“Leaders stand out from the crowd and we all recognise their greatness,” declares Dr. Ismail Serageldin, former World Bank Vice President. The lover of the works of Shakespeare and Cervantes tells Chris Hanrahan what makes leaders and what burdens they must bear.
Some people believe that big talk, abrasiveness, bullying and even racism are the marks of a strong leader. Ismail Serageldin doesn’t agree. “Donald Trump? He’s a worthless buffoon,” scoffs the 75-year-old former World Banker during an interview at the offices of wealth advisory company Heritage Amanah International at the Stock Exchange Building on Sudirman. “He’s capable of manipulating a mass following, but beyond that he has nothing to offer.”
The Giza-born former World Banker (he worked there for 28 years, “starting at the bottom” and eventually becoming a Vice President), and who is now the distinguished Emeritus Librarian of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, says that studying Shakespeare is perhaps the best way to gain insights into the secrets of effective leadership and the use of power.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them,” as Malvolio puts it in Twelfth Night. At the end of the day, Shakespeare says that the primary responsibility of leaders is to be just and fair,” asserts Dr. Serageldin, whose favourite American President is Abraham Lincoln.
Dr. Serageldin has been described by former World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn as “an innovator who always pushed the envelope of current thinking with a view to introduce more of the ‘non-economic’ facets of development into the mainstream paradigm: social issues, gender, environment, culture, and governance. An ardent advocate of the poor and the marginalised, he also built bridges between the civil society and the Bank.”
Dr. Serageldin has published more than 100 books and monographs and over 500 papers on a variety of topics, including biotechnology, rural development, sustainability and the value of science to society. He has hosted a cultural programme on television in Egypt (over 130 episodes) and developed a TV science series in Arabic and English. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Engineering from Cairo University and a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Harvard University, and he has received 38 honorary doctorates. His lectures (many of which are available on his website) include “Shakespeare and the Burden of Leadership”.
“Leaders must be just and fair. They cannot run away from their responsibilities”
“Shakespeare has addressed the burdens of leaders in many of his plays, whether it’s about power, justice or responsibility,” Dr. Serageldin writes. “He deals with the humanity of the leaders, not just the humanity of the led. Leaders are people and people are never perfect. We yearn for a clear vision and a firm hand. But we want to be guided, not ruled. Leaders stand out from the crowd, and we all recognise their greatness. But what makes a leader? What motivates leaders? What are the burdens that such leaders must bear?”
For Dr. Serageldin, there are three main burdens of leadership: power, justice and responsibility. “Generally speaking, leaders must seek and exercise power in ways that are consonant with a system of values, not through absolute tyranny,” he says. “Ultimately, human values insist on respect for human dignity, and reject negative things from torture to mendacity.
“Justice is not only to enforce the law equally, but also to ensure that the law itself is fair to all. This means that legalism without justice is not an exercise in leadership. And in more subtle ways that exclusion of minorities and discrimination against them is inherently unjust. Also that justice towards women is an essential part of societal justice.
“Leaders must take responsibility for their actions, and shall be judged accordingly. Those who are in a position of leadership and try to evade their responsibilities will ultimately lead their societies to disastrous results.”
In portraying powerful leaders, Dr. Serageldin says, Shakespeare “constructed complex characters that defied the popular myths surrounding them in both the historical record and in the popular imagination. Invariably, such myths tend to be uni-dimensional and stilted, all good or all bad.
“Thus Henry V is the conquering hero who defeats the French at Agincourt and wins the throne of France for his son. Yet Shakespeare shows him committing war crimes and casts doubt both about the integrity of his motives and the value of his achievements.
“Richard III is the murderous hunchback who has the princes killed in the tower and who schemes and plots his way to the throne of England until he is undone. While the murder of the two princes in the tower may or may not be laid at his door, there is no doubt that he was on the whole a villain of the first order. Yet Shakespeare endows him with a surprising eloquence. Richard II is a difficult character who is generally seen as a failure, yet Shakespeare endows him with the soul of a poet.”
