By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Leadership and Notions of Power: Miscellaneous Musings

"Credible words are not eloquent; Eloquent words are not credible.
The adept are not all-around;The all-around are not adept.The sages do not accumulate things.Yet the more they have done for others,the more they have gained themselves;The more they have given others,The more they have gotten themselves.Thus the way of the tian is to benefit without harming;The way of the sages is to do without contending."

(From the Dao De Jing, translated by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall,A Philosophical Translation, Dao De Jing, Making This Life Significant)

Our notions of leadership are closely tied up with our theories about power. Often the link is made on the issue of legitimacy that is the mandate to hold power and authority and unfortunately, not often enough on the issue of the essence of the exercise, of the holding of power.

Hannah Arendt once wrote: “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power's disappearance. “

What she said about power is not at all the commonplace concept of power most people would have as a lording over, demanding submission, the capacity (sometimes mandate) to oppress, in short, domination.

Arendt’s insight not only links but identifies “power” with the very notion of being legitimately empowered, power as something given, not taken and appropriated.

Leaders cannot lead without a mandate. That of course nowadays is more philosophically speaking, than literally true in the case of political power.

In its most prosaic form, political leadership in current day societies is almost exclusively identified with status, the title and all manner of “rituals,” under the guise of a formal order (bureaucracy) adopted to symbolize the supposed best of our beliefs about “democratic processes” and democracy itself.

Reduced to its simplest terms, most people’s experience of “democracy” begins and ends with the ballot and not much else. Yet we know that with few exceptions, elected office, that is the mandate to lead in politics is still most accessible (often exclusively) to the wealthy and that even the ballot (with it the avowed rituals of the ballot in the democratic order), hasn’t been held sacred for many years in the Philippines anyway.

Power as a Social Relation

Michel Foucault said that : “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”

As a relationship, the focus in not exclusively on the ONE but involves all (others). Using this understanding of power as a complex “strategic situation, “ helps us situate the leader not as “the one” vis a vis “others” but as closely and intricately linked with those with whom she/he has relationships with.

Indeed, theories of power as complex social relationships facilitated most critical analysis of class, sex/gender, race and ethnicity as the dominant social categories along which our relationships of “power” are ordered or based on.

For feminists, feminism's theories and analysis of power relations have been the key to understanding how notions of sex/gender are also essentially tied up with notions of power.

For many years, feminism has been at the forefront of challenging male privilege and societal impositions that is "power over women" and continues to be an important standpoint for questioning women's subordination.

On the other hand, having solely focused on male privilege/totalitarian forms of power on one hand and women's victim hood on the other, tends to obscure the best of feminist analysis in understanding and in turn challenging dominant notions of power, and especially how our common understanding of power is itself gendered, thus coming dangerously close to reinforcing old notions of power.

For one, despite having facilitated access to positions of power or women's representation in capacities of leadership (especially at the institutional and governmental level, of which the Philippines is one of the best examples), even women's movements cannot boast of having done so much as changed the "standards" of leadership, let alone challenged the very notion of the exercise of power.

As much as feminism at its most progressive, aims for egalitarian forms of power and more inclusive styles of leadership, it hasn't been that easy to form alternative models even in the context of women's NGOs either. Does egalitarian mean the majority rules always and that the essence of democratic leadership is majority rule? Not surprisingly, the majority principle has also often led to the oppression of minorities, not in undemocratic contexts but otherwise.

Of Feminist Tyrants and Evil Executive Directors

Many Feminist Leaders have perhaps found themselves as beleaguered as their counterparts in political office, even if the offices they hold and the motives of their constituents are entirely different. With an inherent distrust for "power," and "authority," many a "progressive" organization in the development neck of the woods (women’s NGOs included) have (and will probably have) its own experience of its leadership undergoing scrutiny, besieged by challenges to its legitimacy, for a myriad of reasons.

It turns out, struggles for power, (that is in power’s most limited sense, as “a certain strength, or as structures”) do not always erupt because of tyrannical leaders, or abuses of power, but simply because dominant notions of power and authority are abhorred and at the same time equated with leadership positions.

