What does it take to be a great leader? Although the term “leadership” may have existed for thousands of years, it remains difficult to define. But everyone seems to agree that a great leader has the ability to push people forward and achieve greatness.
To understand leadership, we must dig deep into the core. Leadership is a biological, psychological and socially-constructed characteristic and capability.
Many findings of social constructivists, however, argue that social factors shape leadership characteristics more than biological and psychological factors do. Correspondingly, it is interesting to examine the leadership characteristics of Indonesian presidents from Soeharto to the incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).
Many people may not realize that the incumbent Indonesian President has much in common with one of the best living generals in the US, current CIA Director David Petraeus. First, the two were raised in a disciplined family: SBY is the son of an Army officer, while Petraeus is the son of a Dutch sailor. Both went to their country’s military academies, holding top positions during their cadet years. While SBY graduated from the Military Academy in Magelang in 1973, Petraeus graduated from the Military Academy, West Point in 1974.
Upon their commission as army officers, both married the daughter of their respective military academies’ commandants. SBY married the daughter of Lt. Gen. Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, then the governor of the Magelang Military Academy; Petraeus married the daughter of Lt. Gen. William Knowlton, the Superintendant of West Point.
Subsequently, they also went on to the US Army Ranger — Airborne course in Fort Benning, Georgia where they qualified in Special Forces. Both were also assigned to the elite US Army Airborne Division, 82nd Airborne Division.
At that time, SBY did his on-the-job training as a military student on attachment from the Indonesian Army. After some time in their career paths, like any other US army officers, SBY and Petraeus went on to the US Army Command and General Staff College (Seskoad) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Upon their graduation from this great military school, they returned to serve their own countries until they reached the positions of commanders of airborne divisions, territorial commands and being involved in multinational forces.
While SBY led the Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) 17th Airborne Division, the Yogyakarta Military Resort Command, and was an observer for Indonesian peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and the Sriwijaya Military Command; Petraeus rose to become commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, US Central Command overseeing the Middle East, and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Due to his relative success in bringing stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, Petraeus is called in Iraq “King David”.
Apart from field experience, the two are famous in their respective countries as thinking generals and were often entrusted with drafting important military policies. While SBY holds a doctoral degree from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture, Petraeus has his PhD from the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
Not only that, the two also share leadership experience that has catapulted them to state jobs outside their military assignments. SBY was twice appointed a minister under two different presidents; Petraeus was appointed Director of the CIA by President Obama in 2011.
In the US, not all great battle-tested generals can succeed in jobs outside the military. A phenomenal general in World War II, Douglas McArthur, resigned from his position as the Commander of United Nations Command (Korea) after his disagreement with President Truman over the Korean War; Gen. Stanley McChrystal resigned in 2010 from his post as the Commander of ISAF after his disagreement with President Obama and former US Pacific Command chief Adm. Dennis Blair quit in 2010 from his job as Director of National Intelligence.
Gen. James Jones, a former commander of the US Marine Corps and NATO, stepped down in the same year from his position as a National Security Adviser to the president.
There is only one significant difference between SBY and Petraeus. While SBY decided to turn to politics and was elected President twice, Petraeus refused to become a politician and decisively turned down an offer to contest the 2012 US presidential election.
Obviously SBY has everything that Petraeus possesses, but not the other way around merely because unlike SBY, Petraeus is not a commander-in-chief of his country. This could be a sign; however, as to whether excellent military leadership experience is suitable for political leadership.
Some argue that SBY was a shrewd military general, but not fit for political jobs where the sense of hierarchy is blurred.
Practical politics contradicts the military chain of command where hierarchy is clear and subordinates have to obey commands, respect their leaders and address their voices in a well-mannered way.
It was the capacity to move in two different realms: Military and political that made Gen. Eisenhower a great US president. Unlike his West Point classmate, Gen. McArthur, Eisenhower knew how to become a true politician and successful president. History shows president Eisenhower was successful in building post-war Europe, restoring the US economy after World War II and building the nationwide freeway transportation system connecting the entire US mainland, among many other achievements.
Eisenhower successfully exercised effective leadership, with most of his policies well-supported and implemented by his administration, local governments and the US Congress, including when dealing with the resistance of the Arkansas governor regarding his courageous policy to protect minority Afro-American students in 1957.
It is not too much for the people of Indonesia and the international world to expect Gen. Yudhoyono to do more for his country, surely more than what Gen. Petraeus can do for the US.
Only two years are left before Yudhoyono ends his term in 2014. He is racing against time to achieve a lot — issues in Papua, corruption, religious freedom, minority rights and the acceleration of economic development, among other things.
History will show whether Yudhoyono is just a clever military general who tried his luck as a politician or he is truly a great military leader who succeeded as a civilian, democratically elected president like Gen. Eisenhower.
The writer currently, a PhD Fulbright Presidential Scholar at the GMU School of Public Policy, was an International Fellow at the US National Defense University, Washington DC in 2007.