Dr. Serageldin visited Jakarta earlier this year at the request of Salina Nordin, Group CEO of Syailendra Asia and founder and CEO of Heritage Amanah International, a wealth advisory company to high net worth individuals, multi-family offices, institutions and corporates licensed by the Financial Services Authority of Indonesia (OJK). Heritage Amanah’s Private Financial Circle “offers first-hand opportunities to our selected millennials to benefit from a closed global network and mentorship programmes”.
“Salina asked me to come and speak to students and bankers, and I was only too happy to accept,” Dr. Serageldin said at the beginning of his conversation with Prestige. “Looking at the state of the world today, I don’t think we have ever had such a diversity of views about how to manage economic policies than we do now. I think that’s a very healthy development, and this is what I want to talk about during my time in Indonesia.”
He went on to say that he was unhappy with the results of the strongly market-based approach of the “Washington Consensus” on trade and exchange rates that came about in the 1980s. “In the 80s and 90s we were not doing enough to look at the human side of things. After the (financial) crash (of 2007-08) it was simply a disastrous idea to run policies of austerity – inexcusable. One of the points now to be made is that the conventional ways of looking at austerity programmes need to be looked at again. Everybody is dissatisfied with today’s GDP growth figures.”
Dr. Serageldin sees Brexit as a prime example of poor political leadership. “During the referendum campaign, the British electorate was lied to over and over again by the leaders of the leave campaign about the vast amounts of money that would supposedly be saved and put into the National Health Service instead of the EU,” he said.
“Most amazing of all were the statements about taking back control of Britain’s borders. Britain doesn’t have any borders, except the one with the Republic of Ireland, and why wasn’t that issue debated before the referendum? Good leadership is about telling people the truth and appealing to their better angels – something that the populists never do.
“Leaders must be just and fair. They cannot run away from their responsibilities. When they do, it brings disaster upon nations. Shakespeare says that the means by which leaders rise to and exercise power (such as in Macbeth) are important. Just going around killing people is not a satisfactory way forward.
“Shakespeare’s leaders are never wholly heroes or villains. They have feet of clay. For example, he exposes Henry V as a war criminal. The King ordered his knights to kill all of the French prisoners at Agincourt, for fear that they might escape, re-arm and attack the English again. But they refused to do it. So Henry then ordered his yeomen (the next layer down in the social hierarchy) to carry out the massacre. This is documented fact. Now, Shakespeare could have left that incident out of the play (some productions of Henry V do cut that scene) so as to portray Henry as more heroic. But because he was such a great artist he didn’t – he couldn’t – leave it out.”
In another of his lectures, “The Greatness of Don Quixote”, Dr. Serageldin writes of the leadership lessons Cervantes’ chivalrous dreamer and “unforgettable madman” can teach us. “To Don Quixote a good life has a purpose even if the purpose of a knight errant is to redress injustices and fight for the honour of his damsel. It is a purpose that adds nobility since it is unselfish,” he says.
“The importance of following your beliefs and your dreams is present throughout the book, and that people who do so are strong, courageous and to be admired. Don Quixote is a real hero, not because he mistakes the windmills for giants, but because he can call on his ideals to confront whatever destiny throws at him.
“Heroes and leaders are those who manage to bend reality to their dreams and fashion the future out of their ideas, while ordinary people simply try to accommodate themselves to the reality that surrounds them.”
At the end of the interview, we asked Dr. Serageldin if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the world. “Until a couple of weeks ago, I would have said I was optimistic,” he replied. “But then someone showed me this.” He pulled up a “Deepfake” YouTube video on his smartphone in which Barack Obama appears to be saying the very opposite of what he really believes – as if he had suddenly become a Trump supporter.
“You soon realise that it’s a joke, but what’s frightening is how good it is,” said Dr. Serageldin with a shudder. “And even worse, the technology for making these will only get better.”