Thursday, December 31, 2009

President as Servant-Leader - 1/8/10

What kind of leader do we need as our next President? Do we need a person of extraordinary talent and intelligence? Do we need a street-smart, business-savvy, up-from-the-bootstraps person who carved for himself a rags-to-riches story? Do we need a charming and charismatic person with extraordinary empathy and affiliation with the poor?

I believe we need a Servant-Leader.

Robert K. Greenleaf was a senior executive working with the management team of the legendary Harold Geneen, the inscrutable and iconic CEO of International Telephone and Telegraph (IT & T), when he opted out of the corporate world and dedicated himself to the advocacy of a gentler and kinder philosophy of management and governance. Mr. Geneen, as described by author James O’Toole, “was the toughest command-and-control CEO imaginable (who) had a rare genius for detail, a seven-day-a-week, eighteen-hour-a-day workaholic.”

Direct reports of Mr. Geneen were known to literally “pee in their pants” as he faced them down in executive committee meetings with relentless rigor for logic and numbers. Strongman Geneen was fearsome yet ineffective, as Mr. O’Toole qualifies, in the long run: “Practically the day after Geneen retired, the IT & T empire started to unravel.”

Latter-day CEOs are molded into variants of the Geneen template. Some may have been more tactful and finessed, preferring to excel in astute deal making and casting antiseptic and toothsome-smile images for themselves through expensive reputational makeovers courtesy of professional image public relations and image consultants.

In contemporary Philippine politics many such street-smart businesspersons have transformed themselves into savvy politicians. In First Quarter Storm jargon, they are today’s bureaucrat-capitalists that personify the fusion of political and economic power.

One of them was quoted by a reporter as saying; “We entered politics so we don’t have to deal with middlemen.” Indeed, why squander away profits by bribing city hall and government regulatory agencies? Better to be governors than citizens, isn’t it? In an unguarded moment, a son of a much-advertised candidate for national leadership is said to have candidly confided: “It helped a lot that dad was one of the highest officials of the land during the Asian crisis.”

What about the Marcos-type leader with the enviable curriculum vitae (academic jock, bar topnotcher, eloquent orator, brilliant debater) and magnetic personality? The incumbent President mimicked this type, except for the personality part, but transmogrified into a transactional leader whose regime spawned many corruption scandals and created an indelible memory of unbridled greed for power and pelf.

Finally, there’s the politician who parlayed popularity as an icon in the cinema box-office to a decisive majority in the ballot box and who claims competence as a public administrator by dint of his successive stints as Mayor, Senator, Vice President and President --- but now conveniently glosses over his conviction as a felon, impeachment and overthrow from power on account of questionable morality in public office.

When we look for competencies of the next President of the Philippines, therefore, we need to place in context the stated qualifications of the aspirants. What road did they take in reaching the starting block of the presidential race? What are the values that underpin their public behavior? What are the defining moments that vivify their inner wisdom?

Leo, a character in Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, inspired Mr. Greenleaf’s concept of the servant-leader. Leo accompanies a party that embarked on a mythical journey, performs menial chores and “sustains them with his spirit and song.” Then he mysteriously disappears, causing the group to abandon the journey. The narrator finds Leo anew after a few years and discovers that the erstwhile servant was, in fact, “the titular head of the Order, its guiding spirit, and a great and noble leader.” While interpreting Hesse’s opus as a reflection of the author’s quest for serenity on approaching old age, Mr. Greenleaf offers this vivid characterization of the servant-leader:

The great leader is seen as servant first, and that simple fact is the key to his greatness. Leo was actually the leader all of the time, but he was servant first, because that was what he was, deep down inside. Leadership was bestowed upon a man who was by nature a servant. It was something given, or assumed, that could be taken away. His servant nature was the real man, not bestowed, not assumed, and not to be taken away. He was servant first.”

What is the process of discovering servant-leaders in our midst?

Mr. Greenleaf says: “I now embrace the theory of prophecy which holds that prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age are now addressing the problems of the day and pointing to a better way and to a personhood that is able to live fully and serenely in these times. It is seekers who make the prophet, and the initiative of any one of us in searching for and responding to the voice of a contemporary prophet may mark the turning point in his growth and service. But since we are the product of our own history, we see current prophecy within the context of past wisdom. We listen to as wide a range of contemporary thought. Then we choose those we elect to heed as prophets ---both old and new --- and meld their advice with our own leadings.”

This is the process that brought forth the Cory Aquino presidency in the aftermath of the Edsa People Power revolt. Uncannily, the death of the saint of democracy rekindled the spirit of Pinoy People Power and thrust her own son Noynoy Aquino --- an erstwhile low-profile congressman and senator --- into the national limelight as the decisive front-runner for President in 2010.

Just like Leo, Noynoy preferred to do his work diligently in the background. Just like his humble and unassuming mother, he preferred the candle glow to the spotlight. Just like President Cory, he never aspired and did not seek to be President, but after deep prayer and introspection, he decided to heed the people’s call and stepped up to become candidate for President.

In a series of public opinion surveys following his mother’s death, the key to his unexpected dominance of the presidential derby has surfaced. Our people want to bring back to the presidency the endearing qualities that made Corazon Aquino the icon and the saint of Philippine democracy: not soaring intelligence but deep respect for the common tao, not dazzling brilliance but empathy and malasakit for Juan de la Cruz. Our people want to bring back decency to governance. Filipinos seek to reclaim their sense of honor, integrity and nobility.

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