The search for presidential character

The Search for Presidential Character

November 3, 2009

Managing For Society, The Manila Times

As the registration period for voters for the 2010 elections comes to a close, the rhetoric between the camps of the survey-leading presidential candidates is beginning to heat up. The salvos between the Villar and Aquino camps sound familiar because we’ve heard them before: experience vs. character. Of course, the cynical pragmatists will say that in the end, it’s all about political machinery anyway.

But Philippine presidential politics is full of surprises, as the Mitra and de Venecia presidential campaigns showed.

How relevant is character in choosing a president? For a country like the Philippines, which is struggling to rise to its full potential as a nation, it may be the most important criterion of all. Leadership character, in the sense of pursuing the highest moral values, has been critical in transforming societies from backwardness to socially just levels of development. The gross political, social and economic inequalities in Philippine society call for leadership that sees beyond the self while seeking to elevate the common good through role modelling of personal virtue and building of sound social institutions.

In his 1978 book, Leadership, James McGregor Burns introduced the concept of transformational leadership as part of his analysis of political leadership. A Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of state leaders, Burns defined transformational leadership as a process where leaders and followers engage in a mutual process of “raising one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.” Transformational leaders appeal to the higher ideals and values of followers. In doing so, they may model the values themselves and use charismatic methods to attract people to the values and to themselves.

An important milestone in nationhood is when a critical mass of a country’s citizens actively regards the good of the whole country even at the cost of personal sacrifice. When citizens choose leaders based mainly on what they will get in return, true nationhood becomes difficult and moral decay is the normal result. The standard description of Philippine elections is one awash in campaign cash, signifying millions of transactions between candidates, supporters and voters. A country of transacting mercenaries is not a nation; it is merely an accidental grouping of people living in a piece of land.

Burns considers transformational leadership more effective than transactional leadership because the latter appeals mainly to selfish concerns. Appeals to broader social values encourage people to collaborate, rather than working as individuals (and potentially competitively with one another), and in the process build a stronger society. Burns reminds us that transformational leadership is a continuing process, however, and quite different from the piece-meal exchanges of the transactional approach.

I have no doubt that we need a transformational leader as a president, but how do we know if a candidate behaves in a transformational manner? How do we see beyond the media hype and the put-on face of the PR consultants? We really need to be very observant. The psychologist Bernard Bass and his colleagues built on the ideas of Burns to give us concrete behaviors, we should look for to spot the transformational candidate.

The transformational candidate challenges the status quo and encourages followers to think creatively beyond the commonplace. He or she presents national problems as learning opportunities for followers to work through and not to deny or run away from. The candidate is a supportive and open communicator to his followers. The flow of ideas and sentiments is more important to this candidate than personal adulation or obedience. The candidate passionately communicates a clear and uplifting vision to followers.

The latter are in turn inspired to support this vision as their own. Finally, the candidate is a trustworthy role model to followers; he or she does not use double-speak.

Will a transformational leader emerge among the candidates? We will see soon enough. But we surely need a president with character.

Dr. Ben Teehankee is the Aquino associate professor of business and governance at De La Salle University’s RVR Graduate School of Business. His e-mail is