PNoy, Deng, and LeBron

OBVIOUSLY, WHAT Noynoy Aquino, Deng Xiaoping, and LeBron James have in common is leadership. Their fans claim they are not only leaders; they are heroes, they are superstars.

The successes of the Philippines (the recent big reforms), China (the economic miracle) and Miami Heat (its back-to-back championship) are attributed to PNoy, Deng, and LeBron, respectively.

Well, we need heroes. To quote the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, “To have no heroes is to have no aspiration.”

We thus have Rizal and Bonifacio. The US has Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Football has Pelé, Zidane, and Messi. Basketball has Bill Russell, Jordan and LeBron. And the bandits have Bonnie and Clyde.

Iconic worship tends to attribute all the deeds to the leader. But as a working paper from the Harvard Kennedy School argues, we have to be careful about singling out the role of heroes. Matt Andrews in his paper titled “Going beyond heroic leaders in development” (June 2013) criticizes the “hero orthodoxy.” His arguments are capsulized as follows: “Heroes often end up being less than heroic; contextual factors shape opportunities for leadership and development; and multi-agent groups typically lead, not solitary heroes.”

To illustrate, Deng unleashed the productive forces, which have made China grow exponentially. But Deng was also responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of students at Tiananmen Square.

Deng’s reforms-expressed famously in his slogan “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice-arose from the context of the tragic outcomes of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR). These man-made catastrophes led him to take a different socialist path. His trip to France, as the GPCR was winding down, left him a lasting impression on how a social market economy can bring about modernity and prosperity. These are some of the contextual factors that led him to rebuild “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” characterized by “an overwhelming abundance of material wealth.”

Which brings us to the role of “multi-agent groups.” Without the collective leadership of the post-Mao Chinese Communist Party, Deng’s vision would not have been realized. Hua Guofeng succeeded Mao, cracked down on the hardliners and opened the path for reforms. While Deng, provided the vision, the likes of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang engineered the crossing of the river by “feeling the stones.” Moreover, the ascendancy of Deng’s line would not have happened without Mao’s thoughts being a counterpoint.

The circumstances of LeBron’s heroism are similar to Deng’s. LeBron’s personality is less than heroic. He is said to be arrogant and narcissistic. Notwithstanding his nasty traits, LeBron has won two consecutive National Basketball Association champions, and captured two finals most valuable player awards, to boot.

Even then, LeBron’s talent would not have sufficed to win the 2013 championship. He could have become the goat when he missed a clutch shot in the dying seconds of Game 6. Luckily his teammate Chris Bosh grabbed the rebound and found Rey Allen who calmly sank a three-pointer, forcing overtime, and paving the way for Miami’s winning Games 6 and 7. Again, this is a story of how different players, not a single hero, contributed to a spectacular victory.

Nate Silver, the econometrician who accurately predicted the outcomes of the US 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, played with stats to find out whether LeBron can match Michael Jordan’s winning six championships. He noted that both LeBron and Michael won their two championships at the same age — the first when they were 27 years old and the second when they were 28.

His estimate of the odds is four chances out of thirteen, or roughly 30%. That LeBron is still at his peak suggests that chances are good next year to bag another championship. But in a few years, LeBron will no longer be at his best, and the odds against winning a championship are greater.

For LeBron to obtain four more titles, he has to recognize that sometime in the future, the team will not be built around him. He has to suppress his ego and join a high-caliber team where he will no longer play the stellar role.

Finally, we talk about PNoy’s leadership. We use the passage of the sin tax as an instructive example.

Much has been said about the leadership and political will of PNoy in having the sin tax passed. Indeed without his endorsement and intervention in critical junctures, it would have been far more difficult for Congress to have the sin tax legislated. The President’s support gave the champions the animating spirit and courage to fight for the bill.

Nevertheless, other factors explain the sin tax victory. The imposing yet charming presence of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares disarmed the bill’s opponents. Rep. Sid Ungab used his obscurity — and his intelligence and wits — to outmaneuver the many pro-tobacco congressmen. Sen. Frank Drilon had a hard time dealing with the Senate’s crafty bigwigs, but his political skills — uniting the many and turning the tables on the few sly ones — helped secure the bill’s passage. Last but not the least, civil society groups created a lot of noise and pressure that severely weakened pro-tobacco legislators like Senator Ralph Recto who was forced to resign from the chairmanship of the Senate ways and means committee.

The conditions also favored the sin tax measure. Government has to address a very low tax effort. Tobacco control has gained ground, as indicated by the country’s adherence to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. A new political force has emerged; the white army of doctors and nurses. Their message is the sin tax first and foremost serves health.

The lesson for those advocating reforms in the new Congress is this: The leadership of PNoy is essential. But everyone has to do his homework and work hard. The context and timing, the strategy, and the multi-agent coalitions likewise matter.

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