Leadership: Vision, Courage and Conscience

Out to Change the World

Many people have written about leadership already. I wish to discuss only the great impacts of some leaders in our generation. Which ones have succeeded in changing the world in a big way? Three names readily come to mind: Steve Jobs, Deng Xiaoping, and Mikhail Gorbachev. They have initiated a process of change so broad and deep that will tremendously affect future generations, for better or for worse.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Jobs has contributed to revolutionizing four industries by transforming the way we do things. First, the personal computer empowers the individual. Second, the iPod puts over a thousand songs in your pocket with cheap downloads. Third, Pixar’s Toy Story shows that movies with virtual actors can fly, too. Fourth, the iPhone adds to the sophistication of wireless communication with a diversity of software applications drawn from the “cloud”. Although short of causing a retail revolution, the Apple Store has created a global craze about a new dimension of style for electronic product design. Some even predict that the television industry will be next even after Jobs is gone.

Whether you like Apple products or not is beside the point. Jobs’ other great achievement is bringing Apple back from near ruin to the top commanding a young loyal following worldwide. No other companies can compare. It is the only electronic manufacturer that does both hardware and software in house, plus integrating retail sales to boost its brand. This creates a tremendous competitive edge that enables Apple to introduce new products quickly, smoothly, and with fanfare.

Despite his abrasive personality, Jobs has said some things that reflect accurately his vision and artistic talents:
“Microsoft has no style.”
“Hewlett Packard is just a printer company.”
“Do you want to change the world or make sugar water for the rest of your life?“ (when Jobs recruited John Sculley from PepsiCo)

Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997)

Deng has made two revolutions in China: one communist in 1949, and the other capitalist in the late 1970’s. This appeared impossible for a leader who reversed course completely for a country of 1.3 billion people. Nevertheless, the result is that modern China of today is an economic powerhouse. The Communist Party still keeps control but the economy is wildly capitalistic. The world will never be the same after Deng’s second revolution, although we can debate forever all the imperfections of the Chinese system.

Deng was a veteran of the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949. He fell into disfavor with Chairman Mao several times. He was exiled each time but came back unharmed due to his wits and alliances with other top party leaders. After Mao’s death, Deng eventually assumed top power after defeating the Gang of Four led by Mao’s wife. To the pure communists, Deng was considered a turncoat, and was called a “capitalist roader”. He was known for his pragmatic vision through his blunt words:
“It does not matter if a cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.”
“Somebody has to get rich first!” (when being challenged by communist diehards who feared that his reform would create income inequality).

Deng’s concept of “one country, two systems” has proved to work for China, and later Hong Kong and Macao. This reform strategy was really controversial due to its contradictions. How could he have imposed it on the nation in the face of strong opposition within the Communist Party? The answer lies in the people’s enthusiastic support for the economic freedom and incentives provided.

So the slogan of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was adopted to explain away the contradictions of the reform strategy. This meant Deng could encourage private enterprise and open the country to foreign investment, while keeping the Communist Party in power. In other words, he could do whatever he wanted, even replacing the existing communist production system with a capitalist one based on market incentives.

This strategic contradiction finally came to a head in the Tiananmen student protest of 1989. The inescapable fact is that private enterprise naturally fosters freedom of political expression hitherto suppressed by the Communist Party. As expected, Deng sent in the army to crush the protesters. His great reformer image dimmed after the Tiananmen crackdown.

At present, an implicit contract seems to exist between the Communist Party and the Chinese people: The people just keep busy making money while the Party ensures fast economic growth. This implicit contract has worked so well so far. It even passed the critical test of the deep recession of 2009 when millions of factory workers were out of work. The government wisely encouraged the unemployed to go home to the countryside and take a break, even subsidizing their train tickets. This prevented mass unemployment in the cities from turning into public anger against the Party.

What will the future hold? Well, the great economic reformer has passed away. China needs a great political reformer now to finish the job of modernization, and to realize the ambition of national greatness. It should not be too hard for the Communists to see: Economic transformation based on private enterprise and open-door policy naturally leads to democratic political reform. It’s up to them to decide whether they want the reform to be peaceful or violent.

Mikhail Gorbachev (1931- )

Gorbachev pursued a different path for the Soviet Union: Political reform first, economic reform later. Unfortunately, it did not work out but led to the breakup of the Soviet empire. Before Gorbachev came to power, the Soviets were relatively poor, but not as dirt poor as the Chinese. Decades of communism had choked off nearly all incentives for the people to gainfully produce in both countries. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was burdened by the maintenance of a large army to hold on to Eastern Europe, and an expensive weapons budget to match the arms race with the United States.

The world was amazed to see how fast the Soviet Union imploded in late 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This could not happen had Gorbachev ordered the occupying Red Army in Europe to intervene. Did he really want to give up Eastern Europe? Why did the generals fail to rebel on such an important matter? How could a tightly controlled regime disintegrate so fast? The people did not rise up and revolt. The regime just gave up facing no popular challenge at all. This was absolutely not the political reform spelled out by Gorbachev. It all happened apparently beyond his control. Nevertheless, the Soviet implosion must be credited to Gorbachev because he initiated the reform process. The collapse of the Soviet Union, intended or not, has transformed the world, especially Europe.

