Leadership, Personality cult and Institutionalisation

imageAdam (as) came down a father and leader and so from the beginning, man has been cast into this mould.

From my years of witnessing, leadership really falls into two broad styles. The first is iconic and driven by the personality of the leader. The second type is one which is built into the fabric of the system, where the personality of the leader is less visible and the institution is important. Its not my wish to judge, as depending on the need, either could be right for that particular moment.

Personality driven situations happen a lot in developing countries. The reason is simple. There are not enough institutions in place and moreover, the mindset is not controlled enough to have it any other way. So the personality of the leader is dominant enough in the minds of the followers, to ensure they follow his/her direction. Emotions have to play a larger role; trust is the basis of the system. At its extreme demagoguery occurs. A crisis normally has to have such a leader. Pakistan/India politics is very much just such a game. Hence families have thrown up leaders (not necessarily competent) where the family profile has given them that thrust. The Gandhis, Bhuttos, Shareefs are very much from this mould. Imran khan, too is a personality cult. Though to be fair, an attempt has been made towards some institutionalisation. But the recent dharnas have stamped his personality very firmly over his party and this country. This also happened in his cricket days in the Pakistan team, where the gulf in personality between him and others, made his dominance inevitable.

Institutional leadership is something you see a lot in structured systems. The leader is an arm of the system. He/she derives their authority and power from it. The followers respect and follow the seat and system, rather than the individual. Change the leader and it should not make a difference. Many corporates have followed this regime and it has worked well for them. Its cold, calculating, systemised and sustainable. And that is why particularly, it is not ‘Us’ in Pakistan. An army is one institution where the rules of succession are such, that there is very little difference between one leader to another. So then institutionalisation of leadership occurs.

Now within these broad guidelines are variations of style. You might get authoritative people, softer people, people who are loved and people who are hated. This does not shift the eventual effectiveness of leadership, as long as control is practised on the direction and goal of the leader, there is sincerity of purpose and there is the backbone for perseverance. If all these happen, success will come eventually.

Within established systems you will get the odd outlier. Jack Welch of GE was one such leader who created a personality cult within the system. Others one can think of in recent years are Iacocca of Chrysler and Goizueta of Coca Cola. Typically, such outliers will rock the system and make things happen in the short term. But since they differ from the system DNA, they cause longer term damage and eventually the system reverts back to its institutionalised DNA.

Can a system migrate from one to another? Above examples are of those where a personalised leadership was foisted onto an institutional based approach. I have never really seen these work. Typically the system reverts to an institution over time or it will crash and disappear. Think of India and Indira Gandhi in the mid 70s. That attempt to create an authoritative leadership failed and India moved back into democracy mode.

The reverse migration of institutionalisation from a cult personality, almost always happens over time. Mao and China is one very obvious example. There are so many others. The Magna Carta is one very poignant example of how the cult of a leader was replaced by the participation of a system.

We in Pakistan are witnessing this very battle in so many places. The Supreme Court, the Army, the democratic institution and also in many local corporates. If we desire sustainability, then eventually we have to learn that dependence on the cult of a leader will always give us variability and uncertainty over the long term, not sustainability.

The picture is from Wylio.com a free picture site


About sarfarazar
I have been lucky! A long career with large scale organisations and some acclaim. Also, took time off to write, mentor and do some education and social development projects. I continue to mentor and help younger people in life. Inshallah, hope to write on various subjects in my blog.

20 Responses to Leadership, Personality cult and Institutionalisation

  1. Very well articulated. This should be taken as the turning point from firms into organisations. Keep up with your contributions since you owe it to Pakistan … Thanks

  2. shiraz ahmed says:

    Sarfaraz sb. an insightful and thought proving article! wish if you can come to cbm again for a guest speaking session

  3. Ain Riz says:

    Nice read. I agree with you. Most of the leaders we see around us are more of a personality cult phenomenon than the actual leadership and since people require role models so they are drawn towards the charisma.

  4. nice article. 100% agree with above mention lines.

  5. Adnan Qadeer Kahn says:

    Very thoughtfull article Sir.

    However just a matter of discussion a personality built an instituation and thats the reason we haven’t built any one as u mentioned except Army we can’t see any other example in Paksitan.

    I am of the view it all depends on visionary leadership (again a personality cult) who drives the nations, Mahatir Mohammad, Manmohan sigh, AMyo just a name to few.

    W/o any political biasness I. Khan drives Shoukat Khanum from personality to Institution.

    I think in Pakistan we requires hybrid of both leadership style.


  6. ashraf says:

    This is really a wonderful article but there should be some suggestions how we can improve our systems to avoid personality driven organisations and politics.


  7. Farooq Ahmad Khera says:

    thought provoking article

  8. Zafar Iqbal says:

    It is very well written indeed. I am wondering, how non profit leadership (NGO leadership) should differ from others especially political and corporate..

    • sarfarazar says:

      People lead according to their DNA and even organisations generally appoint leaders according to the culture they have created. Non profit leadership cannot be different from any organisation.. Some leaders will be iconic, Abdus Sattar Edhi for instance. Others will be instituionalised, for instance have you ever heard of the head of PPAF. In one case SKMT, its two fold. The collection for a long time was totally reliant on the imagery and vigoir of IK, but the running of the hospital is totally institutionalised under the CEO and soctors committee and IK has zero say in it.

  9. Sheeraz Khan says:

    Assalaamualaikum Sarfaraz Saab

    Very pertinent article, I must say. In lieu of your explanation where would you place Shaukat Khanum Hospital? It progressed from a man’s dream to an institution now, what made this transfer possible?

    • sarfarazar says:

      Because Imran and the Board consciously tried to dis-associate themselves, after a while. SKMT became the brand and whether Imran was involved became irrelevent. This was conscious thought from the early 2000’s to about 2010. By then this separation of imagery had been achieved. I know since I was on the Board 2002-12. This was the top priority in IKs mind and others.

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