  The other negative of censorship is that it blocks information flows in both direction.  The leader would then hear no evil and assume that evil (pertaining to position and future) does not exist. 

A successful leader will keep all channels of communication open, exercise intellect in assessing truth value of claims, and have the humility to acknowledge error and correct relevant flaw.  He would not only say ‘do not sing hosannas of praise, instead offer constructive criticism,’ he would do everything possible to ensure that the dimensions pertaining to the privilege of criticizing are expanded to encompass as large and varied a portion of the population as possible. 

How can a leader extrapolate on the matter of consequence, if he/she does not have a sound grounding in relevant histories and a thirst for examining to the extent practicable given time-space constraints the nuts and bolts of similar scenario?  No leader can be expected to be well versed on all matters.  This is why in the modern context a leader needs to avail him/herself of the best advice possible. This is why there needs to be a mechanism which ensures that the most competent and knowledgeable persons have a greater chance of occupying positions relevant to expertise.  For this to happen, a leader must ensure that the structures are in working order or else do what it takes to get them in place and operating smoothly.  In addition, the leader should make sure that the system of education is appropriate to provide for the human resource needs of the particular economy. 

In the matter of ‘knowing’, a leader must have a strong sense of history.  If a leader does not know much about what made a civilization, what turned a population into a people and a nation, then he/she will not have a sense of appropriate direction when considering ‘better futures’.  The chances are that directional decision will not be congruent to the relevant yesterday or the ground reality of today.  All policies are for people.  People are not individuals with physical attributes alone.  Resident in a people, as individuals and as a collective, are cultural sensibilities that have been ingrained over centuries and generations.  These are not erased easily.  A leader who is determined to erase history gets evacuated him/herself.  It has happened and not very long ago either. 

All of the above is relevant, I believe to the operationalization of a leader’s vision.  It is relevant to presidents, leaders of the opposition, pradeshiya sabhikas, corporate heads and even those in civil society organizations.  History matters. Information matters.  Arrogance, greed and a penchant for self-aggrandizement compromises all this and does not produce a contented polity.  It hastens the end of a ruler, a regime, a system of governance or a corporate entity. 

I am humbled yet once again by the continuing and amazing relevance of words spoken by Siddhartha Gauthama over 2,500 years ago and moreover by their applicability to multiple contexts.

Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhitatta.  May all beings be happy.

msenevira@gmail.com
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