The Cory Aquino charismatic leadership
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - January 26, 2020 - 12:00am

In my last column I discussed the topic of moral leadership or servant leadership. In the exercise of this type of leadership, one critical quality that is needed is for the person to exercise charismatic authority. As I wrote, examples of leaders who exercised charismatic authority in history were Gandhi (India), Lenin (Russia), Washington (USA), Sun Yat Sen (China), Bolivar (Latin America), Voltaire (France), and Mandela (South Africa). In the Philippines, there was Corazon Aquino who led a non violent but successful movement to remove the Marcos martial law regime from power and to restore democracy in the Philippines. 

Charismatic authority is exercised even without legal authority – through elections, traditional authority – based on traditions or inheritance, and military power – based on armed force. 

“Charisma,” has been defined as the quality of an individual by virtue of which he or she is set apart from ordinary men and women and treated as endowed with exceptional qualities. The ancient Greeks often thought of charisma as a gift from the gods. But modern definition more frequently alludes to charisma as a personal leadership involving personal magnetism that permits leaders to arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm.

The power to persuade through communication is central to a charismatic leader’s trait. This calls for charisma that can influence others and arouse their enthusiasm. During the movement to replace the Marcos dictatorship  with democratic institutions, many opposition leaders had the opportunity to speak to the people at rallies and marches. But no one had the ability to arouse the kind of enthusiastic reception that Cory could. She  did not speak in the loud bombastic style of traditional politicians, nor did she speak in angry tone common among speakers espousing the leftist ideology at that time.

When she spoke, however, the listener could visualize a vivid picture of the sufferings of Ninoy and his family. When she would end relating that what motivated her husband was his faith and belief that the Filipino was worth dying for, the listener would empathize with her. 

The ancient view is that someone is either born with charisma or not is very different from the personal experiences of charismatic leaders in the contemporary era. Although some persons might have a predisposition to acquiring it, there is considerable evidence that charisma is not something one is born with. Charisma is not given to a person and it is not an inherited or inborn quality. It is something that develops as a result of life changing experiences. 

I did not have the privilege of knowing President Aquino before she came back from exile in 1983. I remember seeing her in some LABAN rallies during the 1978 Batasan Pambansa elections. Her husband Ninoy galvanized the people to spontaneously stage a mammoth noise barrage with one television interview. 

It is possible for leaders to develop charisma although this is very rare. I can only speculate that with Cory it was a combination of the personal hardships and persecution she and her family had to go through combined with her spiritual strength, and faith that turned her into a charismatic leader. Whenever she spoke, the first virtue listeners would attribute to her was sincerity.

One of the most profound lessons on leadership came from a management guru who said: “More leaders have been made by accident, circumstances, sheer grit or will than have been made by all the leadership courses put together. Developing character and vision is the way leaders invent themselves.”

Leadership is not also just about character and personality traits. Leadership is also an event. It is about what you do with who you are, more than just about what you are. The writer Michael Useem who said that there is such a thing as a leadership moment which happens at a time when a leader’s credibility and reputation is on the line, when the fate or fortune of others depends on what the leader will do. This leadership moment happens when a decision is made to serve the greater good.

For Cory, there were several such moments. One was when she decided to run under a martial law regime and overcame massive cheating, violent tactics of the administration and the use of money. A few months after she won and became president ruling by decree, she decided to convene a constitutional assembly and allow a Congress to be elected when she could have continued ruling by decree for a much longer period. There was also her decision not to leave Malacanang at the height of the Honasan led coup attempt. One of her defining moment, for me, was in 1992 when she declined to run for a second presidential term when there was overwhelming evidence that she would have easily won.

The most important characteristics of a charismatic leader are her personal life as a model and her ideas and words as inspiration for future generations.  Here and in many parts of the world and for the present and future generations, Cory Aquino will always be an icon of democracy and the symbol of People Power.

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