The leadership paradox

It is impossible to achieve one’s leadership ambition or leverage diverse resources without pooling power. And power pooling cannot be achieved without negotiation—or power trading and trade-offs

K Ramkumar

[A deal with the devil: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met at Yalta in February 1945 to discuss their joint occupation of Germany and plans for postwar Europe. Photograph by US government photographer (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]

Last week I saw a Tamil movie Vikram Vedha and also read a piece by Sankarshan Thakur on Nitish Kumar. My friend Charles Assisi had shared with me the article, ‘I, PROMISCUOUS Power and the Improbable Amorality of Nitish Kumar’. He encouraged me to examine the interplay of leadership with ambition, power and values.

Another friend NS Ramnath had recommended the movie. It is based on king Vikramaditya’s dilemma about what is the righteous choice as a leader. Inspired by this the director tells a story about the interplay of ambition, power and values through the leadership choices of a cop and a gangster. The movie has an innovative treatment, where the gangster Vedha, time and again teases the cop with the poser: “Oru kadai sollattuma?”—“Shall I tell you a story?” This is meant to make the cop reflect on what is the good or bad, right or wrong, leadership choice.

Inspired by that let me ask you, my readers, “Shall I tell you a few stories, for you to reflect on the eternal paradox: The leadership paradox? Where choices are often trade-offs?”


Story 1: During World War II, on January 1, 1942, US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill formalised their alliance with “the devil”—then a reference to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. This was the Declaration of United Nations. At Teheran in 1943 and later at Yalta in 1945, this arrangement had moved on from “saving the world” to “sharing the world”—a postwar power sharing arrangement. Yet by 1949, Stalin went back to being “the devil” who had to be fought by the NATO, headed by the US. Were Roosevelt and Churchill unaware that Stalin was a despicable and dangerous tyrant?

Story 2: Some 2,000 years ago, what history calls the First Triumvirate came into being. This was a power sharing arrangement between Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus. The power sharing purportedly was to save Rome from the anarchy and governance chaos after Sulla’s autocracy. The Roman Republic was dead. It had to be resurrected—rid of venal corruption, degeneration of culture, and insured against future tyrants usurping it. Pompey brought the military might, Crassus the money and Caesar the popular support of the plebeians—the commoners. Caesar outwitted Pompey and Crassus to correct the power sharing aberration, and made it exclusively in his favour. Rome was back in the clutches of a tyrant—one who destroyed democracy, paradoxically through the will of the people. “Caesar” forever become the term for “Supreme Leader”. He had to be assassinated for the Republic to be restored.

Story 3: On the death of Julius Caesar, his nephew Octavian formed the Second Triumvirate with the peoples’ general Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, another of Caesar’s generals who was to keep Antony in check. This too started with “save Rome” as the noble objective and ended with the 16-year-old Octavian, who had no military credentials or popularity, achieving his ambition of ruling Rome exclusively for the next 50 years as Augustus Caesar. The tyrant was restored and the Republic was dead forever.


Thakur quotes Nitish Kumar: “Satta prapt karoonga, by hook or by crook, lekin satta leke achchha kaam karoonga… I will take power, by hook or by crook, but having got it, will do good work.”

The paradox of leadership has very few exceptions and has been beautifully summed up by Thakur. The three historical references with which I started this article will also bear this out. We all go pink and blue about the expediencies or even immoralities of alliances that leaders and aspirants strike. Leaders themselves take pains to cloak their quest for power as “for the upliftment and welfare of society/institutions”. Leaders agonise to place their ambition in an institutional or societal framework and seek to legitimise questionable power arrangements in terms of “for the larger good for the greater many”.

Even Abraham Lincoln made a devil’s deal on the eve of the voting on the bill to abolish slavery in 1864. Two senators had to be bought out to get the numbers. When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi refused to do a deal with the devil—a partition deal with Muhammad Ali Jinnah—his shishyas (disciples) sidelined him and made the deal. Of course, for the “larger good for the greater many”. We also call this pragmatism and tend to favour it over cussed idealism.

Can these acts of saving the world be accomplished without pooling power?

In fact, at the start of the 20th century, financier and banker John Pierpont Morgan set out to “save America” by herding the steel and railroad majors into a room and making them an offer they could not refuse. He financed the mergers and acquisitions that created huge conglomerates that achieved economies of scale and competed globally. He could do this by forming a modern Triumvirate of the US President, the Congress and himself. This was not about JP Morgan using power to further his ambition; it was about “saving the world”. Can these acts of saving the world be accomplished without pooling power?  

However, if Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Alibaba’s Jack Ma were to forge a save-the-world alliance to rid the world of an “evil monopolist”—their competitor—by partnering with politicians and regulators to tweak a few regulations, would we all not scream murder, as we did with Nitish Kumar?

