Bernardo M. Villegas
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Good Leaders Need Prudence

          Because of rampant corruption in both the public and private sectors of Philippines society, the key word for looking for the right leaders in the next elections is Integrity. More than superior intelligence or technical competence, people who want to see reforms in governance are singling out honesty, truthfulness or integrity as the indispensable quality of the next President and other elected officials. The example of Indonesia's President Yudhoyono, who was just re-elected for another five years after successfully rooting out corruption through a single-minded pursuit of good governance in the public sector, is being held up as a model for the Philippines to emulate. Indeed, a recent visit I made to Indonesia convinces me that integrity of the top man can go a long way in creating a very attractive investment climate in an emerging market like Indonesia or the Philippines.

          No one doubts the importance of integrity in a good leader. We must, however, look for another human virtue in the right leader. I am referring to the virtue of prudence, which is the queen of all the other moral or cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, and courage. An honest man may still fall short as a leader if he does not possess the virtue of prudence in a pre-eminent way. A European author who has studied the qualities of outstanding world leaders in recent memory wrote about the virtue of prudence in his book Virtuous Leadership: An Agenda for Personal Excellence (Alexander Havard, Scepter Press, I will summarize here the main points of his chapter on Prudence.

          He starts with a quotation from a famous German philosopher, Josef Pieper: The pre-eminence of prudence means that so-called "good intentions" and so-called "meaning well" by no means suffice. Once we have convinced ourselves that a presidential candidate, for example, is a man of integrity, we should next scrutinize his track record for making the right decisions. As Mr. Havard writes, "prudence enables leaders to perceive situations in all their complexity (or simplicity, as the case may be) and make decisions in accordance with this perception. 

          There are three steps to making a prudent decision. First there is deliberation, that is gathering information so as to establish a yardstick. Second, the information gathered must be evaluated. This is the judgement part. Finally, the decision is made. The deliberative aspect is directed towards reality. A good leader must have sufficient intelligence to examine the reality outside of himself. He does not need to be an expert himself. But he must be able to understand the opinions rendered by experts on critical issues of the nation. For example, even if he does not understand the complexity of measuring the inflation rate, his common sense will make him understand the advice of the majority of professional economists that price controls should only be imposed in emergency measures, such as when there is a natural calamity. Over the medium-term and long run, price controls only lead to a shortage of the goods whose prices are being controlled and, therefore, aggravate the situation by making prices go up even higher. 

          As Havard further elucidates, in order to make right decisions, leaders need to possess the professional knowledge appropriate to their field of activity. No less important, however, is knowledge of human beings. Since leaders have to accomplish their objectives through others who report to them, they have to be profound students of human nature. They must possess philosophical and moral knowledge about people, derived from both academic study and life experience. This knowledge will enable them to deal effectively with professional situations that are more human than technical in nature.

          The man of integrity has a distinct advantage when using his deep knowledge of human beings in attaining the objectives of his organization. He will refuse to be manipulative and to exploit the baser instincts of his subordinates in motivating them to action. True, a leader may achieve short-term success if he bribes his followers with sex, booze, and ill-gotten gains. As night follows day, organizations led by manipulative individuals self-destruct.  Only virtuous acts can guarantee the long-term sustainability of an organization. Here, it must be pointed out that the expression virtuous leadership is not a tautology.   Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini were leaders in their own right. Since they did not practise virtuous leadership, they all ended up badly as well as the organizations which they led.

          A final note about prudence and leadership. Havard cautions that although decision-making is more effective when imbued with prudence, prudence is no guarantee of success. There will always be risks and uncertainties in the implementation phase. The President of a country, no matter how prudent he may be in choosing members of his cabinet, cannot be scientifically certain that the people available to him are capable of implementing his decision. "The prudent man," says Josef Pieper, "does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties." That is why a good leader must be able to admit a mistake and replace some of his cabinet secretaries when subsequent facts prove them to be inadequate for their responsibilities. The loyalty to an individual technocrat stops when the loyalty to the common good begins. For comments, my email address is