When leaders set the tone

And better still, lead by example. As the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did publicly last Sunday 21 June by leading a crowd of nearly 35,000 people in New Delhi, celebrating the first International Yoga Day decreed by the United Nations last year, and ratified by 193 countries.

Millions of people across many of these countries across the world, from as far south as Australia to up north in New York (at Times Square, led by Art of Living Guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) took part in public yoga performances.

What is more important here is that this was not a mere public display of a one-off demonstration by Shri Modiji. He actually performs a daily yoga routine as part of his spartan lifestyle, so what he did was not just show: he practises what he preaches.

And that is what we expect, and look up to leaders to do. And it’s leaders across all levels of society, from the family headed by the father (at least until now: same sex marriage may change that model) to the workplace of whatever size of organization/firm/corporation, to social entities such as NGOs or other structures which engage the young in particular, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, and on to the national level of political leadership. Because the latter variety tends to get more media coverage, the need for political leaders to ‘walk the talk’ is even greater. The common man tends to emulate them blindly, and the obvious danger of aping their negative traits is only too clear.

Leaders can make or break a country, and while ‘creative destruction’ can have a positive dimension in certain contexts (for example recycling of materials), on a larger scale when driven by ideology it can cause great havoc and suffering, and leave permanent scars. From antiquity to the present day, there are so many examples of leaders who have belonged to that category, killing millions of their fellow human beings as they forged ahead to establish supremacy, forcing the obedience of the acolytes, and of masses who had no choice but to fall in line for sheer survival. The hall of the infamous would contain such figures as Hitler, Lenin and Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin and other dictators on the African continent, Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, Ceausescu, Pol Pot among others.

They generated an atmosphere of fear, repression and suspicion such that the populations of those countries would betray their own for sheer survival. And the shadow of these rulers has been such that it has taken long years for the people of their respective countries to recover psychologically and begin the rebuilding process. And despite material improvements in their lives, the scars of the past still live on in memorials and museums (of skulls in Rwanda for example) that are built to remind future generations of the madness that once prevailed.

As Walter Isaacson observed in ‘TIME 100’ of April 1998, ‘it was whole societies, including advanced ones like Germany, that embraced or tolerated madness…. they sought totalitarian solutions rather then freedom. Theologians have to answer the question of why God allow evil.’ He also goes on to add that ‘our disputes… may be divisive, but we have the political and constitutional means to resolve them peacefully.’

This applies to both within individual countries and among nation states, but although ‘according to the Harvard professor Steven Pinker, a thorough analysis of the data shows that apart from a recent spike in conflicts, the long-term trend is that the world is more peaceful than ever’, the focus by the media on negatives can send the wrong signal and adversely impact populations, perpetuating conflicting behaviours and generating a kind of apathy.

This is the thesis of Seán Dagan Wood, Editor-in-chief of Positive News, co-founder of the Constructive Journalism Project, who wrote recently that he ‘came to understand that they (NB: the negatives) weren’t the full picture; that the news magnifies only a fragment of reality’, and that ‘the way that the news created a deeper story about the world and about human nature, didn’t feel right.’ And that ‘it was perhaps this intuitive feeling that led me to editing Positive News, a publication that shines a light on innovation, kindness, co-operation and the ways people are working to create solutions to the problems facing society.’

The role of media as leaders of opinion is therefore vital in driving the mood and the overall atmosphere in a country, and it is a responsibility that they must assume with great concern and care. No doubt sensationalism sells, but if in the process it harms, then we have perforce to revisit how news is presented and that there is balance in coverage so as not to push people into despair. Its is true that, for example, it is not the media that makes or breaks coalitions and partnerships – though the blame is often laid – but in so far as they lead by opinion, their contribution to the national weal has to be in the forefront.

This is how Wood highlights the issue: ‘This brings into question the role of the news in shaping our perceptions. The media doesn’t just mirror society, it moves it. What the media focuses on, and how it chooses to report, affects our thoughts, feelings, conversations and perspectives. By consequence, it plays a part in influencing our choices and actions too.

Of course, it’s essential to report the problems and dangers we face. And journalism as a watchdog — exposing injustice, exploitation and corruption, and holding power to account — is a function critical to democracy. But journalism’s apparent theory of change, that by relentlessly focusing on what’s going wrong society will be better informed and able to do something about it, is undermined by evidence of how news impacts us.’

Food for some deep thought, surely, if we want to assume our genuine role as leaders too…

*  Published in print edition on 26 June 2015

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