Leadership in a transitional society

In our society, when something goes wrong, people ask: who’s to blame? Remedy is instantly sought in the replacement of officials rather than in the review of systems. In other societies, the prior question that is asked is: what went wrong? Only after this is answered do heads roll.  The focus on personalities is not something unique to us, nor is it inherent in Filipino culture.  It is just what differentiates a traditional from a modern society.

The fact that we are in transition only makes our situation a bit more confusing.  We have modern systems in various domains of our national life, but these are easily trumped by the traditional authority of powerful and influential figures.  The latter typically claim all the credit for successes. But, when failures and breakdowns occur, they quickly point to their limited responsibility under modern rules.

Take our political system.  We tend to highlight the deficiencies of leaders, forgetting that they themselves are creations of the same traditional system in which we all play a role and which we help reproduce in our daily lives.  In quest of solutions, we like to cast around for heroic individuals who can redeem the deficiencies of an entire society.  As a result, our elections become nothing more than exercises in finding someone we can trust at any given moment, and later blame for all the dysfunctions of our society.

Our politicians not only willingly play this game but indeed they encourage it, for that’s how they win votes.  Instead of concrete plans and programs of government, they concentrate on fundamental contrasts in personal virtues and endowments.  In all this, the systemic character of persistent social problems – poverty, corruption, social injustice, incompetence, etc. – is effectively concealed.  And so when these problems explode in our face, the first thing we do is, again, find someone to blame. Sometimes, sensing that the blame should not be heaped on a few people, we go through episodes of collective breast-beating in atonement for our moral failings.

Yet these problems are largely the outcome of structural failings. Catharsis and atonement alone will not make them go away.  The governance of a society like ours has become an incredibly complex business.  We have not only greatly multiplied in number.  Our people’s experiences, values, and beliefs have also become extremely diverse.  Our links to the rest of the world have likewise phenomenally expanded.  No longer are we merely responsible for ourselves and to ourselves, we are today also answerable to many other peoples around the world whose lives ours are intertwined with ours.

The old ways of governing, dependent upon the performance of strong, charismatic, or extraordinary leaders at the top, are no longer adequate for managing such complexity.  They belong to simple hierarchical societies.  Modern problems require differentiated institutional systems and reliable professional response.  The era of the heroic individual whose direct personal intervention is demanded in every crisis is long past.  Modern impersonal systems are built precisely as a way of reducing complexity.  They will not work properly, however, when their operation can, at any point, be overridden by the personal decisions of lone rangers.

In a previous column on the hostage crisis that led to the tragic death of eight Hong Kong tourists, I noted that the bungled effort to rescue the hostages could not be ascribed solely to incompetence or lack of equipment on the part of the police.  The entire effort seemed marked by “institutional paralysis.”   A system was in place for dealing with hostage situations.  But, from what we now know, it appears that the police officers in charge were unable to fully activate this system and confidently assert their authority in the presence of the many big shots that were interfering in the operation. In the end, no one in particular was in charge.

We would be mistaken to think that this systemic problem will go away by simply dismissing people ahead of a full report of what happened.  This may appease some people, but it will only hide the larger institutional crisis that is upon us.  This crisis did not grow overnight, and it will not be solved overnight. Indeed it was allowed to fester over the years, providing the setting for quick fixes like martial law and people power revolutions.  At every turning point, the ensuing change never went deep enough to disturb the basic framework of a patronage-driven hierarchical society.  It is this whole system that is today in crisis.

Tragic events like Typhoon Ondoy, the Maguindanao massacre, and the hostage crisis at the Quirino grandstand have one thing in common – they all lay bare the dysfunctionality of our existing social system.  They underscore the need to review and strengthen our institutions, or, at the very least, free them from the grip of traditional patrons and authority figures.  The structural solutions will increasingly become clear to us in time, if we can resist the tendency to moralize and personalize everything.

Perhaps it is a good thing that despite the uniquely personal circumstances that thrust him to the presidency, President Aquino has kept a very low profile.  He speaks plainly and almost diffidently, and, instead of projecting an aura of charismatic confidence, is quick to admit lapses. Given the existing political culture, this may not be the most astute demeanor for a new president to project. But it is the best setting in which to strengthen institutions.