Business Times

Are all Sri Lankans natural born failures?

What's the most important development over the last month? Anyone who answered with "Geneva" or something even vaguely associated with that circus is wrong.

The most important development for all Sri Lankans (and for that matter all people from the subcontinent) came from a statement by Greg Chappell, former cricket captain of Australia and one time coach of the Indian national team. In a lovely marketing pitch for his new book, the former captain and coach launched a blistering attack on South Asian culture and how he saw weak leadership as a cultural issue.

This attitude has gained popularity amongst Anglo-Saxon thinkers. South Asians are viewed as compliant "followers" who won't upset the status quo and ask challenging questions of their masters. And Chappell had a point when he went on to mention that, "The Poms (British) taught them really well to keep their head down. For if someone was deemed to be responsible, they'd get punished. So the Indians have learned to avoid responsibility. So before taking responsibility for any decisions, they prefer not to," This thought process is flawed and has important repercussions.

Chappell's views on South Asians have come about owing to both his experience with India and more importantly cultural attitudes to this community in Australia. Australia's migration programme leads to monolithic communities as everyone who gets in legally has "ticked a box" to be eligible. Thus varied ability, especially of the entrepreneurial type is solely lacking. The lack of world class universities has stunted the growth of brilliant academics and Australia's experience is opposite to the case of South Asians in both Britain and the United States. This explains the different opinion held about Indians in particular and South Asians in general across these three countries.

The bigger flaw in the Chappell assessment of South Asia is its presumption that the Anglo-Saxon model is correct and superior in leadership. This is where education counts; specifically history. It is also where the "nature vs. nurture" debate about leadership matters. The question on leadership is important for parents as much as it is for managers and investors alike.

A frequent gripe by senior local managers has been that none of their junior recruits is willing to take decisions. They would be sympathetic to the sentiments echoed by Chappell. One Colombo bourse-listed CEO was lamenting with me as to how useless the previous two intakes of their graduate programme had been. Upon closer inspection it was evident that the company had both a flawed decision making structure and far more damaging, a conflicted remuneration structure.

Sri Lanka's corporate "champions" are dominated by people who have a background in accounting. While this is nothing against the profession, a surplus of "bean counters" doesn't exactly make for a culture of growth and innovation. Worse, the accounting profession bases itself on paying people slave wages in what it colourfully dubs "professional experience" as a requirement for getting their respective designations. What was originally conceived as a quality assurance gate (auditor training) has been abused as a way of keeping wages low.

Fast forward 15 years and those who endured "slave" conditions become managers and are tasked with designing incentive structures for junior staff. Does anyone think that they will be able to shift their mindset to structure a fair incentive structure? The results from my research are not encouraging.
In Sri Lanka, and in India the "lack of leadership" shown by junior staff are directly related to incompatible incentive structures. There are plenty of small firms, which pay above market wages and measurements that go with it, in both countries that have some of the most productive and innovative staff that I have seen anywhere on the planet.

Are leaders born or can you teach someone to lead? The jury is still out on the answer to the previous question. I’m doing research to gather evidence, etc. Psychologists and Biologists are of the view that "nature" is an overwhelming factor. They have history on their side from Emperor Ashoka to Mao. For all the focus on leadership training, executive education can only provide tools and methods. Success lies in proper execution, which no training can provide and is where nature takes over nurture.

Successful leaders across a range of industries are keen students of history. Subscribers to the "South Asians can't be leaders" theory risk neither understanding nor appreciating historical context to both the situation today and the conditions which prevailed. Societal structures and feudal arrangements have been embedded in Asian cultures as a method of distributing and preserving wealth. Those structures didn't require leadership, except to keep the peasantry under wraps. Modern Anglo Saxon leadership models grew at the hands of plundering poor and weaker countries around the world for 500 years, which provided their citizenry with access to credit.

Leadership is not race dependent, but rather incentive and context dependent. How else could one explain the single greatest demonstration of leadership in the last century? The very creation of a country called India born out of a movement led by a little chap called Mohandas Ghandi. I'll take untrained and incompetent South Asian leadership like that any day.

(Kajanga is an Investment Specialist based in Sydney, Australia. You can write to him at

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