'Muddling through'

published November 2, 2015

A hotel ballroom full of businessmen, congregating for their regular monthly assembly.  Guests talking about the attributes of the ideal Filipino leader. There is agreement, and enthusiastic applause, but also dissension and unending questions. In the end, everybody leaves the room with some foreboding, aware of just how big and how complex this nation’s problems really are. There are hints of solutions here and there, but it’s obvious nobody’s really got it all figured out. Even these men and women who run their own corporations—profitable, global and at the forefront of their respective industries—are at a loss as to why we’re still here, still only here, given the richness of our resources and the potential of our people. 
Such was the scene during the General Membership Meeting of the Management Association of the Philippines held Tuesday 27 October at The Peninsula Manila. The topic of the forum, “Bayan o Sarili,” was lifted from a line out of the film “Heneral Luna.” In the movie, the general angrily asked his colleagues in government whether they would choose their own interest over the country’s. They had been “cooperating” with the Americans to preserve their own businesses.
And since the country is in the process of choosing its next leader, would it not be good if he or she could champion “bayan” (nation) over “sarili” (self), so that we could finally get rid of our problems and then take off.
Professor Clarita Carlos of the Center for Policy Research and Development of the University of the Philippines does not think, however, that one must choose between the self and the nation. “They are not choices,” she said.  “The individual is nothing without the state.” She said we had long been confined to the idea of the nation state and it is time to break out of that.
So is the idea of pitting personalities versus issues as the basis for choosing whom to vote for. There will always be a consideration for the kind of people candidates are; this cannot be divorced from the kind of leader they would eventually be. 
One personality trait, for instance, is being morally upright. To be not corrupt is necessary, she said, but not enough. Furthermore, what is sorely lacking from all the candidates, is a national strategy and vision.
Rex Drilon II, chairman of the Management Association of the Philippines’ National Issues Committee, agreed. “The first thing any elected president should do is to design a road map for the country.” It sounds commonsensical—too, when you get behind the wheel of your vehicle, you have to know exactly where you are going so you can figure out the best way to get there.   
Drilon talked about two kinds of surveys that established the ideal attributes of a would-be President. According to a MAP research, the five attributes are navigator/ strategist, mobilizer, servant leader, captivator and guardian of the national wealth and patrimony. Meanwhile, according to the Movement for Good Governance, the three adjectives that would describe a good leader are effective, empowering and ethical. 
If we put these ideal qualities in a matrix and assign values for each of the candidates (and even the current chief executive), then we would be able to have empirical basis for our choices—still not foolproof, perhaps, but infinitely better than going by how we like the candidates’ faces, or the sound of their voice, or the prominence of their last name. Drilon said that although these two matrices are two distinct tools altogether, they would likely validate each other’s results. 
Malyn Molina of the EON Stakeholders Group said that according to her team’s survey of 1,500 respondents, government still enjoys a relatively low trust rating among the people with only 12 percent of respondents. Trust drivers for government leaders are their ability to listen to people, their strong political will and genuine concern for the plight of the common citizen. 
For all that we have seen and experienced, Dr. Carlos said, do we now want somebody who does not muddle through the job? At first blush we would, but she reminded the audience that the presidency is a position of constant decision making, and decision making is always a process of muddling through.
The difference is that good Presidents muddle through intelligently. 
They must have the strength of character and go beyond cute platforms. And be an able decision maker in crisis situations. Enabling business to lead economic development is the government’s role, but it must create favorable conditions for it. Bureaucratic reform is key. Without this, genuine, long-term development will not come.
* * *
As we count the days before we cast our votes next year, we should free ourselves from the thinking that we have to choose between extremes: The nation or the self, personalities or issues, pure integrity versus pure competence.
The truth is, it’s always a continuum. There is no such thing as black or white, and pure good and pure evil. People—government leaders included—are complex, strong in some areas while weak in some, sincere in some aspects but also have connections and relationships that have the potential of coloring their judgments.
How, then, to find the perfect leader? He or she does not exist. Finding good leaders we can live with would be enough. This is why we continue to read up, to react, to question, to hope. This is why we still muddle through, and try to do so intelligently. We owe it to ourselves. 
Otherwise, we would be suffering from poverty of the spirit—an act of resignation, and giving up altogether. This is what will doom us, as individuals and as a nation.