In fact, many experiments to challenge the traditional “hierarchical” organizational structures have dealt with carrying over our ideas about “power-sharing” via the adoption of “collective” forms of structures, usually as a committee.

Unfortunately, changing the structure of “leadership” alone will not always lead to better organizations, nor changes in the notions of leadership and power. As the founding Executive Director of a women’s organization with its own history of organizational problems and turnovers in leadership in the past, I learned this the hard way.

This is because “Power-sharing” is only half the story. Unfortunately, accountability, (which is I think the more important aspect of leadership) is hardly ever something, which is acknowledged by “leadership collectives,” that is, with shared authority comes shared responsibility.

Not everyone who is willing to share power will willingly accept responsibility. This is why equating leadership with “holding power,” and its exercise as “power over,” is problematic (and potentially catastrophic).

For one, those willing to lead (or God forbid, actually be good at leading) are often immediately tainted and treated as if they are “power hungry,” and want to lord it over. But given the context of often financially strapped, barely coping NGOs where the leadership posts aren’t exactly high-paying jobs, but endlessly stressful, such accusations (and equally hurtful counter accusations of “power grabbing”) can more likely to be hurtful than truthful.

Again, thinking about leaders are “all powerful” also raises the standards and expectations of constituents on the part of leaders, to the level of the unrealistic. Because leadership often puts the leader in the spotlight, a leader will always disappoint for being too harsh, too lenient, too strict, too much of a push over, too exacting, too trustful, or even too good for the job but not friendly enough.

On the other hand, leaders who themselves think that the position should be isolated from all forms of criticism no matter how baseless, are themselves reinforcing the same concept of power/leadership as “exclusive” and inaccessible. (No, you can’t avoid it but it doesn’t mean you won’t live though it either.)

A leader listens but how should she/he handle negative feedback or for that matter, address the demand (and expectations) to "socialize?" The image of the quintessentially successful Filipino "TRAPO" (a.k.a. "traditional politician") comes to mind. In the Philippines, the “TRAPO” is around to attend all baptisms, weddings and makes lavish donations to the next of kin during a funeral.

While community is genuinely important within development institutions, not all NGO workers, and activists or for that matter, feminists are the same. As individuals within social movements, a lot of feminists and advocates can have complex personalities like anybody else. As I told my law students a couple of days ago, we feminists, are not all “nice” or would like to be.

Reflecting on my own experience, it was especially more difficult to make friends when one is in a formal leadership position. While staff and colleagues have their expectations of you to be “social,” they don’t exactly make it easy to get close either. The “distance” between leaders and constituents or staff is probably generated both by the leader and the led, owing to a myriad of things like professional ethics, hierarchy (or perceptions about hierarchy) and plain and simple difference of interests.

I have seen leaders in NGOs emerge during crisis, taking up responsibility when nobody else was willing to place her/himself in the line of fire. For a while, people are grateful for the heroic act, but eventually they start complaining when they realize the leader who led them in crisis isn’t Miss Congeniality.

I have also seen people who ended up as NGO leaders, most reluctantly, hesitating when they were called to lead and ending up accepting the title, but not the responsibility. When such “leaders” face challenges to their authority or get attacked personally, they blame others for their situation, pointing out that their acceptance of leadership was a compromise, forced upon them.

Again, this has a lot to do with how we have given power such a bad name and aspirations to lead, such a negative view, even if we know that in our context of development work and movements for social change, we have to be at constant odds to redefine and engage our own notions about leadership and power.

The notion of power as dominance is unfortunately the common notion and expression of power many modern day societies acknowledge.

In so saying, if we think all power is a dirty thing, will we ever be able to trust in a leader to exercise power and act for the benefit of others or worse, how are we ever able to rationalize our own desires or aspirations for positions of leadership and power?

Rethinking Power: Where do we begin?

Feminist Maxine Sheets Johnstone in her book, “The Roots of Power,” begins by asking where our concept of power comes from and begins what she states as an agenda to “explore the corporeal foundations of power.”

