On Governance and Leadership

About the Column

Many of my 20-odd years at the World Bank were spent in the muddy reality of the politics of change, or so-called reforms, in developing countries. The experience taught me that "development" is a process of social, economic and political change. As such, I learned to draw no distinction between rich and the poor nations in thinking about the political-economy issues of nation-building. So, no matter where in the world I was working, nary a day passed by without my casting thoughts to my motherland and her own nation-building.

The single most important lesson I gained at the World Bank is this: Without good governance healthy nation-building is impossible, and the scarcest commodity in making good governance happen is good political leadership.

Just as I would not invest in a business led by a dictatorial CEO, I regard dictatorial political regimes—be they military juntas, monarchies or communist governments—to be a risky venture for healthy nation-building, no matter how "good" the leadership might be. After all, leaders are not gods but mere human beings, and "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." (Lord Acton, 1887, letter to Bishop Madell Creighton)

So, as Winston Churchill once said, I say: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (1947, House of Commons)

Democracy, more than any other form of political system, is a "dance" between the people and their leaders. To be sure, leaders can only be as "good" as the people permit them to be. But the reverse is also true—perhaps more powerfully so. Good leaders inspire. They raise the sights of the people well above their lowest common denominator. They help their people see beyond immediate personal gains or losses to greater opportunities for all. And that, in the end, is what enables good governance to take root, sustain itself, and grow over time, with all the checks and balances of democracy.

I am borrowing this small corner of the virtual space called "Fellow's Contents" to share my random thoughts of over two decades. The topics may vary, but the theme will remain constant: governance and leadership. If Japan's current and future leaders in politics, business and elsewhere happen to find any piece of my thoughts at all useful, it will make me very happy. Needless to say, readers' feedback will be most wholeheartedly welcomed.

July 29, 2005