The ultimate power pooling “deal with the devil” was made by the devas when they had to churn out the elixir from the depths of the ocean. They made a deal with the asuras and in the end cheated them. That is why I have a sculpture depicting the Samudra Manthan to welcome participants at Kautilya, our Leadership Development Centre.

Ambition is the fuel and power is the engine that moves the vehicle called leadership to its chosen destination

Let us first settle the debate. It is impossible to achieve one’s leadership ambition without power pooling. In my book, ambition is the fuel and power is the engine that moves the vehicle called leadership to its chosen destination. Where do values fit into this? I wish values were the map or the controls of the vehicle. I fortunately do not suffer from naiveté. 

The debate whether the end justifies the means has been well and truly settled over the last 5,000 years of the civilised world. The Italian prince Machiavelli boldly articulated the “end justifies the means” proposition. Wikipedia says about him: “…Machiavelli an Italian Renaissance historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist, and writer. He has often been called the father of modern political science.” Hence, the values question for leadership is, “How far can values be upheld in the exercise of leadership?” What is the righteous leadership choice?

The Gods themselves have answered it. For a noble end, a means which is less questionable and not entirely unquestionable is acceptable. Do you see the paradox in the very construction of the proposition? At least that is my understanding of what Krishna told Arjuna on that fateful day in Kurushetra. Or when Harry S Truman flagged off Enola Gay, the Boeing B29 bomber, to nuke Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and followed it up to lay Nagasaki waste three days later. What did innocent civilians have to do with Japan’s Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s madness? By ending the war, Truman was the saviour of the world in the eyes of many.

Don’t we all thump the table for pragmatism and mock at foolish idealism when our ends have to be met?

Don’t we all thump the table for pragmatism and mock at foolish idealism when our ends have to be met? Why hold others to live up to onerous requirements, when we choose to be practical?

Is it acceptable to use “influence” to get admission for my children in a prestigious educational institution?

Is it acceptable to arrange for a call to the hospital’s CEO to jump the queue and wrest a room or operation theatre booking for my father?

Is it acceptable to “get someone to lean on” a regulator or government official to “favourably” consider our proposal?

Is it acceptable to collaborate with a few friendly competitors to neutralise the “extra-constitutional power” of “an unscrupulous” competitor?

All these are power pooling arrangements—righteous or not, I leave it to your judgment. I can go on and on, but will leave it to you to construct the many such pragmatic power pooling arrangements we all indulge in to achieve our many ambitions—be they leadership or other ambitions.

Unfortunately the field of leadership has evolved as a pragmatic one. “Duty drives the action” is what Krishna tells Arjuna. That’s not very different from the thought from the much vilified Machiavelli in the 15th century.

This brings us to the question: whether leadership ambition is and should be a personal one, or for the society and the institution. Take a step back and ask the question, how can any ambition be rooted anywhere but inside a person? We can build on it further and ask, for what purpose—personal or for the well-being of the greater many? A personal ambition for an institutional end—a paradox again! But in any which case the wellspring of ambition cannot be outside of a person; hence ambition is deeply personal. It is a motive. It is an emotion. It is the driver of risk taking.

Courage is your risk appetite—what consequences are you willing to accept for adopting the means to achieve an end?

Charles asked me where “courage” fits into this debate. Courage is your risk appetite. It is shaped by your ambition. It poses the question, what consequences are you willing to accept for adopting the means to achieve an end—be it personal or for the community?

Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon, Gandhi when he was prepared to be isolated and be alone, JP Morgan when he was prepared for the spite of his peer industry leaders and eventually that of Roosevelt, and Nitish Kumar when he accepted that he will lose his moral sheen—they all made their choices.

Ambition, especially for leadership, counts for nothing without power. If Ambition is the motive force that moves you, power is the motive force with which you move others. In my sessions with those who seek to discover their leadership, we explore the limits of how much one’s own power will help each of us to achieve complex leadership outcomes. After much debate we invariably conclude that it has its limitations.

Even popular and charismatic leaders like Julius Caesar and Narendra Modi have discovered that without power pooling, their leadership ambitions will come to nought. Rajiv Gandhi realised that 400 MPs and the Nehru dynastic pedigree did not give him the power to cleanse his own political party, despite his ambition for it. Paradoxically, he wanted politics to be free of “power brokers”. Power pooling is the force multiplier and in most instances the basic necessity for leveraging diverse resources. When viewed through this lens, it will become clear why power pooling cannot be achieved without negotiation, or what I call power trading.

To be able to pool power you should be willing and able to trade. To trade, you should have power which others value. When others do not value your power or discount it, that’s when a Nitish Kumar dumps a Rahul Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, or a Travis Kalanick has to fight to even stay on the board. When you augment power by pooling, or lose power when you are excluded from the pool or are refused entry, often the currency of the trade is “values negotiation”! When “value creation” is the objective, “values negotiation” becomes inevitable. All parties believe that they are doing what they do to uphold values. Sure, this too is paradoxical!