What makes Johnstone’s discussion interesting is that she is calling for no less than a rethinking of contemporary Post-modern feminism’s pre-occupation with language as the site of power, in effect, often neglecting the body or even negating archetypal signaling behavior.

In turn, she demonstrates how archetypal signaling behavior representing POWER/DOMINANCE/SUBMISSION are in fact not sex specific and that instead of engaging in postmodern “grammatological creationism,” it is possible to link animate and corporeal form to the cultural event when the physical attribute was appropriated or the meaning, attributed to it.

Her critique extends to sociobiology, pointing out how male arousal continues to be linked with aggression despite scientific evidence showing that “the disposition to dominate” is very much a learned behavior.

What also caught my attention in Johnstone’s work was that her insight into how our ways of thinking largely determine and shape our notions of power, particularly her examination of language, especially written texts.

Marshall MacLuhan once wrote: “We shape our tool and eventually our tools shape us.” He was of course referring to media, which contrary to perhaps what he is popularly known for, is not confined to TV. MacLuhan was very much referring to language, and writing as media.

This realization that the manner by which we acquire information, communicate it, and interpret it, directly influences “meaning making,” goes well beyond the art of persuasion and effective communication in the field of “mass communication.” MacLuhan’s insight (as I find is present in Johnstone’s work) actually goes into the very essence of contemporary philosophy.

And indeed, the medium of the written word has held power over societies for many centuries now. Sacred reverence for text is widely held among fundamentalists (but often lawyers and law students aren’t much different) and having invested them (words) with “immutability,” despite the continuing onslaught of relativism, the resultant “clashes” can erupt from the most mundane argument between colleagues, to the most violent wars on earth.

People use words to inflict pain (I’m human I’m sure I have done it too), influence or even dominate and at the same time use the same medium (words) to appear not to be aware of the harm being inflicted (or the manipulation taking place).

In politics it used to be that, the leader is usually the most eloquent, or someone who knew her/his way around words. And no doubt, in many circles, there is still a value attached to a leader’s “articulateness,” but I’m sure its easy to see that nowadays in the arena of state (even world) politics, the “gift of eloquence” is easily replaced by a team of effective propagandists, and that while words remain important, the medium isn’t “text” (as in books) but the ever dominant box, that is television. Words fuel the “spin,” but nowadays, TV frames (and sells) it.

The Many Faces of Leadership (and Lack Thereof)

The Philippines has had two female Presidents. Yet each time these women came to power, (1986 and 2000) it was in the context of a “popular uprising,” (which were both highly televised and virtually also media-dependent, 1986 radio, much later, TV; 2000 GSM via cellphones and TV) resulting in the ouster of their predecessors. (Of course GMA’s “second mandate” via massive cheating at the polls is a whole other topic).

That being said, in these two instances women’s sexual and reproductive health were worse off than under any previous administrations, largely due to the “influence” of the Roman Catholic hierarchy over the government.

My own take on this has always been to point out (what to me is) the obvious: Just as notions of power are gendered, so are standards of leadership.

Just as we expect women to be more ethical, more selfless, and not ruthless, we also have a problem with women openly stating or pro-actively seeking leadership positions. Yes, if power is dirty, women (that is decent Filipino women) have no business wanting it, except when they are making the most “extreme sacrifice.”

As noble as “sacrifices” are, we set ourselves up for disappointment when the woman leader turns out to be as dirty as they (politicians) come. Likewise, in assuming and expecting these traits of martyrdom from our women leaders, we delimit the capacities of women leaders.

True, Cory Aquino was a reluctant leader and she truly did not desire the Presidency in the first place. It was her late Senator husband who had political ambitions and the background in political office.

Yet Cory Aquino the leader, was also the result of many things coming together. All at once as the widow of Ninoy Aquino, she was the symbol of thousands of others and their families who were also victims of political rights violations under the Marcos regime. This was the basis of her popularity and her power/influence over Filipinos in 1986.

