Leadership This Month : Missed Opportunities

Institutional Leaders with a historical legacy are faltering in the present.

The International Olympic Association (IOC) & the Republican party establishment in the United States, in particular.

The International Olympic Association (IOC)

Russia, a sporting superpower was recently indicted in an independent anti-doping enquiry for establishment-backed doping by Russian athletes in the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi, Russia. Imagine hosting the Oympics and playing dirty on the side to help your country athletes win. This goes against the very spirit of everything that the Olympics stands for.

With the Rio Olympics so near, the IOC had to respond and act fast. What did it do? The bare minimum was to bar Russian track and field athletes from Rio 2016. And that it did, though even here, there is a provision to get them in. But the IOC did not impose a blanket ban on all Russian participation in Rio. A blanket ban would have sent a very strong, but much needed message to all member nations and their sports-establishments that the IOC is uncompromisingly committed in its fight against doping and any other unethical behaviour.

Excellence, Commitment, and Respect are the three core-themes that the Olympics movement stands for. In choosing to be light on Russia, the IOC has undermined the very respect for fair play that ennobles all sports and elevates it as a human endeavour. No doubt, insiders at IOC would argue that banning Russia so close to the event would have threatened to unravel the signature event itself. And the threat was all too real, given the way Russia has been under Vladimir Putin.  So, the IOC played it safe. And faltered.

Every crisis is an opportunity to reassert what we stand for. IOC blew its chance. Of course, the doping scandal reflects poorly on the IOC’s own monitoring oversight as well. How could it not know what was happening in Sochi,2014? What systems, processes and mechanisms for testing and reviewing were in place? How did they falter? These are good questions to ask.

The Republican party in the US

The IOC could be accused of looking the other way. The Republican party leadership actively courted trouble. They were not sure of whether Donald Trump is an asset or liability. But he sure got attention in a world where attention is currency. And so, they indulged him as a show-stealer. Well, he ended up owning the stage!

At various intervals during the party nomination process, the party leadership had bouts of self-reflection and anxiety. The nominees backed by them were not faring well. Trump was the outsider and was pulling in the crowds and the votes. The leadership explained it as Trump’s appeal. They did not think it to be a loss of Republican party appeal. There in lies the rub. The longer the party establishment persisted in their all-is-well delusion, the more traction Trump built till he gained unstoppable momentum.

By the time Trump became the inevitable choice, the party leaders were left red-faced. All big-ticket campaign pronouncements of Trump are uttterances that not even his own party can give its fig-leaf approval for. As a Republican party nominee, Trump will get votes of party faithfuls and that is what matters. However,Trump’s demeanour is so irascible and his idea of the presidency is so anarchist that there is a real possibility of a Trump presidency sinking the party for good. Rather than self-destruct on the convention floor by denying Trump the ticket, the party reluctantly has come round to supporting him. The best that party insiders hope for is a resounding Trump defeat. So that, he will be cast aside as a bad dream. What it does to the viability of the party is anybody’s guess.

Just like the IOC, the Republican party did not reassert what it stands for. Perhaps because the leaders do not know themselves where they stand, forget what they stand for. In both cases, the leadership did not check which way the wind is blowing. They did not face upto what is at stake. And ended up making compromises that strike at the very heart of their foundational purpose.

Irom Sharmila

Where institutional leaders got stuck, an individual has shown how to come unstuck.

Irom Sharmila from Manipur, India was on an indefinite 16 year long fast to repeal the Indian Army’s AFSPA, an act that gives the armed forces wider freedom to operate. She was being force-fed to keep her alive. Recently, she announced an end to her fast. Irom admitted that her fast had not served the purpose. She has delcared that she will be contesting elections in Manipur to achieve what the fast couldn’t. An individual shows  that it is possible to change tack and hold steadfast to the purpose. Institutions get bogged down because they believe they are the center of the world, they believe that everything revolves around them. Especially, instituions with a history.

Leaders need to ask, what is our purpose. They need to probe, are we still relevant in an ever-changing world. And they need to explore how they can adapt and change to stay relevant in such a world.


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