The late Lalith Athulathmudali was largely known among the public as a great politician, skillful orator and pragmatic leader. But only those who were close to him knew the unique ability he had in dealing with people. The skill and competency with which he interacted with people is what is now called 'emotional intelligence' by human resource experts.
I write this article primarily as a tribute to Mr. Athulathmudali on his 74th birth anniversary. However, if a present day politician could take a lesson from the life of this true people's representative, he is indeed fortunate.
Having worked so closely with the late minister, I can vouch for his genuineness as a people's representative. He had his own way of dealing with and helping his constituents. He had set aside three days of the week -- Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- to meet people at his political office in Ratmalana. His office was open from 6 am and all his staff were required to arrive before him.
This alone was indicative of his dedication to serve the people who elected him to parliament. He set aside these days with a clear objective — to solve the problems of the people he served. To achieve these objectives, time management was the key. It was Mr. Athulathmudali's idea that people with complicated problems should come one day before. My task was to meet them and get all the information. The following day, in the presence of the person concerned I would present the case to Mr. Athulathmudali. He would act promptly.
His did not confine his service to party supporters or those who voted for him. I remember that once he had given a letter of recommendation to a daughter of a Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) stalwart when she wanted to become a trainee nurse. Some members of the Ratmalana branch organisations were unhappy about this and raised objections.
Mr. Athulathmudali, as usual, showed no signs of being upset that his supporters were questioning his action. One day he called the girl to his office. She was asked to bring her curriculum vitae and certificates. Keeping the girl in one office, he asked the branch politicians also to come to his office. He asked them to interview the girl and go through her certificates to see if she was suitable for the job. They were quick to realize that their protests were based solely on the girl's political background. The matter ended there. It was rather interesting how Mr. Athulathmudali, instead of defending his decision, made them realize the importance of being impartial.
There were many other occasions where Mr. Athulathmudali was approached by party supporters to complain about people holding various posts. Once, someone told him that Lakshman de Mel, a highly respected civil servant, was a leftist and objected to his appointment to a top post in Mr. Athulathmudali's ministry. Mr. Athulathmudali's response was: "I do not mind if he follows any political ideology as long as he can deliver the work". A similar objection was raised when Mr. T. S. Silva was to be appointed as principal of Hena Vidyalaya. A message was sent to Mr. Athulathmudali that Mr. Silva was a 'blue eyed boy' of late MP Vivienne Gunawardhene. Mr. Athulathmudali's response was the same; what matters is not the political affiliation of a person but his ability to do the job.
Mr. Athulathmudali always led by example. He would drive a message home through interesting and entertaining ways. As Minister for Education, he sent out a circular to all schools stating how a school prize giving should be conducted and the maximum time duration for it. Subsequent to this circular, he was invited by a leading girls' school in Galle to be the chief guest at the annual prize giving.
The function began with a welcome song, a dance and a long speech by the principal. I noticed that Mr. Athulathmudali was looking at his watch several times. Knowing what was in the circular, I was waiting to see a reaction from him as the prize giving ceremony was bound to exceed the time limit. He called the girl who was compèring and whispered something in her ear. The principal and teachers were curious to find out what it was. The girl announced the awarding of prizes. The last item on the agenda was thus moved up. He distributed the prizes.
Then he was called to deliver his speech. It was brief. He said his circular on school prize giving ceremonies gave a specific time frame and this time would be up in a few minutes. "I cannot break my own rules," he said and wished all the prize winners success and ended his speech. I was amazed. It was important that he distributed the prizes within the allotted time and did not embarrass the principal or the staff publicly. What was more amazing was that following the event, he spent more than 45 minutes talking to the teachers and having tea with them. He simply delivered his speech informally during the tea break and also made sure that the principal and staff understood the circular on prize givings.
Mr. Athulathmudali was someone from whom we learnt what professionalism was all about. He was also fortunate to have professional and knowledgeable civil servants in his team. One such person was the late Gaya Cumaranatunga, Additional Secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Shipping. They had a unique understanding and a way of working between them. Particularly when it came to confidential matters or matters of sensitive nature, Mr. Cumaranatunga would make his observations in Latin. Mr. Athulathmudali would also write his response in Latin. This way, both maintained a high level of confidentiality. Mr. Athulathmudali was an honest leader and those who were in his top team were equally honest.
Although in today's context politicians are hesitant about decentralizing work, Mr. Athulathmudali was an expert on the matter. This was one reason why he was so efficient and able to handle multi-tasks. He trusted his team to do the best on his behalf. I remember one day when a Buddhist monk came to his office to seek a solution to his problem. The monk was narrating a long tale of woe. I knew that time was of utmost importance to Mr. Athulathmudali. But he was not willing to tell the priest that he was getting late. He would never make any person feel that their problems were not important. He listened to the monk and said, "The ideal person to handle this is Lal Gunasekere" and called me in and told me to find a solution to the problem. I attended to the problem and resolved it before long.
Mr. Athulathmudali carried only his diary and a pen. The pen was his weapon. He did not carry piles of files with him. His ability to resolve issues was such that he only needed a pen to write what action to take. With one stroke of the pen he would give instructions to one of his competent staff. He knew how competent the staff were and made sure that they knew it too.
I believe that all his staff enjoyed working for him as much as I did. Shyamila Perera was his coordinating Secretary and legal officer. She was one of the most trusted persons of the minister. Preethi Jayaratne was his senior assistant secretary who also wrote his speeches. One day the minister arrived early and none of the members of his personal staff including Preethi and Shyamila, were around. The minister declared, "Tell all of them that they are sacked". We all arrived and heard this news and waited. We all knew that we would be required to be at his service before long. He was such a team player and he would be rather lost without the team. Around 11 am, the Minister called his private secretary Upali Gooneratne and said, "Please tell Preethi to attend to this speech. I need it by afternoon". When this was conveyed to Preethi she casually stated that since she had been sacked, she was unable to perform the given duty. Mr. Gooneratne conveyed this to Mr. Athulathmudali. "All right, all right," said the Minister, "tell them they have been reinstated". It was a pleasure to work with him. In this situation both the sacking and refusal to work were done in jest and that was the spirit that prevailed in his office. The staff was also free to crack jokes.
