All Mexican presidents begin their six-year terms certain in the knowledge that they will transform the country and erect the platform of development that they envisaged and that the population demands. Sooner or later, they finally come face to face with the sad reality: they realize that the solutions are more complex than they had foreseen, and, above all, that there are no prefabricated solutions. All presidents come to understand that the true powers of the presidency are many fewer (and today, infinitely fewer) than they supposed beforehand. Those who are successful in the end, in Mexico and everywhere, are those who recognize that, beyond what the credentials state or what tradition dictates, true presidential power resides in the moral authority with which they act.
In his book on his experiences as a presidential advisor, Stan Greenberg affirms that a successful leader is one who carefully and minutely explains to the people the challenge confronting their nation, and convinces the population of the importance of embarking upon transcending actions: their function is rather one of creating a spirit than undertaking myriad affairs, because attitudes can either add and transform, or subtract and defeat. Primarily, says Greenberg, the key lies in the narrative that the president establishes, not only to convince, but instead to procure the understanding of the citizenry concerning the dilemma and make the presidential response their own. The wisdom for presidents to heed is that they cannot govern with speeches lacking in transcendence, because what is important is that there is a narrative in existence that is intelligible for everyone: this is how to construct support bases, and these, in turn, make it possible to make a difference.
It is easy to exaggerate the momentousness of a leader in great social processes. No country advances to a great degree because it has individuals endowed with exceptional charisma. What makes the difference, at least at the time, is the existence of equal opportunities for all and the proper conditions for every individual to develop his abilities to the maximum. However, there are moments when exceptional leadership can take on transformer dimensions if the leader is able to build a support base that develops a new reality. When things are at such a standstill and in such decline that they require fundamental reconsideration, a leader who understands the moment can be the factor that unfetters shackles, affects interests, and posits foundations for a new era.
Mexico does not have the conditions that augur well for its development. For decades we have been erecting obstacles, putting up barriers, protecting interests, to the point that everything has ultimately arrived at a state of paralysis. Every person, group, union, enterprise, and entity in the country has structured mechanisms of protection that allow them to contend with (when not taking advantage of) the circumstances. Some enjoy fiscal exemptions, others receive subsidies; some survive in the informal economy, others grease palms; some come by soft jobs, and still others simply opt for the status quo in the face of whichever alternative, because their experience has taught them that any change implies something worse. The tangible fact is that the Mexico of today is one in which everyone is displeased but no one is disposed to change anything.
A University of Pennsylvania study* on presidents asserts that “history rewards presidents who take risks”. I have no doubt that we live in an era of leadership crisis, which is, as Einstein once noted, a crisis of incompetence. For decades we have had bad governments and anodyne presidents who agreed to preside, in a word, over decadence. Along the way, they tolerated, when they did not indeed precipitate, the consolidation of all these vices and interests that have come to incapacitate the country. Of course, no one did it on purpose –that would have been even more Machiavellian than our illuminati would countenance- but the fact is that, between those who would save the third world and those who would administer the riches, not to mention those who sought to change the model only to leave the country in the worst crisis in its history, what is left is a country clogged in the mire which no one wants to change even one iota.
And this is where effective and intelligent leadership, leadership that transcends the quotidian discourse and embarks upon an honest, believable, transforming, and non-threatening narrative, can contribute decisively to breaking the impasse.
From his defeat in the midterm elections, Felipe Calderón understood that the time has passed for attempting to save the country one more time. His recent speeches reflect a new tonic, a wish to explore opportunities that he had not contemplated previously as being possible or, even, desirable. Save for a few partisan speeches, his most recent rhetoric assumes something transcendental: that a country is not built in six years, an insight to which very few of our presidents have been privy. The task of a president is not to change everything, but, strictly speaking, to advance solutions, many of which can take decades to bear fruit.
The change in tone has been noteworthy, but the method has not. The president continues to believe that a speech is all that is required to govern. Instead of a narrative that evolves and builds, we continue to observe a spate of disunited individual discourses that fall short of transcending the immediate objective. There is no understanding that the population needs to be convinced, that it is not an inert mass incapable of understanding the dilemmas and the problems. When a succession of presidents -and, in fact, the entire political class- addresses the population with contempt and treats them with scorn, the citizenry not only ridicules them, but also takes refuge in the form of entrenchment, which is characteristic of our present reality.
Everyone knows that fundamental changes are required to be able to go forward. In technical terms, it is not difficult to diagnose the wrongs and to spell out the options that we are confronting. But our problem is not technical: an overtone more, an overtone less, but the solutions are known. Our problem is to shatter the inertia in order to emerge from the gridlock. Effective leadership could make an enormous difference.
Mexicans want a leader who confers upon them a sense of strength, trust, and self-esteem. A leader who transcends the speech and its partisan lures and fears to make it possible to begin to walk. President Calderón already knows that he cannot do what no president can; perhaps this is why he could do what they all should. Galbraith observed that the common characteristic among great leaders is their disposition to confront their people’s sources of anxiety in unequivocal fashion. This would be a worthy challenge for our president to brave.
*Ten Ways to Judge a President, July 22, 2009, in Knowledge@Wharton