The next president

Every time the country faces a crisis, we tend to go back to the question that has obsessed us since independence—what kind of president can best lead us? A presidential election looms before us once again, this time framed by two critical events that have increasingly defined our expectations of an ideal leader: Supertyphoon “Yolanda” and the Mamasapano tragedy.

In both instances, the focus has been on the quality of presidential conduct under immense pressure. In the Yolanda case, the disarray in the government response is widely attributed to the perceived absence of a rational system for managing the aftermath of a huge, multidimensional calamity. In the Mamasapano incident, the senseless sacrifice of human lives in what has been dubbed as a “misencounter” between police troopers and Moro rebels has been traced to an operational recklessness abetted by dysfunctional personal relationships in the nation’s security sector.

I have listened to countless conversations about the so-called “vacuum” in the political leadership in the wake of these two events. And almost always, the conclusions have revolved around the quest for a president who can embody what are thought to be the key leadership attributes for our time.

Following the example of the German sociologist Max Weber, I group these attributes into four ideal types.

  1. The first is the modern manager who combines strict adherence to professionalism with an abiding faith in science and technology as a source of solutions. This type of leader believes in the superiority of team effort and functional differentiation over individual genius.
  2. The second is the moral exemplar whose unassailable integrity, courage and vision offer an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the nation, especially for its young generation. Such a leader personifies everything that the nation aspires to be: ethical, hopeful and compassionate.
  3. The third is the stern enforcer whose no-nonsense approach to problems is underpinned by willfulness, decisiveness and directness. This type of leader exemplifies the yearning for a strict disciplinarian in a polity in which the rule of law has not fully taken root.
  4. The fourth is the protector-provider, a relic from the era of feudalism when the principal function of a ruler was to take care of the material wellbeing and safety of his people. This type of leader is locked in a reciprocal relationship between the patron who provides and the client who repays benevolence with loyalty.

Like Weber’s classic ideal types of leadership (the charismatic, the traditional and the rational), the four types we have here are not found in pure form in the real world. Their relevance is heuristic—meaning, they are meant to be a guide to discovering patterns in the realm of human experience. Even as leadership is inescapably a mixture of various attributes, leaders do tend to distinguish themselves by the dominant qualities they seek to represent.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, for instance, seems to hew closely to the portrait of the modern manager. With a solid educational background and a broad experience in corporate and public governance, Roxas seems the perfect leader for a society that is aspiring to be modern. Vice President Jejomar Binay, on the other hand, appears to have been packaged as the ultimate protector-provider. His past and present duties in government sustain this image well—he has styled himself as the protector of overseas workers in distress, and, as mayor of Makati City, the benevolent provider of his constituents’ basic needs. Having overcome the limits imposed by poverty, he cuts a figure as the patron of the underprivileged in a deeply unequal society.

But crisis has a way of reorienting the quest for new leaders. Former senator Panfilo Lacson and Davao City Mayor Rodolfo Duterte have attracted a legion of supporters who fear that the rule of law remains so brittle in our country that we can quickly descend into anarchy during moments of intense crisis. Not given to fancy and elaborate talk, Lacson and Duterte both seem to uniquely respond to the perceived need for a leader who can enforce discipline in a community riven by privilege and criminality.

Then there is Sen. Grace Poe, who, in the brief period she has been in the public eye, has won the admiration of a nation that has become allergic to transactional politics. Hers is a fresh voice that seems to bring clarity to complex issues while holding up the promise of an ethical and intelligent approach to the nation’s problems. She stands out as a moral exemplar, the role originally personified by Cory Aquino.

But ideal types generate their own negative side. In a society impatient for results, the modern manager who insists on complete staff work before he makes a decision will be viewed as indecisive. A technocratic disposition also comes to be equated with emotional remoteness. At the other end of the spectrum, the protector-provider’s weakest suit is in the area of transparency and accountability. Not surprisingly, this type of leader also tends to be the most corrupt. Like the authoritarian enforcer, the protector-provider resonates the political inclinations of a premodern society.

And, finally, the moral exemplar expresses the anxieties of a society in transition to modernity. Unable to rely on the old moral compass, it gropes for directions, only to find that the problem is not just ethical. Indeed, there’s a new global reality out there, and navigating it requires unerring wisdom grounded in experience.

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