I have often observed how Cory Aquino has seemingly doubted her own power and influence, especially after her term of office as President. It has never seemed clear to me that Cory realizes that she had a tremendous influence over Filipinos in 1986, and that the boys club (Catholic Bishops and Military defectors) notwithstanding, she herself inspired others to act.

That the call to leadership has to be a clamor, is romantic as notions of leadership, and narratives of power go. (And no doubt will forever be romanticized via the boob tube) Indeed, having the full and consistent support of one’s constituents makes instances of leadership ideal. On the other hand, not all leadership posts are filled through “popular elections.” Likewise, our elections do not always (in fact now rarely) ever produce trust worthy nor beloved leaders.

That leaders are expected to be concerned about their "popularity" the way politicians obsess about favorable media coverage, is also part of the problem.

When GMA came out on TV publicly acknowledging the “impropriety” of the calls she made to election officials during the 2004 Presidential elections, Filipinos were reacting differently. While many pointed out that it was virtually a “confession to cheating” in the 2004 elections, her allies made sure those tapes never saw the light of day in Congress. Through the Internet, every Filipino with working knowledge and access to the files (transcript/audio) had already heard the tapes, even as Congress was debating over the legality of playing them in session.

Still many eventually harped on the “boldness” of the act of public apology, obviously confusing transparency, accountability and honesty with the publicly played out narrative of a “confession,” she was instantly being offered absolution.

Getting a Grip: Social Movement / NGO Leaders as People

What I have learned so far is that there isn’t any one formula for leadership, since what leadership entails depends on the context of its exercise. Outside of state or huge corporate contexts, appointed, titled leaders aren’t always powerful (in the sense of being in total control) and not all untitled, non-authoritative posts (that is organizationally speaking), “powerless,” as far as influence goes. Yet what to me is most lacking in everyday contexts of leadership (of the small pond variety) and its exercise (title or no title), is the simple decency of kindness (READ: not stupidity or being oblivious to corrupt practice) among leaders and the led, that is simply put, humane treatment.

As we grapple with our own notions of leadership and the powers that be, it would help a great deal (psychologically and otherwise) if we got less caught up in the narratives of how totalitarian regimes exploit (and annihilate) masses of people and lord it over, and literally identify such models and expressions of power/authority as being one and the same as the Program Director or Board Trustee we have a problem with.

As important as it is to passionately be concerned with the lack of freedom by other peoples, wouldn’t it be better to do something more pro-active as joining the peace corps or spaces for helping out in international human rights advocacy, than acting like one’s direct “superior” in the organizational hierarchy is evil incarnate, literally giving up on any constructive effort of addressing organizational or personal problems by immediately engaging in guerilla warfare? (Profit or Not-for-Profit, office politics sure sucks)

Michel Foucault said: “The strategic adversary is fascism... the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Therein of course, lies the difficulty. Fascism and totalitarian power are usually solely identified with institutional authority (state or otherwise), and not among individuals or individual behavior.

Thinking about leadership makes me think about the term for leader in my native language. In Filipino, one of the words we use to refer to leaders is “Pinuno,” which is related to words like “puno,” which means both “tree” or “full.”

It may be that the easiest association with “tree” is that, like most concepts of leaders and even power, the size and strength (sturdiness) of trees (at least the big old ones) represent many of our common notions about leaders being strong, towering over and being firmly rooted (unmoving, unchanging). (And also quite stereotypically masculine!) Or it may be that the leader is the ONE, the ALL, and thus “full” (of wisdom or hot air, you take your pick)

On the other hand, many different trees also bear food (fruit or flowers), and their growth in fact depends on many complex systems working together. I think I prefer this association. Leaders may be individuals but leadership is very much a collective process and the best leaders are those who help others lead.


The Roots of Power:Animate Form and Gendered Bodies, Maxine Sheets Johnstone, Open Court, 1994.

Power and Knowledge, Selected Interviews and Writings 1972-1977, Michel Foucault, Pantheon, 1980.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hannah Arendt


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