Barack Obama

Talk is cheap but humility works wonders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am

If Joseph Nye, one of the world's most respected and influential scholars, is right - that leadership can be learned - then we need to look hard at what we can learn from those at the helm of today's 'new world order'.

On June 4, US President Barack Obama - arguably the most powerful man in the world - went to Cairo to 'seek a new beginning' with the Muslim world. He did not demand one, or threaten to use force. Mr Obama appealed to Islamic leaders by asking them to focus on commonalities, not differences. He asked for collaboration - to work together for mutual interests and with mutual respect. And, for the first time in a long time, his audience warmed to America's idea.

One single speech won't bring peace to the Middle East, but what Mr Obama did was impressive. He communicated not with words, but by what they mean. It is the spirit of his words - his sincerity - and the way he said them that merited the applause. The significance of his words for many, like Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud, is that Mr Obama 'talked about humility, not power'. Talk is indeed cheap, but if spoken from the heart and not used as a power trip, it does have the potential to tear down walls. And if America can follow up with actions that embody the spirit of the president's words, peace can be achieved.

The current American president clearly saw and learned from the mistakes of previous administrations. It is almost too easy to point out the mistakes of others and criticise. But to be able to make a difference requires the ability to look past them, recognise one's imperfections and use that experience to make amends. It is even easier to stick with confrontational rhetoric, exploit conflicts and divide and conquer. But, in today's world, reigning on a moral high horse is not leadership - at least not the kind we need globally or locally.

Our world has changed since the days of blood and glory of centuries past. And there is much to be learned from men like Manmohan Singh. Being re-elected for a second term as prime minister of India, the world's second most populated country, is no small feat. The first since Jawaharlal Nehru to return to power after completing a five-year term, Dr Singh is striking. On the surface, he is everything Mr Obama is not. Mr Obama is eloquent; Dr Singh is not. Dr Singh is in his 70s and not in good health. In short, he is no poster child of an outstanding leader.

But Dr Singh is remarkable because, when we scratch that surface, we find a leader who has turned his lack of political qualities (ineloquence, for one) into his biggest strength. A quiet man who often steps away from centre stage, Dr Singh's modesty became his strongest suit. It is hard for many to imagine that he was once considered weak and unlikely to succeed in his bid for the top job.

Dr Singh is a man of substance - his public office CV is impressive enough on its own, but his reputation and track record as a humble man and an honest broker are what make him truly remarkable.

And, today, 'modest leader' is no longer an oxymoron, and has become somewhat of a recipe for success, especially when we consider the opposite - like North Korean 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il, who rules by fear and by erecting everything and anything in his own name or that of his late father and 'Eternal Leader', Kim Il-sung.

Isolated in a world that is increasingly impatient with North Korea's ways, Mr Kim resorts to nuclear missile launches and kidnapping foreign journalists to show his might, and to get the world's attention. The Kim dynasty has to rely on a cult of personality to yield a warped legitimacy at home, while most North Koreans suffer.

In today's world, where there is little power by might, leadership is not marked by the number of statues in one's honour, or by how loudly one barks.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA