Is this authentic leadership? | Inquirer Opinion

Is this authentic leadership?

/ 04:02 AM November 03, 2021

“The President’s message to the members of his Cabinet is only the President can use swear words.” This was presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s reaction to the expletive-laden tweet of Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. directed at the Chinese government in May this year.

Coming from the talking head of the President, the remark effectively set as official policy the sole prerogative for President Duterte to curse while in office.


Mr. Duterte burst into the national scene as a political leader who minced no words in attacking his perceived enemies. His speeches have been peppered with cuss words and insults, which his supporters would unfailingly applaud. Those who are scandalized could only turn off their television sets in exasperation.

The verbal potshots have been directed not only at local political enemies and perceived uncooperative businesses, but also at foreign officials, governments, and institutions critical of his violent anti-drug campaign and human rights record. The list now includes former US president Barack Obama, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, and Pope Francis. The choicest tirades were directed at recently retired International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who conducted the preliminary investigation into the alleged extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses of the Duterte administration’s drug war.


To many Christians and Catholics, this penchant for profanity crossed the red line when Mr. Duterte directed his diatribe upward with his “Who is this stupid God?” comment in June 2018. This drew condemnation from Archbishop Socrates Villegas, who branded the comment as blasphemous.

While his supporters love the President’s bluntness, many others are dismayed or shocked at what they consider unpresidential behavior, especially since Mr. Duterte represents the country in the international stage.

How does one explain the applause and cheers for Mr. Duterte’s off-color comments and expletive-laden speeches?

Experts recognize the power of swearing to deliver a strong message and to establish connection with the audience. Dr. Timothy Jay, a professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has studied the phenomenon of cursing, says that “in some circumstances, there’s nothing that carries as much emphasis as a swear.”

In a study of the development of relations among coworkers, Yehuda Baruch of the University of Southampton Business School also found that “in certain contexts, swearing is a way to connect.”

On the other hand, Perry M. Holley, former director of IBM leadership development and author of “Repeat the Remarkable,” holds a strong view against the use of foul language, at least in the business setting, and considers it “unacceptable leadership practice.” The authentic leader, he said, takes the high road and “resists the impulse to blast away in the name of authenticity.”

Whatever leadership style people may prefer, there is common agreement that effective leadership goes beyond packaging. While cursing may help establish a connection between a political figure and his crowd, it is not a substitute for solid performance.


Mr. Duterte was propelled to the highest position in the country with a strong law-and-order platform, buttressed in great measure by his ability to project a persona of toughness that includes cursing and “colorful language” to shock and awe.

The true test of authentic leadership, however, is the ability to bridge promise and delivery, so that the constituents the leader has sworn to serve are empowered to move to a higher level from where they started.

Are Filipinos better off today than in 2016?

With the frenzy for the coming national elections heating up, it is time to take stock of whether Mr. Duterte has delivered on his slate of election promises in 2016, notably ending the scourge of illegal drugs, stopping corruption, banning “endo” or contractualization, and jetskiing to the Spratlys to assert the Philippines’ territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea.

Ultimately, on May 9, 2022, voters will have to judge whether Mr. Duterte’s leadership delivered concrete results despite the expletives and violent bluster that created needless division and set back the social progress of the nation.

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Tomas C. Vargas is a retiree.

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TAGS: Commentary, leadership, Rodrigo Duterte, Tomas C. Vargas
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