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To succeed, leaders should have a good set of advisors

Advisor Moeed Yusuf with Imran Khan

Entrusted by US President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 to fight the war against the Confederacy in the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant led the US armies to victory in 1865. Almost all his core staff during the war were civilians.

In 1869, at the age 46, Grant was elected 18th President of the United States. He was the youngest in US history until that time. Although highly scrupulous himself, his administration was tainted with scandals. Considered by Grant as the most indispensable man he had around him, his Chief of StaffGe. Rawlins, unfortunately died of tuberculosis after only five months of service as COS. 

Thereafter, Gen Grant’s misfortune was that many of his close advisers let him down badly. Appointed Secretary to the President in Rawlins’ place, Orville Babcock, became embroiled in corruption charges and was accused of manipulation of both cabinet departments and appointments. 

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Out of loyalty to their shared battlefield experience, Grant shielded Babcock from all political attacks. Indicted as a member of the “Whiskey Ring” in 1875, he was protected by Grant with a written deposition on his behalf. This resulted in Babcock's acquittal. 

However, many other scandals resulted in Babcock’s leaving the White House under pressure from Secretary of State Hamilton Fish who arguably was one of Grant’s finest Cabinet officers. 

Unfortunately, President Grant's choice of cabinet members, staff and advisers were mostly "hit and miss". Scrupulously honest himself, Gen Grant was not a good judge of character. He had a penchant for appointing the wrong people, and then being too loyal to those who proved to be dishonest and opportunistic. 

His administration's scandals rocked both his Presidential terms. Well-intentioned but shortsighted, he listened now to one faction and then to another among the Generals, cabinet members, state politicians and advisers. Historian Henry Waltmann argued that Grant’s political naïveté undercut his effectiveness. Does he remind you of someone we know and love for his honesty and sincerity?

Closest advisers, who are neither honest nor efficient, usually have their own agenda. This includes power, some desire revenge, some hunger for control, while others conspire to oust a leader they are either jealous of or deem unfit for duty. 

Many leaders met tragic ends at the hands of their advisers. With a naive and pious King Henry VI of England not interested in politics or state affairs, a small group of advisers who included his close relatives, took full control of the country by declaring him unfit to rule. 

A look at the history of advisers, good and bad, is quite fascinating. Some famous advisers who were successful in helping their leaders achieve their aims, are: (1) Chanakya was a master strategist and a shrewd politician who helped Chandragupta of the Maurya dynasty run his empire. His book “Arthashastra” is considered as the holy grail of Hindu politics and diplomacy (2) the Hindu adviser to Mughal Emperor Akbar, Birbal’s wisdom was unparalleled. He was known for his wit and innovative solutions to many problems faced by Akbar (3) As Prime Minister to Wilhelm I of Prussia, and later the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck was instrumental in the unification of various German principalities into the German Empire. He built Germany’s world-renowned bureaucracy and army. (4) Yelü Chucai was a trusted adviser to Genghis Khan who once ruled most of the then known world. Chucai convinced the Mongols to tax conquered cities instead of destroying them as per usual practice, arguing that the money and manpower gained from the cities could fund future conquests. 

A common feature of good advisers is their loyalty to their sovereign, instead of being “prima donnas”. Their approach is usually low-key and behind the scenes.

However, some of these rascals become indispensable to their leader if not the country. Asif Zardari's principal adviser on most matters, Salman Faruqui, was an out and out crook. But he had deep knowledge of running of the affairs of the State and the senior bureaucrats. He was indispensable for Zardari. He had knowledge of which bureaucrat was honest and who was not. He guessed which bureaucrats went to the lucrative Ministries where money could be made. 

On the other hand he also had “horses for courses”, putting to work a bunch of excellent individuals in key slots to provide good governance. But corruption cannot go keep on co-existing with good governance. In the end, the Zardari government failed. 

While Nawaz Sharif used the same formula, Shahbaz Sharif perfected it in the Punjab. In the end both came to political grief because of massive and unbridled corruption in which their bureaucratic lackeys were full participants.

One of the central problems of Imran Khan’s government is the quality and commitment of his range of advisers, not only for day-to-day politics but for short and long-term decision-making. Prime Minister Khan has more than once given the perception of making off-the-cuff decisions in his pronouncements and interviews. Even good advisers do not matter until there is a due process for diligence and analysis not only to sort out facts from fiction but separate emotions from reality. 

Some of his advisers, political and otherwise, are certainly dyed-in-the-wool professionals. However some in his inner circle are lightweights. No head of any government in the world can rule only according to his/her own knowledge and experience. Governing is team work. While a politician may be quite educated and well-informed, he, like most individuals, lacks detailed knowledge in specialized fields. Even more than specialized knowledge and a good gut feeling, what is important is efficient cooperation between the politician and the adviser. They have to be sincere and honest. They should also trust each other. 

Such a relationship has to grow and be nurtured. Such a mentor or guide is typically part and parcel of the leadership’s inner circle. He should have specific skills and knowledge and the ability to impart sound and sane advice. 

With specialisation and innovations, advisers are now an integral part of businesses, financial institutions, educational institutions, legal firms, insurance houses, governments etc. They are also part of the decision-making processes in various Ministries. 

The Prime Minister (PM), the President or whoever at that top, needs to make sound decisions. Information must be synthesized rapidly and a comprehensive understanding and analysis developed. The leader must have a set of options to act upon. 

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One idea may be to have an informal “National Security Council” (NSC) on the US pattern but tailored for Pakistan with no executive powers. He has chosen Moeed Yusuf for the role. Yusuf is good but his abilities have been overwhelmed by the demands on his time. Chosen with great care and diligence, this brain trust’s driving motivation must be the country's interest first and foremost, and thereafter the interest of their leader, in that order. An adviser having even an iota of personal motivation or his own interest will bring about disastrous consequences for those governing in any capacity. 

Advisors of exceptional stature and competence cannot be found through tenders. They have to be companions in the political fight. Big egos are a hindrance than an asset. And while the search might take some time it makes sense to communicate within the inner circle openly and completely without personal gain in mind. 

Pakistan critically need someone sincere like Imran Khan. Far more than that, the country needs to have people around him giving good advice and not pushing their personal selfish agendas and/or half-baked policies whose backlash will cause reactions that will be bad not only for him but for the country. 


The writer is a defence and security analyst