Exemplary leadership

President Mahinda Rajapaksa turns 63 today and completes three years in office tomorrow :

by Prof. Laksiri Fernando

(November 18, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Among the leaders of the country after independence, he has already earned an image, within and outside Sri Lanka, as a man to be reckoned with both in national and international politics.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not seem to mince his words when it comes to matters of principle. In all other circumstances, he is always a mild, modest, unpretentious and even a humble personality.

While the former seems to emerge from his down-to-earth political convictions, the latter undoubtedly is a product of his rural and Buddhist upbringing.

For the purpose of brevity, I only wish to quote what Donald Krause has summarized as ten principles of that important philosopher as advise to a leader facing trying and challenging circumstances like in Sri Lanka today where clear, practical and efficient solutions are necessary to stop killings, violence and terrorism, and to arrest instability and disintegration of our democracy. That means to overcome all challenges and obstacles that Tolstoy considered as the enigmatic ‘wave problem.’


The following were Sun Tzu’s ten principles. Learn to fight, Do it right, Expect the worse, Burn the bridges, Pull together, Show the way, Know the facts, Seize the way, Do it better, Keep them guessing. It is my hunch that perhaps Sun Tzu himself is within President Rajapaksa who mastered ‘how to fight’ from his student days (1960-64) and tried his best to ‘do it right’ when he was growing up (1966-1970).

He always ‘expected the worse’ in calculating a strategy (1987-89 or today) and in fact did not hesitate to ‘burn the bridges’ with unwanted or hostile quarters. He has, on the other hand, successfully ‘pulled together’ not only his party - the SLFP - to which he has consistently been faithful, but also the UNP dissidents, the TULF, the CWC, the EPDP, the NUA, the JHU, the JVP dissidents and most importantly the TMVP. Only the SLMC, amongst the possible elements, is out of the pale today for not so rational reasons.

His policy is in fact an embodiment of a ‘grand coalition’ that Arend Lijphart staunchly advocated for a multi-cultural or a multi-factional polity facing a crisis like in Sri Lanka.

He is reputed as a team leader and has earned lot of political friends and respect here and abroad. Support from the Sri Lankan emigre abroad is most significant and no leader before even imagined the necessity or potential of that kind of support.


He has ‘shown the way’ most characteristically in liberating the East and the country’s fight against ruthless terrorism. It is an indication of what could come through his strategy for the North. He ‘knows the political facts’ at his finger tips from a long experience in politics and knows how to seize the opportunity when the situation is ripe or when the iron is hot.

Judging from his elevation and performance from a MP to a Minister, from a Minister to a Prime Minister, and then to the post of Executive Presidency his motto seems to be to “do it better.’

He has been the most artful leader in dealing with the opposition or the opponents perhaps far exceeding the reputed talents of the former President J. R. Jayewardene. He keeps them guessing to say the least.

One framework which should not completely be excluded perhaps is Max Weber’s analysis of a charismatic leader. Charisma is a quality that Weber identified in certain type of leaders ‘resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character.’

There are certain attributes that Weber identified which might not fit exactly with President Rajapaksa. While the ‘exceptional sanctity’ usually comes in the case of religious leaders, ‘heroism’ is too simplistic or narrow to identify his multifaceted character.

He is of course ‘exemplary’ compared to many of the leaders of the past and this exemplary nature derives particularly from his vision for the country, and the mission to achieve its goals with a team of able men and women, who themselves tirelessly pursue those goals with much devotion and enthusiasm. He is undoubtedly not a traditional type of a leader that Weber talked about like Jayewardene or Premadasa.


While charisma is there in abundance in his character and his relationships with the masses, he is more of a ‘transformational’ leader that James MacGregor Burns talked about initially in 1978. As one of the disciples of Burns, B. M. Bass aid, ‘Transformational leadership starts with the development of a vision, a view of the future that will excite and convert potential followers.’

