Former Heads of State Discuss Leadership

The challenges facing democratic decision-makers took center stage in a talk with former prime minister of Greece, George A. Papandreou, and former president of Ecuador, Jamil Mahuad, on Friday.

The speakers engaged in a discussion about their leadership experiences in times of economic crisis before a crowd of about 100 students and guests as a part of “Conversations with Kirkland,” a student-led lecture series.

“Making difficult decisions while people are protesting outside your office is not simple,” said Papandreou, referring to demonstrations in Greece during his time as prime minister from 2009 to 2011.

Mahuad said that modern democratic governments must confront the conflict between the electoral mandate and the implicit trust underlying that mandate.

“You can’t govern without polling, but the problem is what you do with the poll,” Mahuad said. “Am I just a follower or do I have an obligation to do what I think is the best?”

Papandreou said that he thinks the future of democracy lies in a strong civil society engaged in a parallel debate from which the government can draw new ideas.

“Bring in different views; let them clash,” Papandreou said, speaking of debate as the key to political decision-making.

He also said that leaders have to make decisions based on assumptions. “We began an odyssey, but we had no GPS and the sky was clouded,” Papandreou said. “We didn’t know how to get to Ithaca.”

Mahuad summarized the challenge of governance under dire financial conditions: “Leaders need to make such enormous economic reforms that will kill them politically.”

When asked about the role of media in the decision-making process, Papandreou and Mahuad agreed that information is necessary for political participation.

“The essence of leadership is connecting to the people,” Mahuad said.

Papandeou stessed the challenge of conveying to the public that difficult decisions are not futile.

“Free media is a deep issue underlying democracy,” he said.

The talk gave the audience a chance to hear personal insights into the challenges of democratic leadership in an informal setting.

“It was reassuring to hear how personally connected and invested these leaders were in decision-making,” Maria L. Smith ’16 said.