“Nobility of spirit has more to do with simplicity than ostentation, wisdom rather than wealth, commitment rather than ambition”—Ricardo Muti
When those who want to show how strong and powerful they are, usually do so by flaunting their muscles or bragging about their influential positions and/or contacts or by claiming all that their wealth can purchase and a lot more. Similarly, when an ideology, cult or ism has to have an impactful effect it is usually accompanied with highly impressive institutions and grand buildings. This kind of display invokes awe among the common people and attracts their attention. Even today when we travel around the world and behold stupefying architectural splendours, we get overwhelmed by massive buildings, whether these are palaces, castles, churches, mosques, museums, or parliamentary houses etc. These gigantic structures appear to overshadow our existence, forcing our mental faculties to submit before the power they emanate.
In the imperial past, emperors lived in the most ostentatious manner conceivable. From their silk robes to their luxurious life-style, from their sprawling chateaus to their lavish feasts, everything reflected the grandeur that they enjoyed and the authority that they wielded over their subjects, who remained subservient to their royal commands. In simple terms, their demeanour was that of god while their people obeyed them to the point of worship. Majority of these leaders were oblivious as to how their subjects were faring, relying upon reports provided by their confidantes. A few have been known to venture out in disguise to check out their street reputation and fewer went out so far as to take care of their population like their own children. If one recalls the story of Gautama Buddha, who was born an aristocrat in a cradle of luxury, one can deduce that until the time he ventured out in the streets to see the miseries of human beings, he never realized life could be so tortious.
Gradually as the world evolved and politics became more of a common man’s subject, leaders emerged from among the populace. Democracy took over royalty, leaving some existing kingdoms, that too mostly in name. Now power that was earlier centralised, came down to the people allowing them to raise demands and exert greater pressure on the elected. Their own brethren were to lead so practically there was no inequality of status which earlier created an unavoidable gap between the ruler and the ruled. Despite this proximity, there can be no denying that once their co-equals reach corridors of power they not only maintain distance from their electorates but also choose to live in palatial buildings whether self-owned or government sponsored in a bid to make their importance known and of course to fulfill their new-found responsibilities. Here, however, there are two types of leaders—those who believe in the strength of pomposity, and those, who denounce it from the very beginning.
Like the historic imperialists, majority statesmen today give preference to living in exceptional grandiosity mimicking the monarchs of yester years. Perhaps they understand that people, even today when there is so much awareness, get awe inspired by such gimmicks. Greater respect is shown to the rich owning huge mansions and emerging from large vehicles compared to those who have little or no wealth. In the name of security, elected statespersons move around in a swarm of bodyguards who keep them at a distance from the people who brought them to power and from whom they suddenly need to be so protected that they become totally inaccessible. They are treated like royalty with many attendants to care of them and their families.
In contrast there are some leaders in the world who have literally shunned the traditional majestic life of statespersons, especially of the Third World, to adopt a more modest one. Their numbers are of course few and among them are Jose Alberto (1935-2015), a Uruguayan politician and 40th president from 2010 to 2015. He is known to have been the “world’s humblest head of state”. He would donate 90% of his $12,000 annual salary for the benefit of poor people and was seen riding around on his sixty years old bicycle. He denounced both, the opulent presidential mansion to live a life of simplicity in a farm with his wife and amassing wealth as well as material possessions. Joyce Hilda Banda (1950-2014) and 4th president of Malawi, chose to let go of a presidential jet and some sixty Mercedes in order to uplift the financial predicament of her country.
Sushil Koirala was the Prime Minister of Nepal from 11 February 2014 to 10 October 2015 and was known for his frugal lifestyle just like the modern day Angela Merkel who recently completed her sixteen years tenure as Chancellor of Germany and who led and still leads a most humble life even though she was heading one of the world’s strongest economy. From her apparel to her living quarters, fourth floor of an unremarkable building in Berlin which she occupied when becoming Chancellor, she maintained a low profile even to the extent of buying her own groceries. While many ordinary ministers in Pakistan set up obstacles and police guards around their residences, there are no such things on her sidewalk and while commuters in Pakistan have to take long detours around these houses, there are two tram-lines in front of Merkel’s windows and guards stationed at her place do not ask passers-by to cross to the other side. What a marked difference in the mind-set and attitude of leaders belonging to both under-developed and civilized nations of the world.
The long and short of this entire debate is that leaders who attract respect are ones who are humble, humane and devoted to their countries. These are persons who can fly economy class only to encourage their national team, like the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic; who cycles to office every day, teach in a school once a week and mops up his spilled coffee like Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte; who can personally greet Syrian refugees and hand out warm coats to them like Justin Trudeau of Canada; whose worn-out slippers were found in his luggage on his last trip to Shillong like Abdul Kalam, former president of India. Character and competence are attributes of good leaders, not their wealth or false pretensions.
After all, as Michel de Montaigne said: “On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.” ________________________________________________________________________
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)