Fri, 29 Dec 2000

What kind of leaders are we looking for?

By Mochtar Buchori

JAKARTA (JP): When in late 1964, Indonesia's first president Sukarno's political power began to show signs of decline, many wondered whether there was another leader in sight.

We were looking for a "replica" of Bung Karno, as he was affectionately called by his people, to take over his role as a guide in the nation's search toward a dignified place in the family of nations.

Of course, there was no such person. A person of Bung Karno's stature and caliber is not born once in every generation, and maybe not even once in every century.

The same is true for other great personalities like Nehru, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, or Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In our case, the one who emerged and filled the political vacuum at that time was a general by the name of Soeharto. No matter what one may think about Soeharto, this man succeeded in establishing himself as Indonesia's leader for 32 years.

In the words of a prominent intellectual at the time, "at the beginning he was a very humble soldier", and this was because -- according to another intellectual -- "he was still learning how to be an effective president of the country."

He did not know many political tricks yet. But about four years after he consolidated his power, his self-confidence began to grow steadily, and increasingly he began to act like a Javanese King, creating an image rather remote from the image of a president of a supposedly democratic republic.

History has shown that he was a leader of a type quite different from that of Bung Karno.

We are now living amid rumors and gossip that the country can no longer afford to have Abdurrahman Wahid as our President. His hobby of traveling abroad with a large entourage is too costly for a country that is almost bankrupt.

The oft-repeated allegation that he is implicated in several murky business deals has made his government lose much of its credibility. And his political statements that are quite often contradictory have unnecessarily increased the confusion and frustration.

It is on the basis of such circumstances -- alleged or real -- that those proposing that Abdurrahman be replaced have been building up their arguments. But every time this idea is launched it faces stiff resistance from opposing camps.

They ask, "Who can replace Gus Dur? Who has the courage and the capability to stand up to Muslims inclined towards fundamentalism? Who has the guts to try to 'tame' the Army?"

The mere idea of replacing Abdurrahman is aborted by the argument that there is no second Gus Dur.

Here we see a repetition of a "political play" exhibited in 1964. While back in 1964 we claimed "There is no second Bung Karno", now we assert "There is no second Gus Dur!" While this is effective to end the campaign to replace Gus Dur, it is not a very good way to think about the nation's future.

Soon, regeneration must take place. We will be moving into a new situation where we will meet new challenges and new opportunities, but also new problems.

To survive, and also to advance, we will have to generate a new national strategy to be executed by younger generations and under the leadership of those familiar with those new challenges, new opportunities and new problems.

This kind of leadership can be provided only by a generation born in the new era, or by members of older generations capable of transcending the boundaries of their respective generation.

Perhaps the Gus Dur issue is merely a climax of intensifying dissatisfaction with our political leaders.

People have a negative image of most of the present political elite. These politicians are perceived as leaders without genuine interest in public welfare, their primary concern limited to securing important positions. They have created the impression of being opportunistic, having no serious commitment to moral norms in conducting public affairs.

So is it wise to continue to support leaders who reward their supporters with lucrative business deals or with positions within national or local executive or legislative bodies?

Will this kind of leadership bring about social, economic, and political changes that satisfy people's real needs?

Perhaps we should ask whether it would not be better to start adopting "transforming leadership", one which seriously pursues a "relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation" between leaders and followers.

This kind of leadership will, according to the scholar James McGregor Burns, convert "followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents."

It is this kind of leadership that will likely be capable of generating national actions that will pull us out of this social, political, and economic morass.

This is a very sensitive question. Discussing it may hurt some leaders; but it is also a very important one. To act as if it did not exist would be fatal, leaving the younger generation neglected and victimized.

Yet it would not be fair to shove all the responsibility of our present messy condition on to political leaders alone.

The public also has some responsibility to shoulder. Our mistake has been to allow ourselves to think that it is only political leaders that really count. Experience has taught us that such leaders alone cannot bring about comprehensive changes.

We also need leaders in bureaucracy, in business, in sciences, in arts and communications, and education, to name a few.

A powerful political system cannot do much to move the country forward if not supported, among others, by a solid bureaucracy. And a splendid system in arts and sciences without support from a solid economic system will not offer us a pleasant life either.