Hence, power pooling will be stillborn without trade-offs. Roosevelt and Churchill understood it well. Without engaging Hitler in a two-front war and without a toehold in Europe (in 1943 Britain and the US did not have a toehold in mainland Europe; Russia had), the war was lost. Hence, they had to choose what to them was the lesser evil—the “good devil” so to say. Paradox! Much like the devas had to make a deal with the asuras for the elixir.

In both cases, eventually one party sought to establish their dominance after dealing with the immediate pressing issue. The Indian National Congress had to trade-off Gandhi and the concept of a united India, for accelerating India’s Independence—the greater good and the lesser evil had to be chosen. A Gandhian movement without Gandhi—paradox!

Can we question Subhash Chandra Bose’s credentials as the upholder of values such as freedom, right to life, humanism and equality? Yet Bose was prepared to make a deal with what most regimes and people of the modern world regard as three evils: Mussolini, Hitler and Tojo. A quest for freedom from an imperialistic force through alliance with imperialists—paradox!

Trade-off between power and ideals is the central dilemma of leadership

Trade-off between power and ideals is the central dilemma of leadership—from legislative forums of governments to the board rooms. Whether the ambition is personal or institutional, without power pooling and power trade-offs, there is very little chance of it fructifying. This is where the dharma sankat or values dilemma is born. In retrospect, when the dust has settled, it is easier to sit in judgment. But when engulfed in the fog of battle, when your or your collective’s survival is at stake, it is difficult to make a call that would later be extolled as a sacrifice for “upholding values”. This is easy when we review or hold others to it, but near impossible when we have to live up to it.

Why do leaders agonise to put a values spin on their power pooling arrangements, which we call alliances? Because all of us crave legitimacy. Even Hitler justified racial supremacy and his German people concurred with him for a decade. Hitler can be dismissed as immoral and evil, but what will you say of the German people? Not all of them could have been mad—paradox!

A just cause, a holy war, saving the world, preserving the culture, bringing economic well-being to all, jobs—all these are legitimate justifications. Which we all—citizens and ambitious human beings alike—accept and give sanction to our leaders to trade-off values, for the larger good of the greater many of us.

Is leadership the means for achieving personal ambition and can institutional ambition be independent of personal ambition?

Is power the means to leadership or is leadership the means to power?

How much of one’s ambition can be achieved with the righteous use of power?

Can power pooling and power trading be done without compromising values?

Should we believe that the “good vs bad” and the “right or wrong” kindergarten moral education defines our choice of power alliance and pursuit of leadership choices?

Are leaders to be guided by the larger good for the greater many or the right means?

Finally, are leaders to be guided by the larger good for the greater many or the right means?

This then is the eternal leadership paradox, my friends. 

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Ranjeev Lahkar on Jul 05, 2018 7:04 a.m. said

interesting... am just thinking if i apply this to current indian context... the opposition parties are pooling together for power but given the value gap...there is nothing we indians will experience differently

Ramkumar Krishnaswamy on Aug 22, 2017 9:46 a.m. said

I mis-spelt your name too Anshuman. No pun intended. I am sorry

Ramkumar Krishnaswamy on Aug 22, 2017 9:45 a.m. said

Thanks Ansshuman. Will correct the spelling.

Anshuman Singh on Aug 22, 2017 4:01 a.m. said

The spelling mistake pertaining to US President Harry Tru(e)man is a pun or an editing slip. Whatever be it, it fits well into the context.

About the author

K Ramkumar
K Ramkumar

Founder and CEO

Leadership Centre

K. Ramkumar is the founder and CEO of Leadership Centre, an institution dedicated to building world-class thought and practice in the domain of leadership consulting, research and development.

He is a retired executive director of ICICI Bank and retired president of ICICI Foundation. He has completed his Post Graduate Diploma in Personnel Management from Madras School of Social Work in 1984. He joined the Board of Directors with effect from February 1, 2009.

Prior to joining ICICI Bank in 2001, Ramkumar served companies such as Hindustan Aeronautics, Brookebond Lipton India Limited (now Hindustan Unilever Limited) and ICI India Ltd. His work in these companies has mainly been in the areas of Human Resources Management and Manufacturing.

While at ICICI Bank, he was passionately devoted to Leadership Development, Succession Management, building a supply chain for the Bank’s human resources requirements, leveraging technology to innovate, and driving operational excellence for world class service quality.

Institute for Finance, Banking & Insurance and ICICI Manipal Academy for Banking & Insurance were conceived and nurtured by him. The partnership Initiatives with SEBI – National Institute for securities management and with NIIT - the NIIT University, were also nurtured by him. He led the CSR project of ICICI Foundation on skilling youth and promoting livelihood. This is done under the ICICI Academy for Skills, which has 21 centers offering 13 skills to 25,000 youth per year.

He writes extensively on a range of topics on his blog He invites you all to be active contributing members of this blog.

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