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F. González: The Art of Governing the Public Space

Address to the Americas Summit
Washington, DC, May 1, 2008

After I left the government, which I led for 14 years, many people have asked me what leadership consists of. I do not know one political figure who studied leadership before becoming president. How do you study to become president of a country? You analyze situations to give leadership according to the context.

I made an effort to understand what leadership is. There are some characteristics that I believe are well-known. I read a very interesting book about leadership written by an executive of a multinational company. He said:

  1. The leader is he or she who is capable of taking responsibility for the well-being of others. If you are not capable of taking responsibility for the well-being of others, you are not a leader.
  2. The leader is capable of changing the state of mind and heart of others for the better.
  3. In order to change the state of mind — and I’m not just talking about politicians — this person will be requested to show his commitment that he is not doing this for mercenary advantage. For the politician, if leadership is done just for money it is very dangerous. The crisis in politics that we are experiencing is due to people’s belief that politicians are in office because they are opportunistic and corrupt, because of what they can take away through their exercise of power. That kills the credibility of leadership. They are only capable of changing the state of mind of others if the leader is committed to lead in a non-mercenary fashion.
  4. Every leader, political or not, should have the quality of being capable of coordinating human teams. He who does not coordinate human teams becomes an autocrat, not a leader. A component of leadership is moral authority, not power.

The society in which we live has become horizontal with the Internet. So much information is available about everything. We know that in the year 2000 there was sufficient information to predict that terrorist organizations were preparing for the 2001 attacks. In the past, political leaders believed that information was power; this was true during the Roman Empire, for example. Today, information itself is not power but the intelligence to coordinate that information in order to give it meaning and obtain results is power. Information is available to everybody. These are the characteristics of leadership involved in assembling a musical group or a soccer team. I am not talking specifically about political leaders.

Politics is the art of governing the public space that we share — whether it is the city, the nation, or the region. Leaders who gain the majority of the votes have to govern the plurality of ideas. People from Latin America and the Caribbean are capable of establishing all kinds of political parties, even if all the members of one political party can fit inside just one taxicab. But we need to govern for those who voted for us as well as those who didn’t. To polarize the country, making team A fight against team B, is to betray moral leadership.

People’s sense of identity has become more diverse. For example, we say that the identity of the European Union is Judeo-Christian, but we don’t know how to govern the 80 million Muslims who live in Europe and the few Jews still in Europe after the Second World War.

I was charged by my country to carry out an impossible mission during the war in Yugoslavia. I had lived half my life in a dictatorship and half in a democracy, and I know that you don’t impose democracy with tanks and guns. My friends who were born in countries with many generations of democracy wanted Milosevic to respect minorities, but how could he take care of minorities when he was not even willing to respect the election results of the majority?

Most people in Yugoslavia are southern Slavs. Some identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, others as Catholics, and still others as Muslims. But when the war started, each group became stuck and destroyed themselves by excluding others. It was said that if you are not Catholic, you have no right to be a Croatian; if you are not Orthodox, you have no right to call yourself a Serb; and if you are not Muslim, you have no right to be Bosnian.

Societies are becoming increasingly pluralistic in people’s sense of identity and belonging — even when they are of the same religion and ethnic group, and speak the same language. We need to govern that diversity of belonging. The art of governing is getting people not to kill each other, to have a minimum of respect for each other. Beside this, leaders need a project with which all the diverse people can identify and take a shared interest in. There can be a plurality of ideas, but all should identify with a common project.

One might think that the higher the cultural level of the people, the greater the likelihood of adhering to peace and democracy. The highest level of cultural, scientific, technological, musical, and artistic development was in Germany, which caused two world wars in the twentieth century.

Education for peace is not only about the right to vote. The right to vote is a necessary component of democracy but not a sufficient one. It legitimizes a leader who is elected by votes, and not by boots. Democracy only guarantees that if leaders do badly, the people can throw them out. It guarantees good government only in the long run. We need to constantly improve and do things for the long-range good.