While there are common themes and principles underlying leadership in varying branches of life, there is also a unique repertoire of techniques of leadership for each kind of endeavor.

Leadership techniques cannot be simply transplanted into the arena of academic leadership. And techniques for grooming graduates to become good scholars cannot be deployed without modification in a research institution aimed to nurture dedicated researchers.

Thus there is really an urgent need to diversify our stock of leaders and leadership. There has been a very visible imbalance, among others, between the military and civilian aspects of our national life.

There is also an imbalance between our academic life and our business life. This is a sign, according to Burns, that we lack the very foundations of knowledge about leaders and leadership as a phenomenon that "touches and shapes our lives."

Without such knowledge we will not be able to "distinguish leaders from rulers, from power wielders, and from despots."

One source of unhappiness with our leaders may lie in the way they perceive power and leadership. Most do not realize that leadership is nothing without collective purpose.

Many do not even try to identify the motives and aspirations of their followers, assuming that people will just accept what they say about their agendas.

This is the main reason why our political parties and their leaders have not been able to move their followers toward concrete actions that would meet their needs and expectations.

This is why people at the grass roots have become very disappointed with the elite. "After we helped them secure their places up there, what is left for us? We still live in the same conditions as before the 1999 elections. And look at our political leaders. Their lives have improved considerably."

This is a common complaint heard everywhere, every day.

The leaders do not seem to realize that effectiveness of political leadership depends among others on the interplay between the call of moral principles and the necessities of power. They pay scant attention to the moral aspects of securing and using power.

There are three important traits of leadership that takes moral principles into account.

First, leaders and followers are bound together not only by power, but also by mutual needs, aspirations, and values. Second, to ensure informed choice, followers must be given the opportunity to accumulate knowledge about leaders and programs. Third, leaders should not make empty promises -- if they have promised economic, political, and social changes they must assume leadership in fulfilling those pledges.

Our search for new leaders and new leadership will be futile if we do not possess the right concepts, and if we do not improve our observation and evaluation of our political leaders and their leadership.

Do we really want leaders who are sincere about improving conditions? Do we really want political leaders who can guide us toward a society in which human rights are jealously guarded, meritocracy is put into real practice, and restoring legal supremacy is really pursued?

Such sweeping changes will come only if we have leaders who can persuade and mobilize people to carry out relevant and realistic programs.

This means we need leaders who can feel what the ordinary people feel. We need leaders who share their longings, their burning desires, and their values -- leaders who do not talk "from above", but who can express their thoughts in the language of the lay man.

Leaders act according to their true personality. Manipulating or coercing people to benefit one's own interest is not part of a leader's personality. Instead they engage their followers, which is only possible after they succeed in building trust and deep relationships with their followers.

Manipulation is done primarily by leaders who rely on brute power, leading to the domination of their people. At the other extreme are those who carry out reciprocal leadership excessively, developing leader-follower relationships in such a way that followers simply adore the leaders and lose their individuality.

The kind of leaders we want are between these two extremes.

Burns beautifully describes the fatal consequences of these two extreme types of leadership. He wrote, "To watch one person absolutely dominate another is horrifying; to watch one person disappear, his motives and values submerged into those of another to the point of loss of individuality is saddening." Leaders that behave in the way outlined above are executing 'transforming' leadership."

Political leaders who embody "transforming leadership" are, to quote Burns again, "leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and motivations of both leaders and followers." At one point transforming leadership becomes 'transcending leadership', and this means leadership with commitment.

Do we see such leaders now or in our distant environment?

I do. But they do not belong to the "star studded world" of the present elite. They are quiet workers who focus themselves on one specific goal in their labor. Whether they can become leaders of national importance depends to a certain extent to us, the followers.

If we consistently refuse to be led by pseudo-leaders and demand genuine leaders, these quiet workers will one day come into the public's vision.

But if we simply follow and swallow what members of our political elite say, they will be forever in the background.

Thus in the end we will get what we deserve.

True leaders do not come out of nowhere. They do not become leaders instantly either. True leaders have traveled a long and arduous intellectual and emotional journey. And frequently, during that long journey they have experienced abuse of power.

But this is exactly what made them great. According to Frederick the Great, "The passion of princes is restrained by exhaustion."

He who had been abused by power bore it with equanimity.

The writer is an observer of social and cultural affairs.