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Is taking U-turns really a hallmark of great leadership?

The U-turn assertion of the Prime Minister, Imran Khan took the social media by storm. The term has been popularized (rather discredited) to the extent that my search on the Google generated around 2,420,000,000 results in less than 0.80 seconds. In fact, the expression which remained in calculated use in our political discourse, for some time in the past, aggranadized overnight. I assume, the phrase shall remain in the public consumption, for all the right or sinister reasons, for the days to come.

The moment the narration emanated, the social media was inundated with the thread of an often quoted saying of the father of the nation emphasizing, “Think one hundred times before you take a decision, but once that decision is taken, stand by it as one man.”

Besides people on the social media are coming up with some interesting comments. For instance, Syed Azmat Ali Shah founder and CEO of Drupal Pak narrated, “I remember, almost all guys, used to define themselves in their CVs as “dynamic, self-starter, highly motivated, goal oriented etc”. The new quality abuzz these days which shall be incorporated, I mean “U-turn taker”. It shall also become part of their CVs soon”. Another social media user shared the following verse of Dr. Allama Muhmmad Iqbal,

with a witty note that Iqbal talked explicitly about U-turn in this particular verse. A PML(N) leader tweeted, “soon Imran Khan will take a U-turn on his U-turn statement” another added, “A U-turn in time, saves nine”.

On the other hand, the PTI buffs are fanatically searching for all the positives of the U-turn. Giving some bizarre examples of their personal experience while taking stunning U-turns, to them, this is one of the fantastic things, they ever did in their entire life. For some of them, it is strategic rethinking, for others, it is strategic repositioning. The discourse is loaded with merits and demits of taking U-turns, nevertheless, no one is geared up to call a spade a spade.

The aim of this blog is to present my own thesis of what I infer from the nomenclature of U-turn and to figure out, “Is taking a U-turn really a hallmark of a great leader”?. The first known use of the term was recorded in 1930. It connotes the reversal of policy, tactics, or the like, resembling such a maneuver. The Merriam-Webster dictionary considers it as a flip-flop, turnabout, turnaround and volte-face. The Oxford dictionary believes U-turn is the turning of a vehicle in a u-shaped course so as to face in the opposite direction. The term is also used for change in a plan, especially a reversal of political policy. The Cambridge dictionary defined U-turn as a turn made by a car in order to go back in the direction from which it has come. This expression, having a disapproving connotation is mainly used for a complete change from one opinion or plan of action to an opposite one.

Among the leadership theorists, the proponents of Trait Theory believe in open-mindedness and adaptability. A few of the academics helped broaden our understanding on the subject matter. Dr. Zohaib, Director, Office of Research, Innovation and Commercialization in a public sector university, a Ph.D. from Germany maintained, “Leaders are humans. Humans make errors. Persisting with an error is foolish. Good leaders can be anything but foolish. They would try to rectify an error through an alternate strategy, failing which they would be smart enough to abandon the pursuit of whatever they want but cannot have and rather focus their energies on something else they can get.

Dr. Ali, a PhD in entrepreneurial leadership from University of Essex and a faculty in a private business school argued that IK may be one of the greatest leaders in the history of mankind but taking frequent U-turns, is far from being a leadership attribute. If one is taking repeated U-turns on certain things, you need not to be a genius to assume that proper homework has not been undertaken in matter beforehand. Everything in governance, public policy, and strategic level decision making in the political context cannot be defined in terms of a cricket match. Nor, the public sector entities in the country can be visualized, run and managed with a lens of a private sector hospital.

This reminded me of a small anecdote. As it goes, once a person climbed up a branchy tree, but despite repeated attempts, he was unable to climb down. The wisest in the village was called for rescue. After scratching his head for a moment, the so-called wise man asked for a rope to be tied with the body of the man on the tree to be pulled down. Once this was done, the man in the tree hit the ground with a bang and became flat. On this, the wisest said, his days were numbered, otherwise, I have pulled out many people from the deep wells in the very same manner.

Is taking U-turns really a hallmark of great leadership We, in our individual life, make certain decisions based on our intellect, knowledge, past experience, insight and guidance from others. We make necessary corrections. We make fine improvements. But, when it comes to anything that is of larger national interest, utmost care, due diligence and collective wisdom is required.

In my humble opinion, the term U-turn is repulsive, venomous and negatively charged in the context of our political parleys. We, in the first place, should empathize this point to the core. It does not make a lot of sense to depreciate our gracious deeds directed towards the accomplishment of a noble and praiseworthy agenda under the umbrella of a term having a negative impression, in the first place. At the same time one should not be myopic but to adapt to the changes unfolding around.

Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysian Prime Minister has strongly advocated taking U-turns as an apt policy postulating, “Sometimes, we go the wrong way, we turn around but only if necessary, we are not perfect people”. If history is of any guide, it is important to appreciate that the greatest people of the world never compromised on their laid down fundamental principles, nevertheless, they gave way to adjustments, modification, corrections at times, for the realization of a greater cause.

Being a fertile area for research, the theme deserves the attention of doctoral candidates for further investigation.

About Dr Syed Hafeez Ahmad

Having a doctoral degree in human resource management, Dr. Syed Hafeez Ahmad is currently working as Additional Controller of Examinations, Khyber Medical University, Peshawar. He previously served the same university as Additional Registrar. These are mid-career level positions in the university's administration. Besides, he is working in the capacity of a team leader and founder of the Career Development & Research Centre, a startup launched in the Business Incubation Center of Khyber Medical University. He is having more than 18 years of professional experience in academic management with special interest in public sector higher education reforms, sustainability, academic leadership and universities' governance. He is a research blogger, Amazon associate and a YouTuber.

2 comments

  1. Wonderfully written. Writings like these should become part of the literature books too – so beautifully crafted. My mention in the article came a surprise too, doubling the fun of reading it.

  2. U turn is taken for a hypocrite attitude or approach which in no way can be defended especially in Pakistani context. However the u turn policy of Khan may better be seen in the coming days vis a vis his developmental work.

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