It goes without saying that there was no one to beat his wit. At a Heads of Departments meeting at the Ports Authority I can still recall a conversation he had. Veteran trade unionist Leslie Fernando who was a working director at the Ports Authority said the identity cards worn by staff were illegible because of the small print. Since it was a time where the Port was under threat, the employees were required to wear ID tags. "Sir," Leslie said, "Even when you come bosom to bosom, it is difficult to read the name." The quick response from the minister was," Leslie, you must understand that when you come bosom to bosom, the name is immaterial." Everyone present burst into laughter, including Leslie.
Mr. Athulathmudali never carried a purse or money with him. One day a group of students walked into his office on a flag day to sell some flags. He called me in and asked me, "Lal do you have any money?'. I reached into my pocket. I too did not carry a purse. But I had some money. I pulled everything out; both notes and coins, and handed over a 100 rupee note to him. 'What is this?' Don't you have a purse' He asked me. "Sir, you need a purse only if you have a lot of money. I do not have a lot of money and that is why I keep everything in my pocket," I said. He took the 100 rupee note and put it in the till. That, I thought was the end of the story. After about three weeks he went on an overseas trip and upon his return handed over a beautiful leather purse to me. I was truly surprised that he actually remembered. I still have that purse. It is more a souvenir now than ever before. To me it is a symbol of how much he cared for his staff.
On another occasion, Jayasena Perera, his coordinating officer, said in jest ' Sir langa rupiyal dekak wath ne athey' (sir does not even have two rupees with him). Although this was said in his absence, the news had reached Mr. Athulathmudali. One day, Mr. Athulathmudali called Mr. Jayasena and gave him a two rupee note. Jayasena was nonplussed and asked why?. "I heard that you said that I don't even have two rupees with me'. Mr. Jayasena quickly took the two rupees and said thank you. Then he said 'Sir, can you give me another two rupees?' Mr. Athulathmudali could not help laughing, for he did not have any more money with him. Mr. Jayasena also laughed. He had proved his point.
Another quality that those who worked with him truly admired was the fact that he never reprimanded or humiliated his staff in public. One day I was late in arriving at the office to find that he had already come. Not only that, he had given instructions to his chief security officer Muthu Banda not to allow anyone in. So I had to wait outside with his security men. He was meeting members of his constituency that day and I knew that before long he would need me for I knew the background to all the issues that were being presented to him. "Where is Lal? Where is Lal?" I heard his voice, in great urgency. Someone may have informed that I was waiting outside, he said, "Enna Kiyanna, Enna Kiyanna" (Tell him to come) as if nothing was wrong. I was summoned immediately and without any question I was allowed to perform my duties. However, by keeping me locked out of the office, he sent a subtle message that I needed to arrive before him every day. He never spoke about it. But I still do, because he was such a great boss to work for.
I want to end this tribute with two stories which are both hilarious and indicative of the wisdom he had in dealing with people. A gentleman from Ratmalana (I will not reveal his identity) came to see him. It was clear that the person was drunk and was looking for an argument with the minister. But Mr. Athulathmudali did not want to argue with someone who was drunk. He told the gentleman;
"Today is not a good day for me, because I am drunk. So I am not in a position to argue or resolve this issue today. So, why don't you come tomorrow?" Since the Minister was not willing to have an argument, the gentleman was compelled to leave. He never returned. Mr. Athulathmudali did not hurt his feelings either.
This happened when Mr. Athulathmudali held the portfolio of Minister for Trade and Shipping and his office was located on the 7th floor of Rakshana Mandhiraya. His faithful office aide the late Sasana Perera, had accidentally left the small tap in his office room half closed on a Friday. When we returned to office on Monday the whole office was flooded. The minister was compelled to operate from his secretary's office. The carpets had to be removed and cleaned. The cost was so high. The enquiry revealed that since it was Sasana Perera's responsibility, the cost of cleaning should be deducted from his salary. The cost would have been a few thousand rupees which was a huge amount at the time. When this was communicated to Sasana, he was upset and angry and stormed in to Mr. Athulathmudali's office saying;
'Sir mage padi kappanna hadanawa' (sir they are trying to cut my salary)
Mr. Athulathmudali, as if he knew nothing about the incident, enquiry and the final decision, replied;
'Apo! Padi kapanna denna behe. Eheme karanna kaatawath behe" (Cannot allow salary to be cut. No one can do that.)
Sasana then explained what had happened and whined that the secretary had made a decision to recover the cost from his salary. Mr. Athulathmudali still pretending not to know the issue, asked the enquiry file to be brought. He read it carefully and told Sasana;
'Sasana, you must go and thank the Secretary for only deducting the cost from your salary, because according to the inquiry recommendations, you must be sacked. So the Secretary sir has been very kind to you and has reversed that decision. Isn't it better to have a salary cut than to lose your job?'
Sasana was more than happy to pay the cost of damage from his salary, than to lose his job. To this day, I marvel at the way he handled people. Such emotional intelligence. A friend of mine who listened to all these stories said, 'You are very fortunate to have worked with such a great man.' Indeed I am. And on his birth anniversary, all I can say is that I am truly glad that he was born in this country and allowed us to witness and learn from his great leadership qualities. He has left a legacy behind - that of a genuine representative of the people.
May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana.