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In memoriam: Edward Seaga was no saint, but the quintessential turnaround leader

CHRISTOPHER BURNS - Christopher Burns is vice-president of finance and CFO of a multinational corporation. Send your comments to the Jamaica Observer

Sunday, June 23, 2019

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Edward Philip George Seaga took his final bow on May 28, 2019, as ordered by destiny. His passing happened on the same day as his arrival day, but exactly after he reached four scores and nine years old, which, in and of itself, is quite a glitzy feat. The timing and precision of birthday and death-day happening together, if even by happenstance, represents the most perfect and typical example of Eddie's quality and class, thus making it easy to eulogise him as the quintessential planner, an intellectual, strong, tough, tactical, and a strategic leader.

Seaga led the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) for 31 years, from 1974 to 2005. As destiny ordered, Seaga was Jamaica's fifth prime minister. He served as prime minister from November 1980 to February 1989. In choosing to describe him as “quintessential”, I found it less of an exercise in pedanticism, but more titillating as I sought to refresh my recollections on the etymology of the word “quintessential”. Expect no literature lessons herefrom, except for this request…let's hyphenate the word but with a narrow focus on the prefix “quint”. The origin of the word 'quint' is late 17th century. It derives from French, which takes the word from the Latin “Quintus” (fifth) — the ordinal number that matches the number “Quinque” (five). In Italian, “Quinto” means fifth, and has the same origins as Quintus. Quintessential derives from quintessence from the Latin “Quinta-essentia”, which means the fifth essence. It describes the most perfect embodiment of “something that is the pure…” For, whilst Edward Seaga was no Puritan, his contributions to national life and development easily fit the mould of a perfect embodiment of a nation-builder.

Leadership is no jolly-ride; it requires hard work. Eddie was an uncompromisingly workaholic. His time has come, even as his candles continue to glow.

Death delivers a particular finality that no one will ever fathom. Still, death remains that single-most mysterious transitional occurrence that puts an end to all life forms — an end no one can deny. Hence, death leaves a lifetime of grief, pain, memories, anger, and, yes, in some instances, celebration. Yet, death is that ultimate equaliser that sees neither race nor class, wealth or deprivation, vice or virtues…and dead men can tell no tales. The mystery of death is what scares us, even “believers”.

For, as a famous local Pentecostal preacher once said, “Heaven is a beautiful place, a place where the streets are made of gold; a place where milk and honey flow, [a] place where there are no sicknesses or pain…but, sisters and brothers, I am in no hurry to get there, no sah…” Understandably, everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die; that's a very strange quandary — a predicament to which there is no easy solution. It stands to reason, therefore, no amount of encomiums, condemnation or miracles can change a decedent's status.

As destiny decrees, and by time this article lands, tens of thousands of Jamaicans would have already secured key positions along the route of the funeral procession leading to the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity, on North Street, as well as around the precincts of National Heroes Park, where interment of his mortal remains will take place before sundown this afternoon. There, Eddie's remains will lie in sweet repose next to other political giants — nemeses and allies alike. But as eager, or as obligated, as we may feel to extol his virtues, we should not succumb to rhetorical overindulgence to the point of wanting to canonise him. After all, the best tributes are those that are not just entertaining, but are also delivered with sufficient quotients of balance, polite humour, and reasonableness.

Seaga gave yeoman service to the Jamaican people, as well as to the country he adopted as his home. Like the great many other Jamaican stalwarts and visionaries who predeceased him, Eddie's involvement in national life reflected a rare, but stubborn commitment to betterment. His was born not of selfishness, malice or greed, but from a genuine desire to be a servant-leader, a selfless steward and advocate who practised a special kind of egalitarianism. He served at tremendous personal sacrifice and at the expense of family, fame and fortune.

A concomitant acknowledgement of those sacrifices requires that, as we say our many goodbyes and recognise his lifelong work. We also offer profound condolence to his widow Carla, children, siblings, extended family, and friends. I am certain Seaga would not have been able to do as much as he did, for and behalf of this country, without the strong backing and fervent support of his family. They too deserve our collective commendation, gratitude and respect.

Having said that, we should refrain from becoming “mini-Seagas”. For, if we truly believe in the uniqueness of our individuality, if we truly regard ourselves as masterpieces of God's creation, then we should also accept our own failings and strengths then move on with our lives, because there will never be another Edward Philip George Seaga.

Those beliefs should cause us embrace an indisputable truth that, though different, we all share a common humanity — one with vulnerabilities best described by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Love him, or hate him, Seaga has bequeathed us an enviable record of scholarship, competence, and solid accomplishments along with a set of revolutionary ideas on which we can continue to build. His influence, expressions of goodness, and at times through ruthless language, will continue to impact the Jamaican political and economic landscape for decades to come. His understanding of how the world works was legendary. I hope history will be kind to him, and so too will we be fair in evaluating and celebrating his legacy.

Pulitzer Prize winner and author Doris Kearns Goodwin, just added Leadership in Turbulent Times in 2018 to a series of other great novels covering several presidents and their unique leadership styles. For me, however, Leadership in Turbulent Times provides the greatest summation of how different kinds of leadership are relevant for different times, even though I believe all can happen synchronously. Leadership in Turbulent Times is an excellent tome that not only classifies transformational, crisis, turnaround and visionary leadership, but also demonstrates how these different kinds of leadership styles and practices, if properly synchronised, can deliver excellent outcomes.

