No Free Lunch

Missing true leadership

After turning 80, my father, who has since passed on, stated his age by counting how many years he had to go to reach 100. By that measure, President Fidel Valdez Ramos turned 10 last Sunday — nearly two decades since ending his well-accomplished presidency. Over the years, I’ve heard countless people say we should have had more years of his leadership beyond the six he served. Some of them even claimed to have been among those who opposed the bid to amend the Constitution and extend his term back then, only to regret it later.

I know not everyone was a fan of FVR, as we still call him. Still, I believe there are more of us who look back to his leadership with fondness and nostalgia. This comes from realizing the leadership qualities he had that his successors didn’t. There are many I could list, but within this limited space, I focus on three of his leadership attributes I miss the most.


First is FVR’s intolerance for incompetence and mediocrity. Those of us who worked under him, whether as military leader or civilian president, remember him for the three letters “CSW”—completed staff work. He would not act on any presidential issuance unless convinced that his standard of CSW had been met, so unlike his successor, who was known to have signed directives and appointments vetted only by an informal “midnight Cabinet.” FVR had none. But he preferred to see the signatures of other concerned Cabinet members on the transmittal memo endorsing to him any presidential action, which he took as proof of proper consultation and coordination beforehand.

Indeed, his insistence on consultation and coordination is another thing most of us miss, given the autocratic tendencies in our current leadership. For FVR, governance was more than consultative; it was participatory. He formed the Philippine Council for Sustainable Development and the Social Reform Council, bodies where nongovernment stakeholders sat at the same table with top government officials to help plot the country’s future. To him, interagency coordination was a religion. He formed countless coordinative bodies to ensure collegial decision-making and teamwork on key policy concerns and issues. Many of us in his Cabinet found ourselves spending most of our regular working hours attending meetings of such interagency bodies like Cabinet clusters and committees, and countless councils, commissions and task forces. Through these, he fostered teamwork in his Cabinet, making it work like a well-oiled machine. And with leadership by example, he brought out the best in all of us that he led.


I miss FVR most for his statesmanship, something I witnessed before he even officially assumed the presidency. I found it remarkable that with little regard for politics, he chose a Cabinet of mostly relative unknowns. It didn’t matter that many of us that he took in were unknown to him prior to his election. Neither did it matter if we even voted for him (I didn’t); I was never asked. Unlike his successors, he did not withhold the pork barrel from a lawmaker, or the internal revenue allotment from a governor or mayor, for belonging to the opposition. For FVR, it didn’t matter. What mattered to him was that his Cabinet and other officials could deliver on his tough demands.

As our leader, FVR was color-blind: There were no yellows, reds, blues, or greens in his eyes, only Filipinos — and he constantly sought to bridge the political, socioeconomic and cultural divides that have long held us from achieving true nationhood. He preached and practiced “UST” — unity, solidarity and teamwork—from Day One of his presidency, constantly admonishing all of us to row our national boat in one forward direction. In contrast, we watched every one of his successors highlight and foment our divisions—mahirap (poor) vs. mayaman (rich), political allies vs. oppositionists, yellows vs. Arroyo followers, and now, “Dutertards” vs. “yellowtards”—pulling us farther away from the oneness we’ve long needed as a nation, and FVR constantly preached. At home and overseas, President Ramos was the consummate statesman, something none of his successors could match.

Happy 90th, President Ramos. You are sorely missed.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, fidel v. ramos, leadership, No Free Lunch
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