That is what exactly the Electoral Manifesto of Mahinda Chintana did in 2005. President Rajapaksa has never claimed Mahinda Chintana solely to be of his own. There are many groups and individuals who contributed to it.


It is completely a lateral strategy that President Rajapaksa has employed to achieve peace in Sri Lanka since his ascendancy to power in November 2005. This is drastically different to the strategy that was employed previously during the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) brokered by Norway during 2002 and 2006 or even before.

The previous strategy was completely one sided with the intention of bringing peace solely through a ‘utopian good will’ with the ‘terrorists while they remained terrorists.’ This was termed as peace through political negotiations mediated by a third party.

With all respect to Norway and the Norwegian government’s good intentions for bringing peace to Sri Lanka, this strategy was simply not working with the LTTE. It was a growing conviction of Mahinda Rajapaksa even before he came to the office as the President that there had been something fundamentally wrong with the assumptions or parameters of the peace process as it was chartered by the previous governments or leaders.

It was Otto Von Bismarck who first characterized politics as the ‘Art of the Possible.’

President Rajapaksa appears to be a master of this art with great acumen for pragmatism and compromise without however betraying the cardinal principles and foundations of the ‘democratic nation state’ in Sri Lanka.

The nation state may be a matter of controversy for some theorists who even confuse terrorism with democratic struggles. However that is not the political reality in Sri Lanka.

What Bismarck expressed was of course a realistic view even today’s politics, and not an utopian dream. There is no doubt that if peace could be achieved through political negotiations, and if the other party is genuinely willing to find a political solution through negotiations, that is undoubtedly a valid option.

This is an option that President Rajapaksa contemplated during the first six months in office and still apparently believes that negotiations are possible if and when the LTTE desists from violence and gives up or expresses genuine willingness to give up arms.


This is a view of a political realist for peace and not of a utopian. It was Edward de Bono who advocated lateral thinking in many endeavors including conflict resolution and peace building. Lateral thinking, as he defined, is thinking concerned with changing existing paradigms or assumptions when those are proven to be useless or not reaping tangible results. It is about reasoning which is not based on traditional way of peace building or step-by-step of negotiations, but could involve negotiations not necessarily with the main protagonists but with others or dissidents through alliances or practical political understanding.

It is about reasoning which is not based on traditional way of peace building or step-by-step of negotiations, but could involve negotiations not necessarily with the main protagonists but with others or dissidents through alliances or practical political understanding.

Lateral thinking allows a leader who uses common sense and intelligence to go beyond the ‘proverbial box’ or the traditional paradigms to design a way out of conflict towards peace. As De Bono said, ‘sometimes a problem cannot be solved even by removing its cause.’ As he further remarked, ‘we may need to solve some problems not by removing the cause but by designing the way forward even if the cause remains in place.’

The way forward is the way that President has designed to achieve peace without waiting for the LTTE to come to the negotiating table.

Nevertheless the efforts at resolving political problems that affects both the Tamil and the Muslim communities are in place along with other strategies. It was after many efforts at peace negotiations that President Rajapaksa decided in mid-2006 to take firm military stand against the activities of the LTTE.

The East

What else a legitimate leader, with a democratic mandate to protect people, could do ? Peace efforts advocated by some sections of the international community should not mean the allowing of a ruthless outfit of terrorist to blackmail a legitimate democratic government and its people. President Rajapaksa’s strategy for peace is already vindicated by its success in the East.

The peace strategy of President Rajapaksa in the East has involved several steps. The first has been to clear the areas of the province from the terrorist hold through firm military action. In this endeavour, while the technical planning has completely been given to the military commanders, the President has extended supervision and advice as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and the leader of the country.

The most important have been the political strategies and tactics that he has employed. The military alliance with the breakaway group from the LTTE, first led by Karuna Amman and later by Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan has been a major tactic in the latter endeavour.