Some will swiftly disagree that we, Jamaicans, have witnessed or benefited from all four styles of leadership — of course we have. It would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that Edward Seaga was the only prime minister or national leader to have made significant contributions to Jamaica's economic development or cultural advancement. From Alexander Bustamante's crisis leadership [Theodore Roosevelt] prior to and during labour uprisings in the mid-1930s to 1940s, to Norman Manley's transformational and visionary leadership [Abraham Lincoln] (1930s-1961) advocacy for Universal Adult Suffrage, political independence, and economic development.

From Hugh Shearer's transformational leadership (1967-1972) where he advanced political independence and presided over a period of rapid economic growth to Michael Manley's (1972-1980) visionary leadership [Lyndon Johnson], where he ushered in the most meaningful sets of social advancements and social re-engineering ever undertaken in Jamaica, to when it was Edward Seaga's turn in (1980-1989), where his effective combination of crisis and turnaround leadership [Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt] helped to restore social order, political peace, and economic confidence in Jamaica during the turbulent years of the early 1980s.

It would be spitefully foolish to think that everything started or stopped with Seaga's premiership. P J Patterson and Portia Simpson (21st century) skilfully wove a curious mixture of crisis, transformational and turnaround leadership during their time. And, while Bruce Golding's tenure was short-lived, his could have been both transformational and visionary. Prime Minister Andrew Holness's leadership style is proving to be transformationally transactional — from an economic and political Zeitgeist perspective. He has certainly become a formidable political force with cross-partisan appeal.

It is against the backdrop of Leadership in Turbulent Times that I now continue to add to the ongoing tributes and evaluation of the life and work of former prime minister, JLP leader, plenipotentiary envoy at large, the late Edward Seaga.

Seaga and the JLP were swept to power in 1980 on the platform of “deliverance”. Lest we forget, Jamaicans had undergone the tough Manley years of democratic socialism, social re-engineering and harsh economic times. Honesty imposes on those in the political commentariat to pay nothing less than impartial homage to his effective twining of “turnaround” and “crisis” leadership during those turbulent times of early 1980s. For, although the economic, social and political turnaround that he spearheaded with great aplomb and with tangible successes to show, those achievements were not without context.

It is true, the JLP inherited, in October 1980, an economy that was in absolute ruins. As stated many times prior, the collapse of the Jamaican economy under the Michael Manley-led Government of the 1970s came about because of a fierce amalgamation of bad circumstances. The alloy included huge elements of poor management of the domestic economy, geopolitical upheavals, huge upward movements in oil and wheat prices, declines in bauxite and alumina prices, domestic social and civil unrest, realignment of social class arrangements, and a sustained period of vicious and nasty political sabotage. The Seaga-led JLP Administration did the very best to restore hope and to improve economic activities. The Government stabilised the economy, improved investor confidence, and restored social order and the rule of law. In terms of economic change, Edward Seaga (1980-1989) provided a rare kind of “turnaround” and crisis leadership.

Evidence of his leadership and good stewardship of this country lies not in the many institutions he helped to create. The greatest impact of his leadership was the recalibration of the Jamaican mindset to think outside the box. His leadership was intertwined with efforts to push us [individually and collectively] to adjust the circumference of our collective ambitions toward achieving our rightful place in life by applying creativity, innovation, hard work, integrity, and enterprise.

History will either condemn or absolve Edward Seaga. He was not as misunderstood a man as some would have us believe. Seaga was exactly who Edward Seaga was, but anyone who underestimated him did so at their peril. It would be criminally hypocritical and intellectually dishonest of me — and of any other columnist for that matter — to deny his sterling contribution to the socio-political, cultural and economic development of Jamaica. Admittedly, the end did not always justify the means in everything he did, promoted or caused to be done in the name of progress, power or deliverance, especially during the heyday of his political activism in the mid-1970s.

Nonetheless, to ignore Seaga's remarkable involvement and influence in shaping Jamaica's body politic, in helping others to lift the cultural worth, would be silly. He was not perfect, and at times appeared and sounded too caustic and contentious, but those failings are not enough to diminish his work. There is no need to absolve or blame Seaga unfairly. The one regret I have — since both Michael Manley and Edward Seaga have already given up the ghost before the formation or activation a Jamaican version of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission — is that we will not have the benefit of hearing their first-hand account of the motive for and motif of their 1970s leadership posture – well, unless there are manuscripts somewhere that document cause and action, or risks and rewards for that dark period of political upheaval. Jamaicans will never-ever hear from them directly about those days of the 1970s. Irrefutably, and to this day, too many “known-unknowns” and “known-knowns” remain about the socio-political turmoil and blatant economic destabilisation that brought Jamaica's economy to its knees during the 1970s particularly in the lead-up to the 1980 General Election. Clearly, it was not all “It's Manley's Fault” (IMF) as the graffiti-like murals declared back then.

Simply put, Seaga was no saint. Neither should anyone ascribe unto him that which is outrightly inappropriate or unfounded. We should be resist making him out to be a modern-day deity of sorts, but opponents of his work and critics of his valour should not rewrite history to fit their narrow-minded and warped views. Collectively, we have a responsibility to desist from offering historical distortions replete with so many half-truths — they could fill the Mona Reservoir. Those extremes are neither reasonable nor right. One thing's for sure, as Seaga was in life, so is he in death: A larger than life and highly controversial figure. We may hold different views about him, but let's stand united in saluting him.

May his soul rest in peace.


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