Monday, November 06, 2006

Breaking Traditions

This is my column today, November 6, 2006, at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

Two issues caught my attention last week. The first issue was unfortunately displaced in the public eye by supposedly more controversial and pressing national issues. The second one is still hogging the front pages of many newspapers, particularly those with a penchant for sowing intrigues and gossip. There are parallels between the two issues. They are about gender, discrimination, rocking the status quo, and balancing hallowed traditions with the mandates for change.

From the third grade until junior high school, I was a boy scout. In fact I was a troop leader and truly liked being part of the scouting movement. Had there been a choice between scouting and Citizens Army Training in fourth year high and Reserved Officers Training Course in college, I would have picked scouting anytime. To my mind, scouting offered more practical, exciting, and yes, intellectually stimulating experiences. I actually learned how to tie knots, pitch tents, build fire with bamboo sticks, even read maps and use a compass. On the other hand, I do not remember much of what I learned in ROTC. And of course, the character building that was part of the scouting movement was just so much more positive and empowering than say the fascist type of character building in CAT or ROTC.

There were also girl scouts and we would often hold scouting activities together. Unfortunately, gender roles in society severely limited the range of their scouting activities. While we boy scouts would pitch tents on open grounds and often in the wilderness, the girl scouts would be content with partitioning classrooms into living rooms and bedrooms with the use of curtains and blankets. While we cooked our food on open fires, they did theirs on portable kerosene stoves. In short, the girls were not allowed to learn the more physical and rigorous scouting challenges simply because of their gender.

Well, the national board of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines (its current president is Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay) recently announced that they will soon be implementing a new policy which will allow girls to join the boy scouts. All the politically correct reasons were cited and it is difficult to argue with them. They are the same reasons why Rotary Clubs have to accept female members or why some schools shifted from being exclusive to being coed. Gender should not be used as an excuse to shut out certain individuals from certain activities or from membership in certain organizations. It just does not make sense to discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender alone.

One would think that women would rejoice that another door has been opened to them. It turns out that the Girl Scouts of the Philippines is opposing the new policy. They can hem and haw about all the procedural and substantive gobbledygook, but it is obvious that the debate is mainly a turf issue. In other words, one organization is portrayed as usurping the domain of another organization. The Girl Scouts are bewailing the potential loss of members and are seeking protection.

As a human resource management practitioner, I find protectivism an inherently flawed concept. Any organization that intends to succeed against competitors—in this case, how to avoid losing members to another organization—has only one logical strategic option and that is to strengthen the organization’s capabilities to retain its members. Attacking the competitor and crying for protection have no place in today’s cutthroat world. Attracting and retaining members is a real challenge for any organization— business, civic, and yes, even scouting organizations—and any organization that wants to continue being attractive to potential as well as incumbent members simply has to work hard at it.

And this brings us to the second issue, which is about Madam Miriam’s seemingly quixotic quest to become the country’s first woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It is another sad commentary of our times that the whole substance of her nomination for the post seems to have been overshadowed by frenzied speculations and wild commentaries that add nothing to the discussion but quotable sound bytes. “The worst of times and the best of times,” said someone and refused to elaborate. “It is all propaganda,” said another. I think the discussion thus far has missed the real problem and we seem to be hacking at a false symptom. There is just too much politicization of the workings of the Supreme Court.

The gender angle—that Miriam’s nomination is a wonderful opportunity to finally appoint a woman to the highest post in the country’s judiciary—does not fly. There are two women Associate Justices that are qualified as well— Consuelo Ynares-Santiago and Angelina Sandoval-Gutierrez. Miriam is not the only female lawyer in this country.

The more relevant issue in this case is whether it makes sense to appoint a chief justice from the outside and bypass the five qualified justices that are already incumbent justices. It has not been done before in this country, although if I am not mistaken this has happened in many countries. I think Howard Taft and Earl Warren were appointed as chief justices of the United States from the outside. Is breaking tradition worth the change?

This is actually a dilemma that human resource management practitioners in this country have faced many times. As people who are considered experts in the selection process, we are often confronted with the question of whether it would be better to promote someone from the inside or just bring in someone from the outside for certain critical positions in our respective organizations, including the post of chief executive officer. In situations like these, there are at least three factors that we consider.

The first is institutional goals. The nature of the challenges and the presumed changes that need to be made within the organization will help determine if there is a need to bring in a fresh perspective. It is easy to ascribe political motives into the determination of institutional goals, but it seems people are forgetting that voting in critical national issues has always been a collegial undertaking. There has been no reason to doubt the objectivity of the justices so there is no need to do so now. So the question that really needs to be asked is: What exactly is the value that someone external like Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago will bring in to the Supreme Court?

The second factor is institution-person fit. This is ascertaining the overall readiness of the person to adapt into or change the institutional culture. What we seem to have at the moment is a career judiciary where judges rise from the ranks. Inherent in such a system is a culture of “exclusivity.” How will the often-maverick Senator fare in this culture?

The third is person-job fit, with a bias for demonstrated rather than possessed competencies. Quite frankly, while I do agree that the good senator is never wanting in certain competencies, her presumed competencies to become chief justice remain to be demonstrated. And I think Supreme Court justices should be chosen not just for their intelligence, or technical skills, or legal expertise. More importantly, I think they need to be chosen for their experience and judgment. There is something that experience teaches—a deeper understanding of the law, of the world, of the human condition— intelligence alone will not yield this. It is also called wisdom.

In the end, I think the more appropriate question is not “What is the most democratic way to choose the chief justice of the Supreme Court?” but “What is the best way to do it?”

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