Friday, August 21, 2015

We Get The Leaders We Deserve

Tension hung in the air. The fight grew fiercer and fierier, as election day loomed. Two candidates stood out tall by their sheer wealth of experience and charismatic personalities, overshadowing a distant third unknown underdog. Loyal supporters chorused their mantras and memorandums. Much was at stake. The presidential seat carried wide powers and access to administrative funds.

At the much-anticipated Annual General Meeting (AGM), the three candidates delivered their impassioned speeches. The two favourites, however, garnered the most cheers. It was too close to call. The attending members shuffled forward to drop their votes in the ballot boxes. Slowly, one by one, the votes were counted for all to see. And finally, the results were in.

The underdog had been elected as the President of the Law Society.

What Happened - And Why

I will never forget that dramatic electoral win.

Back then, I was a wide-eyed student, just one year into law school. I won the Assistant Secretary post unopposed, hence joining an Executive Committee (EXCO) filled by stunned seniors from the two camps which had just witnessed their leaders beaten, plus the unlikely candidate who beat them. How did this happen? Apparently, the two favourites had split the votes of the active students evenly, allowing the winner to rally support from the silent majority and sneak pass the post.

That term, the EXCO didn't do well. Everyone had their own ideas and agendas, with me holding the most junior position powerless to do much. Relations were cordial, but cold. Initiatives were blighted by indecision. No internal fight broke out, but scarcity of trust hindered cooperation. Grand projects were either abandoned or scaled down to pitiful bits.

Next AGM, the students made their displeasures clearly known. Our competence and credibility were brutally questioned. On stage, before a raging crowd, I could only squirm in my seat, like a terrified squirrel with no tree to clamber on. The President and his deputy bore the brunt of the angry barrage.

In the end, the Dean - quietly watching on with much bemusement - cut short the proceedings with a single chilling remark: "We get the leaders we deserve".

A great leader in the making

Democracy Ain't Enough

I will never forget that remark.

The election had been free and fair. We, the voters, were all soon to be lawyers - humanoids who champion democracy the loudest on this planet. And yet, we had failed miserably to elect a good President. The Law Society broke down into shambles. It was a humbling experience to all.

But I did learn a lot from the experience. The cold, hard truth. That as much as we whine and complain about our leaders - whether in government or our neighbourhood country club - we only have ourselves to blame when they turn out rotten.

Contrary to many of us would like to believe, leadership isn't made from democratic elections. Instead, leadership is built incrementally over the years from societal norms. A leader is merely the sum of individuals in a society. Whatever society does, its leader follows. An election is merely a coronation ceremony of a ruler destined to reign by societal expectations. We may not be individually responsible for electing bad leaders, but ultimately we are collectively responsible of building a culture that empowers bad leaders to rise through the ranks.

Rotten Chickens, Rotten Eggs

It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Which came first - rotten leaders or rotten societies?

Never mind where it all begin. What's clear as day is that they both form an almost unbreakable cycle. Chickens lay eggs. Eggs bear chicks. Chicks grow into chickens. Chickens lay eggs.

Never mind whether leaders are good or bad. So long as citizens can't change their bad habits, there is little incentive and hope for their leaders to change as well.

Take the common ills of bad governance:

1) Conflict: Today, conflicts persist across the world where sectarian tribes have hunted and killed each other for centuries, especially in the Middle-East, Africa, Asia and Balkans. Even with the introduction of democracy, dictators still act with cruel impunity to silence dissent. Even with foreign forces disarming warlords and brokering peace deals, civil wars still break out. Yes, opportunistic leaders is at fault for heating up ancient animosities to stew discord. But society also has to share fault for biting the bait.

2) Crime: Breaking traffic rules and bribing the police. Under-declaring goods and smudging tax forms. Petty mischief that many of us are guilty of, which we chalk away as being insignificant. And yet, when the police go soft on serious crime and politicians siphon away tax monies, we all go berserk asking for heads to roll. But a crime is a crime. Just because those in power are getting away with it, doesn't mean we also should. For if everyone keeps committing crimes big and small, everyone tries to draw their own line in the sand on what's criminal and what's not. And where the lines of justice becomes blurred, that's how crime squeezes through the cracks to flood the lands.

3) Corruption: Taking them out after office hours around the brightly lit parts of town for a "good time". Promising a spot for their daughter or nephew in your plush corporate office, without looking at their resumes. The things we do in the name of winning over our "business clients". And yet, we only start to bat our eyelids when others are doing the same thing at our expense. It's hypocrisy of the highest order. We are quick to call out corruption against political and corporate leaders, but not when they happen to be our family and friends. That's why corruption is hard to stamp out - people are too scared to go all-out against corruption, lest it bites them back in their butts.

Nothing will change if society as a whole does not root out conflict, crime and corruption from everyday life. Nothing will change in them at the top if we at the bottom do not change our own bad habits.

Crime and corruptions pays off - in chicks and champagnes

Leadership Begins With Us

The president wasn't a terrible person. He just wasn't the right person for the job. The two other candidates would have fared better in office. Sadly, they were undone by their arrogance and stubbornness - they could have reached to a power-sharing arrangement, and not needlessly engaged in a winner-takes-all battle.

But the true losers were the students. Intoxicated by the charm of democracy, we voted with our hearts, and not our minds. Passion blinded reason. We were naïve. We fought for the sake of fighting. We debated over every trivial detail, wanting to win every argument. We rarely resort to compromise, viewing it as a weakness. We attacked each other's character on the pretext of free speech. And in the end, we got what we deserved - a total mess.

Till today, I still see the same mistakes being repeated by democratic societies. It's a lesson we never learn, do we? We always look at our leaders to blame for our problems, when the problem is rooted in us. We urge them to change their wicked ways, but never change ourselves.

Democracy is fair. We may not get the leaders we vote for. But we always get the leaders we deserve.


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