[Viewpoint]Leaders must learn to follow

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[Viewpoint]Leaders must learn to follow

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President Sarkozy’s approval rating peaked at 65 percent in the early days after his inauguration on May 16, 2007. [YONHAP]

Does a leader lead or follow? People may think differently, but personally, I think a leader is one who follows others. It’s not just 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s famous quote: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” I believe that no matter how competent a leader might be, he cannot do his job alone.
I want to discuss leadership and followership as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, celebrates one year in office on May 16. Through Sarkozy, we can affirm the ironic truth that a true leader embraces and follows people instead of unilaterally leading.
One year ago, Sarkozy entered the Elysee Palace with a solid mandate from French citizens hoping he would re-energize the French economy and lift the country out of its widespread malaise. The French expected that at the very least, Sarkozy would bring about the necessary reforms to reverse the country’s decline. They thought they could overlook his faults. Sarkozy entered office in a favorable environment. His party, the Union for a Popular Movement, won overwhelming support from French voters in the general elections following the presidential election, giving it an absolute majority in the National Assembly.
However, Sarkozy’s approval rating is suddenly falling. While it reached 65 percent in the early days of his administration, Sarkozy’s approval rating has dropped to 32 percent in the latest poll. It is the first time in the five decades of France’s Fifth Republic that the president’s approval rating has been halved after only a year in office.
When he was inaugurated, Sarkozy promised to save the country from the French ills of high costs, low growth and high unemployment by breaking away from the past. He said he would change French society through drastic reforms, modeling his governance after the British and the Americans.
Now that a year has passed, the French are asking what he has actually accomplished. They think that there has been a lot of noise, but little has changed.
Sarkozy might feel frustrated by this unflattering evaluation since he has only served one-fifth of his term. But it is Sarkozy himself who invited the criticism.
He had argued that reform should be achieved early on and launched over 40 reform measures all at once. Within his first year, he wished to complete the legislative process so he could see its impact through the rest of his term. However, he was too greedy.
As he ambitiously tackled multiple issues at once, not many have come to fruition. He has addressed various subjects, but not a single issue has been resolved. Most problems have been temporarily smoothed over or he has had to work out a compromise.
He blamed the 35-hour workweek system the major culprit of French malaise and pledged to end it, but he ended up raising the rate for overtime pay. One of his election promises was to make hiring and firing easier by reforming the labor market, but the plan was scrapped due to opposition from labor unions. He barely addressed the reform of the public sector retirement pension program by extending the payment period by one year.
If Sarkozy truly wanted reform, he should have let the people do the job and follow their lead. However, he believed that he could accomplish reform by leading and pushing. He made the prime minister a dummy and rolled up his sleeves to personally orchestrate reform. As the Cabinet passively followed the president, it could not exhibit creativity and autonomy. Policies were not coordinated properly, and frictions were seen here and there. Even the ruling party lawmakers, who are supposed to help the president, became reluctant to support his reforms. When 79 percent of citizens feel that almost nothing has improved in their lives in the last year, it is only natural to expect growing public alienation from the government.
President Lee Myung-bak’s approval rating has dropped to 29 percent after two months in office. Compared to President Lee, the French president is better off.
A president cannot accomplish reform by himself, nor can it be done all at once. Priorities should be listed first, and the list should be tackled from the top. Even if it takes time, the president should persuade the citizens and gather the wisdom of the people. A president cannot push for reform forcibly. Voters elected the president to pursue greater politics, not to do the work of civil servants.

*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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