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What elected leaders need to mind

(Article published in the June 6, 2007 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

Just before the elections last month, with absolutely no illusions that any of the candidates would read it, we articulated in this column some thoughts, borrowed from Howard Gardner, on what the voters ought to look for when assessing the leadership profile of the candidates.  For better or for worse, in a process that everyone admits is far from perfect, we now have a set of, presumably, leaders who will be around for at least three years.

Our task now, as the followers, is to make known what we expect our leaders to do.  And for this, I once more borrow from Howard Gardner’s studies of the human mind, specifically, from his Leading Minds, subtitled, An Anatomy of Leadership.

It is very important for a leader, whether a politician seeking to inspire his constituents or a patrician doing some estate planning for his family, is to be aware of trends seen as determining the shape of the future.  Howard Gardner identifies six.  There may more, but, six suffice for the moment.

The first is the obvious possibility (if not probability) of global destruction in our lifetimes.  The end of the world is no longer just the far away and final scene of a religious scenario.  We breath in and breath out an air of tentative existence, earlier limited to those who read Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.  It is a daily reality on TV, constantly pouring out its daily fare of natural calamities and man-inflicted destruction and suffering.  If what we have today could all be gone tomorrow, what is there to lead (and for that matter, follow) for?
 










The second is the phenomenon of the “sound-byte” mode of communicating.  The internet, cell phone, radio and TV have all not only enlarged the number of communicators but also, at the same time, shrunk the scope of their individual influence.  Communication now has to be quick, to the point (if not to the jugular) because time and attention span are both short. Necessarily, messages need to become simplistic, not to mention through fractured syntax and in wrong spelling.  Witness, for instance, the many mindless blurbs of candidates who intruded into our living rooms last May.

It is not only our living rooms, however, that are being invaded.  Everyone’s privacy is routinely debased. Data gatherers, surveillance cameras, electronic monitors, and digital profilers, whether in the desecrated name of national security or of the commercial god of marketing, construct a “persona” for everyone.  This violation of our own privacy debases not just our respect for ourselves but also the communal awe that used to help making persuasive those who wore the mantle of leadership.

And yet, the explosive and intensive developments in the sciences, physical and social, have made indispensable a large corps of experts, each specialist in his ever narrowing fields.  Apropos is the quip of a former Jesuit professor: “We are now learning more and more about less and less; soon we will know all about nothing.”  This demands of a leader the ability both to assemble the best available knowledge and to communicate it, per our understanding of current communication requirements, within a span of a few seconds.

Trends in the international scene likewise cannot be neglected. After all, (please pardon my ignorance) I know of no elected official in the past who has not traveled abroad on the taxpayer’s money, otherwise known as being on “official business”.  Two developments: first, the rise of entities that are present in several regions of the world, “they transcend national boundaries” is their preferred self-praise; and second, in the contrary direction, areas where intense fundamentalism and exclusionary emotions reign.  The world section of the broadsheets are ample illustrations of both.

Faced with these trends, what should we expect our leaders to do?  What is essentially needed is a frame of mind, vitalized by the strength-giving realization that, as the teachers at Multiple Intelligence International School Foundation, Inc., never tire of telling their kids, they can make a difference.

The Filipino leader’s mind needs to appreciate the enduring features that make a person a leader, such as, to mention just a few, a clear and persuasive “story”, a vision of sorts constructed from his or her own personal life; empathy and communality with the people (in its changing modes and moods), an organization that can galvanize various sectors into united action, and, most important, an “embodiment” or a personal living of his or her story or message. 

Then, he or she ought to inform himself or herself of the implications, both in the short and long term, of the developments mentioned earlier.  Information is cheap nowadays, but discernment is in short supply. 

Finally, as we used to say in our earlier years at Philosophy, there is need for the leader to look within himself and recognize what is demanded of him by the problems and paradoxes of leading at this time. The trends mentioned earlier highlight the need for deep and wide knowledge but short and simple communication, the balance between globalization and cultural identification, the need to plan ahead amidst a tentative environment, etc.

These requirements of a leader today is obviously in total mismatch with what the law requires of persons seeking to be leaders.  The legal qualifications for the highest elective post in the last elections simply demanded of an aspirant that he or she be “a natural-born citizen of the Philippines, and, on the day of the election, at least thirty-five years of age, able to read and write, a registered voter, and a resident of the Philippines for not less than two years immediately preceeding the day of the election.”  None of the legal qualifications is anywhere near to the demands that the times impose of today’s leaders.

This mismatch between the requirements of legality and the needs of reality means, therefore, that citizens must therefore breach the gap and, constantly, nay daily, require of their leaders to do their job according to the needs of the times.  And demand, as Manila Mayor-elect Alfredo Lim asks the criminal elements in his city, to either “cooperate or evaporate.”

 

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