A TIME Magazine cover story puts President Rodrigo Duterte in the company of world leaders like President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.
The story is headlined “The Strongman Era is Here. Here’s What it Means for You.”
According to the author, Ian Bremmer, the strongman is a tough-talking populist who promises to protect “us” from “them.”
But “them” could take on different meanings, depending on who is talking, Bremman says. It could pertain to “the corrupt elite or the grasping poor; foreigners or members of racial, ethnic or religious minorities. Or disloyal politicians, bureaucrats, bankers or judges.”
There is demand for the strongman archetype—muscular, assertive leadership—because of changing times.
For example, Duterte’s electoral success is attributed to his promise of wiping out the drug trade that has caused a rising tide of violent street crime. Mr. Duterte talked more like a mob boss than a President, Bremmer said.
But the President rejected the “strongman” label, saying he still thinks of himself as a government worker, whom ordinary people can “criticize and bullsh*t” because he is their employee.
The rules change, however, when it is foreigners who do the criticizing.
In support of the President, the Palace said in a statement that however TIME Magazine intended the story, Filipinos appreciate Duterte’s “strong” and “decisive” leadership.
Since when did the word “strong” begin to mean something negative? Certainly its opposite—weak—is a much less desirable trait in a leader. The country’s ills are so overwhelming that any type of leadership other than “strong” will not do the job.
But even mere strength, in conventional terms, is not enough.
Leaders will ultimately be judged by the wisdom they use to guide their strong decisions and actions. By the fairness and justice they go by in ensuring that the law is observed and applied in equal measure to each citizen. By the honesty with which they conduct themselves. By the humility with which they accept their shortcomings and accept constructive input from others.
“Strongman” is a label that is easy to use or reject. Being a genuinely strong, inspiring and transformative leader, on the other hand, is a constant, ongoing challenge.