Sunday, April 12, 2009

Finding the great Filipino leader

Should President Gloria Arroyo finally come to her senses and accept that she has no other choice but to respect and obey the Constitution of the Philippines, then by June 30, 2010, a new president will take the oath of office as the fifteenth president of the Republic.

But if she succeeds in the waning months of her presidency in changing the current presidential form of government to a parliamentary system, the likelihood is we will continue to see Mrs. Arroyo clinging to the leadership of her party, which for all intents and purposes, including cheating by all means, will capture the most number of seats in the new parliament. As party leader, she is in line for the position of Prime Minister or President, or whatever new title she calls herself, as head of the country’s government.

A number of presidential hopefuls have already made known their desire to run for president in next year’s national elections, including a current provincial governor who is on leave from his vocation as a priest, and possibly another religious leader who heads the Jesus is Lord Movement (JIL) in the Philippines, with the potential support from the Catholic group El Shaddai.

The Philippines has no shortage of wannabe presidents. In fact, we might as well start the presidential campaign now and call it “Everyone is a leader.”

Why this fascination for a “leader”? The Germans would probably stick their heads in the ground if asked to invest their hopes in the “fuehrer,” the German word for leader, which had betrayed them egregiously in the past.

Same thing for the British, although the English word “leader” does not evoke the negative response of its German equivalent. But the English word “leadership” has its origins from the ancient root “leith,” meaning, “to go forth and die,” as in battle. Even if we remove the connotation of violence and assume that “leader” represents a higher cause, the word still means the act of mobilizing one group to dominate or vanquish the other.

Either way, both descriptions seem to fit our present crop of Filipino leaders or leaders-in-waiting. At present, we have a president who is accused by many as acting like a German fuehrer, so reminiscent of the leader the Germans now are trying to obliterate from their consciousness. Or we have leaders-in-waiting who are eager and ready to annihilate each other.

Without a modifier like “democratic” or “collaborative,” “ethical or “transformational,” or perhaps, “dictatorial" or "authoritarian,” the word “leader” by itself is naked and sounds hollow. Just as the German word “fuehrer” appears ominous, especially for those who understand more recent history.

Many kinds of people, good and bad, loving and tyrannical, can be called a “leader” today. Mahatma Gandhi was a leader. So were Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But Hitler was also a leader. So was Stalin. And we certainly have to call Osama Bin Laden, Slobodan Milosovic and Kim Jong Ill leaders as well.

So, what then is a “leader” and what is he or she like?

In the last 2008 U.S. presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, the Centre for Public Leadership (CPL) at Harvard Kennedy School, John F. Kennedy School of Government, developed 15 leadership questions for the presidential candidates to answer, questions deep and purposive so as not to elicit their usual stock responses and sound bites.

The first five questions revolve around who the candidates really were: their core values and how they influence the way they lead; attributes and competencies they value most and which will serve them well in the White House; weaknesses and mistakes or tendencies that may cause their presidency to fail; historical figures whom they have learned from; world view or experiences that helped them understand the values of others.

The next four questions relate to people who will join them at the leadership table: the composition of the high performing team that they would build; their ability to catalyze conflicting opinions and build coalitions; how they will create a more participatory democracy by giving people the opportunity to influence decision-making; and how they will keep the next generation—the young people—engaged.

How the two leaders will decide was the focus of the next two questions: their ability and willingness to be decisive, and how they will judge in times of crisis.

Finally, the last three questions concern how they will act and what they will act on: how they will overcome resistance to change; how they will create an environment for innovation within their leadership team; the first few things they are going to do to raise confidence at home and abroad; and lastly, their priorities that indicate desire to change or reverse negative views about the country.

The questions appear to stress three very important answers we’re looking for in a leader: one, a leader must have certain values that will serve him well; two, he is decisive yet encourages others to participate in making decisions; and three, he doesn’t shy away from conflicts but instead resolves them by bridging differences.

Suppose we are now deep in the presidential campaign and we have only a few more days to go to select from among, let’s say, six candidates, the next president of the Philippines. Assume, too, that Mrs. Arroyo has reluctantly accepted her fate as the outgoing leader and that she’s finally resigned to simply campaign for her vice-president to be elected as her successor. The rest of the presidential pretenders are one governor-priest on leave, a religious “cult” leader, and three sitting senators. Of course, there are others also running, about thirteen in all, but consider them as nuisance candidates.

Now, let’s ask them the 15 questions the Harvard Kennedy School asked from the two U.S. presidential candidates in 2008. Here’s a summary of their possible responses.

On core values, all of them seemed beaming with pride as they pounded their chests proclaiming how their religious faith has strengthened their resolve to do what is best to make the country great again, with all honesty, integrity and humility. As expected, this will sound familiar.

Every election time, all candidates for office in the Philippines always make promises to transform our country from a pile of ashes to a pantheon of greatness. Each candidate will summon the high heavens as they conjure up a city of God on earth, a place on top of the hill that is inhabited by happy and contented people. With two candidates from the religious sector and a dominantly Christian voting population, the others, to beat the odds, must have to sound equally as pious and as devoted to their faith if not as messianic as well.

In 1965, a candidate with such gift of gab captivated the entire country as he called upon every Filipino to make the country great again. Once in power, however, he ruled with an iron fist, ignored the rule of law, and imposed his own vision of a new society.

For almost twenty years, the country plunged into the dark abyss of repression, rearing up children moulded in the culture and values of the new society, who today have become our new leaders who are afraid to question authority and who consider dissent as subversive.

The helmsman of the new society has long been dead but his ideas and dreams still live. Consider how Gloria Arroyo tried and failed to emulate him. Others will surely attempt to put in place a newer version of the new society; just wait until this leader is elected to office.

You all know the answers to the rest of the questions. Undoubtedly, every candidate will appeal to the middle ground, promise to listen to both sides of the argument, and make reasonable compromise the touchstone of his decision-making.

Because we live in a less individualistic culture than the United States, every candidate will emphasize the collaborative or communal nature of leadership knowing that this appeals to voters. Once the candidate gets elected, the new president will fall back on the overbearing and arrogant mantra of leader-as-ruler that has been the legacy of the new society of the 1970s.

Will the new president be decisive? Yes, to the point of being dictatorial. Will others be encouraged to participate in decision-making? Yes, as long as it’s limited to giving assent and agreement to the president’s plans and ideas.

It’s probably still light years away before we will elect a leader among us who can ameliorate, instead of exacerbate, conflict. Someone who can be an advocate for the whole and has the capacity to work effectively on behalf of all the parts of the community. Someone who is able to bridge and link disparate and often hostile constituencies, or to act as a healing force between opposing sides.

It’s a tragedy that we have continuously failed to elect such type of leader when we are a more community-oriented people, rather than individualistic. Blame that on the values ingrained by the new society and our penchant for being American copycats.

To paraphrase an American commentator, perhaps, as a nation, we are suffering not only from a failure of our institutions, but more so from a failure of our leaders across those institutions as well.

Will the 2010 Philippine presidential elections inspire a great burst of hope just as Barack Obama did through sheer personal persuasion? May be, but only if we are going to have a real and true election.

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