1st Prize Undergraduate Category, "Moral Leadership" Essay Contest, 2013

By Akshata R. Prabhu

January 31, 2014

Akshata R. Prabhu

Akshata Ramakrishna Prabhu, is 19 years old and a student at R.V. College of Engineering, Bangalore, India. "I spent 16 years of my life in Doha, Qatar, where I did most of my schooling before returning to India, and I believe myself to be truly lucky to have experienced life in two countries unique in their own ways. I'm currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in Computer Science, and a great part of my undergraduate life is defined by my engineering courses coupled with a keen participation in the Indian parliamentary debating circuit."

Essay Topic: What Does Moral Leadership Mean to You?

I was six years old when I saw a really grumpy mall security guard berate a girl not much older than me for stealing something from the video store. Seeing me so deeply engrossed in the proceedings, my dad looked down at me with a smile and asked me if I knew why the girl was getting shouted at. Feeling smart, I parroted back what the teacher had taught me just last week, a cute little rhyme that emphasized just how horrible stealing is. Laughing at his precocious little daughter, my dad asked, "But why do you think stealing bad?" This made me look up at him in disbelief. But of course I think stealing is bad...because it's bad! Everyone knows that. Grownups can be so stupid at times.

I am now 18, and while I'm not much wiser, I find myself wanting to answer the same question in a slightly different way. Explanations that range from putting myself in the shoes of the person who spent time into the making of that very DVD in vain, to imagining someone take away my possessions, have me convinced now that yes, stealing is bad. However, it makes me wonder about those people who still answer questions with an "Everyone knows that" or "Because everybody thinks so," people who never realize that they could be so much more satisfied with a different answer. I wonder if they ever had anyone like my dad to ask them why they thought so.

Moral leadership to me, in the light of a childhood where all my opinions were constantly questioned, is not to simply propagate your views, or tell people that what you say is absolutely right. It is, in fact, an attempt to awaken a process where people think about a situation themselves, deliberate, contrast and compare, and finally arrive to the same opinion that you espouse. It is a test of how strong your ideals are if they are debated upon, and a chance to then generate a conviction among people that yes, the morals I stand for are ones I rationally chose to stand for, and not morals which were thrust upon me. Seeing how appealing it is to have this absolute conviction, it surprises me how scared people are to have their beliefs be put up to debate or to any sort of contention, resulting in a world run by people who would willingly serve, preach or even kill for dogmatic principles that they don't even seem to have sufficient reasoning for.

A lot of misguided ideas about proper moral leadership come about from people with a need to preach certain principles merely because of 'tradition'. While the fact that the principle you argue for has been followed for ages gives your principle a certain aura of appearing 'correct', to follow it only for the "it's been followed for so long" reason is, for the lack of a better word, quite stupid. Being from a country so deeply rooted in keeping up with 'tradition', it saddens me how I seem to find a plethora of such occurrences in India. A truly alarming scene is the public reaction in light of the recent rape cases that have shocked the country, where there are people, politicians even, who claim that the reason so many girls get raped is simply because of their couldn't-care-less attitude about their maryada (decency), referring to the "provocative clothing" they chose to wear, which "didn't exist in older times." Despite being in the 21st century, an age where people are otherwise encouraged to embrace their personality, keep up with the times, or be unique, we see these so called "leaders" asking girls to don the garb of the traditional Indian woman merely because it's been done so for years, merely because such multiple layers of clothing might "excite" these sexually starved offenders much lesser. To all those people who echo this opinion, I ask, why is it wrong for a girl to wear what she wants? Is it right for society to limit a person's freedom of expression simply because someone, somewhere might rape her? Why do you think the blame should be shifted on the girl as well, and not just the rapist alone? Give us a rational link between the girl's decision to look and feel beautiful and the brutal act of rape, and if you can't find one, think about why you wish to propagate a supposedly 'moral' opinion that has no concrete reasoning to begin with.

Then again, a lot of moral leadership has to do with helping people develop a capacity to make decisions in accordance with their morals, and to think deep about the moral consequences of their actions. This does not under any circumstance, however, mean holding an unnatural power to influence peoples' decisions by exploiting their beliefs. An example I hold dear to my heart is my grandmother and her view on vegetarianism. In accordance with Hinduism, vegetarianism is a common life choice among a lot of my relatives, but when asked why she is a vegetarian, my grandmother almost immediately tells me about the Bhagavad Gita's idea of only ending life when absolute necessary, and her choice being a mere extension of that. So when I deliberate on my choice of whether to consume meat or not, I respect her decision to not pressurise me with the thought that I would be going against the very core of our religion, but instead to ask me to reflect on the same idea and choose, making it a decision that I would be more likely to stand by because I arrived at it myself. The idea of having unnatural power over people because of their beliefs, however, is something that continues to persist in parts of the world today, more so in areas where religion plays an important role in the minds of the people. We regularly find people doing things in the name of religion when they actually have no idea why it would be of any value to them. The problem is not with religious attire, the problem is with a girl wearing it with no justification except for a fear of going against her religion. The problem is not with you not being able to fully accept the idea of homosexuality, the problem is with you going against LGBT people with no justification except for, again, a fear of going against your religion. The idea of a moral leader, in the case of religion especially, is a leader to help people find a strong moral basis in doing whatever they do "in the name of religion," and not to threaten them with the fear of God. It is a lack of such moral leadership that causes people to mercilessly act in the name of religion, when they don't really know why they're doing it at all!

Having said this, trying to influence the masses by letting them think it out by themselves is quite hard, and it's no wonder we see so less of it. Why do this, people might ask, when I can much easily lead a group of people by drilling my morals into them? Two words that might help people not take the easy way out then, are, quite simply: Growth and Impact. The first one refers to the very act of you growing as an individual, and helping others grow with you. The idea of someone challenging my views might appear slightly demeaning, but think about the number of invalid, nonjustifiable views you are carrying around right now that you could discard. Think about the number of people you can educate about your views, and the number of people with whom you can deliberate on your morals, and that's where this sort of moral leadership helps. As for "impact," it simply means the amount of conviction the people you lead have in your beliefs. When we talk about great leaders like Mandela or Gandhi, we often talk about the ideals that they preached, but we do forget about the way they preached these ideals. The more you help people believe in what you say, the longer your belief is propagated in society, and the more is the resultant impact.

All of us want to make a difference in this world. All of us have certain morals we stand by, and we want to make these morals live on. All I ask of you today is to think these three questions through: Why do you believe in your morals? Why should I believe in your morals? Are you sure it's not because everybody else thinks so?; and it is your ability to answer these three questions that makes you a moral leader that I would want to follow.

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