This alliance was something that the old guard of the peace advocates in Sri Lanka vindictively desisted. According to them the only alliance possible in what they called a peace process should be with the brutal terrorist leader Velupillai Pirapaharan. As a result of the President’s lateral strategy, the TMVP has now come to the democratic mainstream in the province and in the country, arousing much envy of the Rajapaksa opponents.


The Rajapaksa strategy for peace in the East has not primarily been a military operation.

The military operation has only been the necessary pre-condition. The strategy has been to reinstate and strengthen the democratic institutions, both at the local and the provincial levels, allowing the democratically functioning political parties and groups to thrash out the issues of controversy (peacefully and democratically) while the development initiatives for the people are being pursued both by the centre and the provincial authorities.

There cannot be any doubt that the dominant Tamil political group in the East was the TMVP and not the LTTE. Therefore, the negotiation with the TMVP to bring peace to the province was a legitimate effort even on the basis of the traditional criterion of peace building.

The bold implementation of the provincial council system and the 13th Amendment by President Rajapaksa beginning with the East has constituted the most tangible effort to bring peace to Sri Lanka in the present conjuncture except that some crucial areas of the North are still under the control of the LTTE. The remaining military and terrorist infrastructure of the LTTE seems to be the major obstacle to build peace, harmony and democracy in the North.

A tangible transformation is already in the offing in the East both in the political sphere and in the economy. What has been achieved so far is commendable: terrorism has been curtailed; elections have been conducted; and democracy is largely restored.


What has made President Rajapaksa become a transformational leader? The simple and straightforward answer would be ‘gift and practice.’ Before elaborating on the answer, it might be necessary to recapitulate who a transformational leader is. Transformational leader is a leader who implements new ideas to transform society and issues.

These leaders continuously change themselves, stay flexible, adaptable and continually improve those around them. A transformational leader is also a transactional leader.

This is about deployment of people and resources to get results. It is based on an exchange of services for various kinds of rewards (not old patronage) that the leader controls. It also means the encouragement of his followers by acting as a role model, motivating them through example and inspiration.

More than any other types of leader, a transformational leader is people-oriented and believes that success comes first and last through deep and sustained commitment. Leadership, whether transformational or not, cannot be taught. Like music it is basically an innate gift. It can be improved only by practice. It is difficult to locate a definitive source for a person’s innate gift. It might go to an extent with the family. If that family gift is the bud, the blossom undoubtedly comes through practice.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is a person born to a modest political family in rural Sri Lanka, in the Deep South. The year he was born - 1945 - was decisive. It was the end of the Second World War and the beginning of a new era internationally. When Sri Lanka achieved independence in 1948, Rajapaksa was just three years of age. The post-independence Sri Lanka has in fact evolved almost along with Rajapaksa’s life experience. He came of age before Sri Lanka came of age.


He was witness to many decisive events in the country that undoubtedly created immense impact on his life. The Hartal (or the general strike) of 1953 led by the left and the progressive movement, the rural linguistic awakening that culminated in 1956 which overturned a Colombo based neo-colonial government, and the 1971 youth insurrection were some of the formative experiences. He was attracted towards anti-colonial struggles influenced by the liberation of Vietnam and the struggles of the Palestinian people.

He was a member of the centre left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), similar to a social democratic party, with moderate and pragmatic public policies. He was the youngest Member of Parliament in 1970 when he first entered into active national politics. Since then he has accumulated political experience (or intellectual and social capital) for over thirty eight years as a MP, a Minister, Leader of the Opposition, a Prime Minister and now the Executive President. Before that he was involved in student activism during the mid-1960s and thereafter in grassroots human rights and democratic campaigns.

There has been no other comparable leader in the country after independence with so much of experience, accumulated almost consecutively one after the other with long term engagement in each of the above positions. It is the issues and problems of Sri Lanka that have transformed Mahinda Rajapaksa. It has now become incumbent upon him to transform Sri Lanka in order that those issues and problems are amicably resolved.
- Sri Lanka Guardian