28 Aug 2017

Not long ago, over dinner in Singapore, we attempted to define what qualities make a great leader.

For Klaus, the five key elements were heart, brain, muscle, nerve, and soul. For Kishore, compassion, canniness, and courage were key, as was the ability to identify talent and understand complexity.

The extent of the overlap is telling. It is no coincidence that both lists begin with heart. Like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, a leader cannot achieve greatness without showing deep empathy with his or her people a sentiment that fuels the fight against the injustices those people may face.

Such heroic leaders are unlikely to emerge in normal times. But these are not normal times.

On the contrary, today's unprecedented inequality in many parts of the world is precisely the kind of injustice that could spur the emergence of great leaders with compassion for those at the bottom.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the young leader who most radiates hope today, was elected partly because of his commitment to helping ordinary people.


Then there is brain the ability to sift through the masses of information with which we are constantly inundated, in order to make smart decisions in a complex and rapidly changing world.

Here, some current leaders are showing plenty of aptitude.

For example, the Chinese and Indian economies' continued growth and development reflects the fact that President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, respectively, understand the economic and social challenges and opportunities implied by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

They know, in this complex context, they must develop dynamic new industries that place their economies at the frontier of scientific and technological progress.

The smart use of new technology is also helping to alleviate poverty. No one has yet reliably quantified the boost to wellbeing that such technological advances produce. But optimism in both China and India is surging.

The third critical quality of a great leader is courage or nerve, as Klaus puts it.

The surge of refugees in Europe, especially Syrian asylum-seekers in 2015, led to an explosion of populist sentiment, with political leaders increasingly calling for borders to be closed.


Weak leaders buckled under the pressure, either aligning their rhetoric with that of the populists or getting steamrolled by their fiery competitors.

Not German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She set a powerful example by agreeing to accept one million refugees. At first, her standing with voters and even many within her own party sagged, to the point some began writing her political epitaph. But her remarkable courage eventually paid off. She is now recognised worldwide as one of the strongest leaders of our time.

Of course, translating courage into positive change requires muscle the influence and authority to take action which requires an astute understanding of political realities.

Such canniness was vital to bring about the powerful shift in Ireland's political system, for example, with the deeply conservative country electing Leo Varadkar, a gay man of Indian origin, as its prime minister.

Pope Francis shows how these various qualities can come together to produce strong leadership. Shrewdness, courage, morality, and intelligence have underpinned his effort to change the position and perception of the Roman Catholic Church in the world. More broadly, Pope Francis has shown courage and wisdom in embracing a more decentralised church structure, and envisioning an inclusive church that is a home for all.


In yet another shrewd move, he pursued the turnover of senior officials at the Vatican gradually, rather than in one fell swoop.

Pope Francis also has what Klaus would call the soul of a leader. Most leaders succumb, at one point or another, to the comfortable trappings of office.

Yet Pope Francis continues to live a simple and uncluttered life, without the perks that are often associated with leadership, even in the religious realm.

In a world that is changing more rapidly than ever, we should seek leaders who can protect and serve the interests of the people they are supposed to represent.

This piece was first published in Project Syndicateon 9August 2017.