Looking back, the breakup of the Soviet Union was probably planned by the top officials of the Communist Party that might include Gorbachev. As expected, the Party would fight to the death to preserve their power. What incentives did they have for allowing the regime to disintegrate? The answer lies in the policy of privatization that immediately followed. After the breakup, most industries and real estates belonging to the Soviet state were “auctioned” to private individuals. In other words, the assets of the whole country were up for grabs in the name of privatization. In a communist state where everybody was poor except the high officials of the Party, who could wind up capturing big chunks of assets? The top party officials of course! As a result, the world saw the sudden birth of many Russian billionaires comprising high communist officials, their business friends, and even bosses of organized crime.

At present, the Russian Communist Party is as strong as before despite other political parties are allowed to compete. Top communist officials have now become legal billionaires after privatization, never mind equality emphasized in the communist doctrine. No strong middle class has been created like in China. The Russian system has turned into an oligarchy where both wealth and political power are concentrated in the hands of a very small minority. Although the people are allowed to engage in private enterprise, they lack the dynamism of a capitalist society due to the dominance and exploitation of the oligarchy. (October 2011)

Courage and Conscience

Nowadays it is very hard to find a political leader with courage and conscience. Most of them assume office with the financial support of special interests such as big business, labor or other organizations. As a result, political leaders tend to cater to their financial bosses with little regard for the needs of ordinary citizens and the common good.

In the following examples, I wish to bring out some leaders who had the courage to go against the powerful interests, and let their conscience guide them in pursuit of the common good.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

The fall of the British Empire began with the independence of India in 1947. Gandhi led the independence movement emphasizing non-violence and civil disobedience. This strategy carried great risks because they had nothing to protect themselves when they deliberately disobeyed British colonial laws. Against all odds, this strategy has proven to work. The strength of the movement lay in the determination and the large number of people who took part. In addition, non-violence sends a powerful message regarding the oppression and injustice of colonialism. It is a direct appeal to the human conscience to right what is wrong.

The most famous act was the frontal assault on the salt tax. Gandhi led a group of followers to the beach to make salt. People in other parts of India followed suit. This looked so un-offensive, but it defied British rule imposed all over India at that time. Thousands of people were arrested and jailed as a result. This act of civil disobedience marks a turning point toward eventual success of the independence movement.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68)

Leading the civil rights movement in the US during the 1960s, King adopted the same non-violence strategy to defy racial discrimination in the Southern States. It challenged all the unjust rules governing everyday discriminatory practices. To provoke arrest, black citizens showed up in designated “white” areas in buses, schools, restaurants, stores, hotels, public waiting places, rest rooms, etc. as a demonstration of civil disobedience.

When the police came to enforce the unjust rules, the rest of the country saw on TV black people silently insisting on their rights, but police officers resorting to violence such as beating, tear gas, water cannons, and police dogs biting and charging. This stirred public conscience and generated widespread sympathy for black people who had suffered racial discrimination for generations.

Lyndon Johnson (1908-73)

As US President from 1963 to 1968, Johnson was unlikely to speak out against racial discrimination in the South. He was a Southerner from Texas and his political career relied heavily on the white votes. However, Johnson went against his power base and muscled through Congress two important pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both legislations banned existing discriminatory practices based on race.

Johnson was well aware of the political risks. After passage of the two bills, he commented to a colleague that his own Democratic Party would lose a lot of votes because of the wrath of Southern whites. This has proven to be true. The formerly Democrat-heavy Southern States began switching over to the opposing Republican Party. As a result, the Republican Party is now firmly entrenched in the South.

Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969)

Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and later was US President from 1952 to 1960. During the Suez Crisis of 1956, Britain and France sent naval forces to the Suez Canal to reclaim their control after Egypt had nationalized the canal zone. Israel was a willing partner to join the attack against Egypt. What did the US do?

Eisenhower was expected to support America’s allies in view of the good relations between them, especially during the Cold War raging at that time when Western solidarity was needed against the Soviet Union. Surprisingly, Eisenhower opposed the military operation, and said that it was an act of imperialism that he wanted no part of. Lacking American support, Britain and France eventually withdrew.

Do you remember the term military-industrial-complex? This was coined by Eisenhower to describe a rising domestic power new to the American system. Unlike all other countries, America has a large defense industry not owned by the government. As weapons manufacturers and contractors with the goal of maximizing profit, these private companies have a great tendency to push for war, with willing support from the large military establishment. No wonder America has wasted so much of its resources on unjustified wars, especially in Vietnam and Iraq. Eisenhower has put a spotlight on this sinister development for the American people to see. Being a five-star general rooted in the military establishment, Eisenhower defied loyalty and tradition in order to tell the truth.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)

Although born into a wealthy business family, Roosevelt promised that ordinary citizens would get a fair deal in his progressive policy as US President during 1901-09. He was known as a “trust buster” by bringing big business under strong government regulation to prevent monopoly and power abuse. Two of his well-known accomplishments include: breaking up the railroad monopoly in the Northwest, and brokering a miners’ strike with an unprecedented tilt toward the miners rather than the business employers.

Big business is usually big polluters undermining the environment in the name of job creation. Roosevelt, despite his business connections, turned out to be the great conservation president. America’s national park system owed its existence to his energetic support and visionary policy. He signed legislation to establish five national parks covering great areas of the country. He also enacted the Antiquities Act that enabled the federal government to claim historic landmarks and put them under public ownership.

All of the leaders mentioned above have their personal flaws. Without pointing out their mistakes, I only wish to bring out their exhibition of courage and conscience that are indispensable for great leadership. (November 2011)

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