Fidel V Ramos, the 12th president of the Philippines, has a dry sense of humour that can get one thinking for a long time. He was one of those few career military officers who rose through the ranks to reach the rank of five-star general/admiral and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He was a person who was widely praised for his ability to inspire and galvanise people. During his six years in office, Ramos was widely credited and admired by many for revitalizing and renewing international confidence in the economy. Yet, when the time came and rumours arose that he would try to overcome the one-term rule and aspire to stay, he just left office gracefully giving way to his successor.
In many of the lively and animated conversations on politics and politicians I have had with him, I remember him as an intent listener and reflecting upon the gold standard in politics. To this day, I recollect several stunning statements of his relating to politics:
- ”Standing up to your moral standards consistently reflects your integrity.”
- “Riding gracefully into sunset is an art.”
- “Climbing Mount Everest is a choice, but coming down is mandatory.”
At a moment in time when the whole world is struggling with the pandemic crisis, it is only expected for politics to take centre stage. Obviously, when you are in public life, as former President Obama said, you have to be prepared to take criticism in your stride. “One thing about being president or running for president – if you’re easily offended, you should probably choose another profession,” he told the media. There are many critics out there who struggle to find out the rationale for a particular decision. Some have an aggressive tone while others state the facts and let the people judge the decision. The need for active listening and an objective response from those criticised without shutting down the critics goes a long way to show one is willing to be accountable. Most of the time it is not changing the decision but listening intently and impartially that builds accountability. Accountability and Ethics set the gold standard in politics.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to travel with President Fidel V Ramos to Bangalore, India for the Asia HRDCongress. While we were there, one of the speakers highlighted the story of the diminutive second Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri. He was a surprise choice when the iconic Jawaharlal Nehru had passed away. A little over 5 ft (154 cm), he was no match to the mass appeal of Nehru, but he made up for the lack of charisma with unparalleled integrity.
India, a large country had a well-connected railway system that annually transported millions of people across the entire country. Prior to becoming the Prime Minister, Shastri was the Minister of Railways. A major railway accident in 1956 in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh killed as many as 112 people. Shastri, as the Minister, felt morally responsible and tendered his resignation to the Prime Minister who persuaded him to withdraw his resignation. Yet, within a few months, another accident in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, resulted in 144 deaths. Shastri promptly submitted his resignation to the Prime Minister and pleaded for its early acceptance. The second resignation by Shastri attracted great attention from the media and the nation.
The Gold Standard
The newspaper Pioneer, in its editorial on 26 November 1956, soon after the second accident, said, “Accidents happen in the best regulated railways, but then accidents ought to be exceptions rather than the rule.” While making a case for greater safety measures, it did not hold the railway minister responsible in any way. Yet, in his resignation letter, Shastri apparently wrote, “It will be good for me and the Government as a whole, if I quietly quit the office I hold.” The decision to stand up to his own moral standards and to insist that his resignation be accepted and he be allowed to go quietly reflected his moral standards and integrity. It is important to note that he was not pushed but he opted to resign because that was the example, he wanted to set for others. While the politicians of the day believed that the bureaucracy should take the responsibility, Shastri was convinced that he had to set the gold standard for accountability.
Forwarding Shastri’s resignation to the President of India, Nehru said, “I have advised the President to accept his resignation, not because I hold the Railway Minister responsible— obviously not—and I have also spoken in high terms of his work and joint work we have done together… no man can wish for a better colleague in any undertaking… A man of the highest integrity, loyalty, devoted to the ideal, a man of conscience and a man of hard work. We can expect no better. It is because he is such a man of conscience that he [feels] deeply whenever there is any failing in the responsibility entrusted to his charge.”
In a world that is today charged by political affiliations and partisanship, Shastri’s decision to quit, owning moral responsibility, has been frequently cited to remind politicians of their ethical obligations. The gold standard and high benchmark set by individuals like Shastri have become important barometers to measure one’s integrity.
Shastri and Ramos never claimed that they knew everything: they had intellectual humility – ‘knowing what we don’t know.’ As they say, if knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom. That they were willing to ride gracefully into the sunset speaks volumes of their intellectual humility and ability to create space for others. Shastri took the decision to resign at the age of 50 putting his political career at risk. Ramos left office at the age of 70 and went on the head his Foundation to do good. I wonder if a mandatory retirement age of 75 would be a good balance for those in politics and the people.
Talent development and succession planning are not buzzwords; they are realities in the ever-changing world. I was recently listening to a young politician who had responsibility for some major initiatives. His intellectual humility and intense listening made him win over the sceptics in the room who had been very critical of him, before the meeting. Of course, his further success will come when his words match with his actions. Congruence is such an important factor in accountability.
Adam Grant, in his pathbreaking book Think Again, says that the hallmark of wisdom is to know when it is time to let go. Outstanding leaders who are value creation engines miss out when they do not step aside when the time is right. There is a need to be relevant in a fast-changing world. Bernard Shaw put it so eloquently when he said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” Nelson Mandela showed the world what the word integrity means and the importance of reconciliation when he became President and the importance of gracefully riding into the sunset when he left office.
A Case for being Human
That the incident of Shastri’s integrity is still being narrated after 60 over years only shows how little it is being followed today. In a world that has forgotten wars but is grappling with a pandemic, emotions are running high. Mental health has taken such a bashing today. The focus is on saving lives and the resigned acceptance that livelihoods have to take a backseat despite the economic turmoil it is creating for the masses.
Today is not the time for political brinkmanship and games; it is not the time for another National Operations Council as is being pushed for today. If the thinking is that only a few people know what to do, then it is a dangerous assault on democracy. Diversity of thought is key for progress. The declared state of Emergency is a need given that the focus is on the well-being of the people.
The need of the hour is for unity, harmony and humanity. As President Lincoln said of governments, 150 years ago, democracy has to be the government of the people, by the people and for the people. Neither Shastri nor Ramos saw themselves as the only people who could lead. They were willing to vacate the centre stage and allow democracy to flourish.
Going up Mount Everest is a choice but coming down is mandatory.