“LEADING CHANGE BY REFORM, COMMITMENT AND INNOVATION: REFLECTIONS ON LEADERSHIP BY THE PRESIDENT OF TURKEY”
Honorable Faculty Members,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a tremendous pleasure to have the opportunity to speak here today to such a distinguished audience. I would like to extend my heartfelt greetings to all of you and thank Mr. Solaner, the Dean, for his kind introduction.
I am honored to be on this historic and exceedingly beautiful campus. Indeed, over the span of more than 120 years, the name of Stanford has become synonymous with innovation and quality. It has become the symbol of global leadership in so many areas.
Pioneering scientific research conducted here has contributed to the development of many technological inventions from microchips to the internet. You know better than I that they have all profoundly changed our lives.
I am sure that it is a matter of pride for Stanford that many of the leading global technology firms from Google to Yahoo, Cisco Systems and Hewlett Packard were begun with ideas and research spawned here at Stanford. So this university is a cradle of “constructive destruction” and an “engine of globalization”. It is one of the reasons why the United States has been – and probably long will be – a global leader in innovation, science and technology.
Stanford has never ceased seeking the better. It has always been able to adapt to the changes in our world as much as it shaped the change. It is, for that reason, it is a great honor to address an institution that leads constructive global change and nurtures the leaders of change.
Today, I was asked to speak about leadership by sharing my experience with you. I am pretty sure as the members or the graduates of the Business School, you are very much acquainted with the traits of a leader.
But I will say this: whoever we are today is the result of the many choices that we made throughout our lives; the failures we suffered; the chances we had, the talents we acquired at birth and the skills we developed during our life’s journey. But sometimes destiny works out irrespective of what we are made of.
For instance, I was born in a town named after Julius Caesar, called Kayseri, on the 29th of October – which in Turkey is known as Republic Day, when we celebrate the founding of the Turkish Republic. The 29th of October is for us what the Fourth of July is for Americans.
Kayseri is renowned for its entrepreneurs. In this sense, Kayseri has been the lion’s den of Turkish entrepreneurship. So in my hometown and it was a well-established tradition in Kayseri for families to recruit the most intelligent and talented children for their businesses.
There has long been a practice in Kayseri that when a boy had finished primary school families would test his business skills before sending him to secondary and high school. They usually put him in a friend’s shop to see how he might behave: whether he is active and clever or if he is shy and unassertive.
If the boy appears to be capable, the parents will most often engage the boy in business life right away. If the boy is not very good in marketing; they send him to further schooling.
I remember, I was tested, too! My grandfather’s shop was very crowded in those years, and even on the street there were crowds. There I had to sell bottles of soda in buckets filled with ice.
One day, my uncle came by my grandfather’s shop to examine my business skills. He took a bottle of soda, opened it and shouted loudly, “Ice cold soda!”; Ice cold soda! Makes all 32 teeth play the violin!”. That’s the saying! It was an effective marketing strategy in those days!
With his powerful voice my uncle got the attention of the people around the store and sold many sodas on the spot.
Then he forced me to do the same. But I was too shy to shout like him and failed miserably in selling the sodas from the bucket. Of course, that was the end of my business career!
If that very failure would not have happened that day, most probably I would not be the President of the Turkish Republic today!
Of course, had I been successful in selling sodas, I would be much richer now – a lot like most of my fellow Kayseri businessmen.
So, leadership sometimes comes out of failure. In fact, in our lives failures are important because they leave us with difficult but viable choices. We draw lessons from our failures and work harder to succeed in our endeavors.
For my part, I studied hard in school since I knew that education was the most efficient enabler for me to achieve a better life.
Good leaders must, to be sure, also possess God-given traits . However, I believe, in most cases, leadership is a nurtured phenomenon rather than a gift of nature. Effective leaders must love to learn, change and expand. If you are not learning, maturing, changing or expanding, then you cannot expect the people to believe in you, and follow you.
In my life, I have always believed that there is room for learning, change and innovation. I personally learned a lot when I worked at the Islamic Development Bank for eight years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where I was able to get accustomed to socio-economic problems and the potential of the Islamic world. That experience had a huge impact on my political make up and vision.
Later on, unexpectedly and to a certain extent reluctantly, I found myself in politics when I was convinced to run for an MP seat from my hometown Kayseri in 1991.
As a Member of Parliament, I served at the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly for almost a decade. Through that experience I learned and digested the fundamentals of democratic politics and European values, which are widely accepted universal norms for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. That again had an enormous effect on my political mindset and vision today.
I am sure you all must know the saying: “To change the world, begin with yourselves”.
The unprecedented velocity of change has made one thing an absolute priority for today’s decision makers: the ability to adapt to this dynamic global system.
Today, as political leaders, we are faced with infinitely complex challenges with global ramifications.
And in the face of today’s fluid dynamics of global order, the role of leaders has gained equal and particular importance.
Indeed, it is only through strong and visionary leadership that we can sail through these uncharted waters. In other words, this era is one that needs leaders, too. Leaders who can understand the transformations taking place and quickly adapt to the fast-changing environment.
Leaders must also be fulfilled by envisioning and inspiring destinations and by charting and traversing the course to get there. This requires imagination and a broad vision.
After all, leadership is all about vision. A leader should create vision; express his vision; and pursue his vision until he drives it to accomplishment. Most importantly, he has to get others engaged in his vision, supporting his vision and rallying around his vision.
On the other hand, a leader should not always seek the easy and well-worn path ahead.He or she should be ready to go a new direction and leave a trail behind.
George Bernard Shaw tells how a good leader should be in his usual concise manner:
"You see things; and you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say, 'Why not?”
It is obvious that the world is better off with leaders who have more dreams and fewer nightmares. Among others, Martin Luther King’s dreams in the midst of social nightmares, helped make America what it is today.
A leader must also be in full harmony with the people who follow him and be capable of responding to their aspirations.
In fact, for the first time in human history more than half of the nations are governed by democratic governments.
Therefore, it is today almost a universally accepted notion that the only source of legitimacy for a political leader is the people’s choice. And every day and everywhere we are seeing increasing involvement of people in decision making.
We saw this in Tahrir Square in Egypt, as well as among the Wall Street demonstrators in New York[. This is the age of people’s empowerment. Of course, this is a good thing for democracy and in fact unavoidable given its natural course.
However, there is a paradox here. Under increasing public pressure, leaders might become reluctant to take bold decisions for the common good, which may not always be popular. This point is particularly pertinent at times of economic difficulties, and in the midst of deep-rooted political conflicts.
The current situation in Europe is a telling example of how the lack of visionary leadership could adversely affect the lives of millions.
First, Europe’s leaders failed to see the looming economic problems and to take bold steps in addressing them. Good leadership necessitates “fixing the roof when the sun is still shining”.
Consequently, the limitations of the European leaders in taking necessary decisions did bring about the financial calamities they currently face.
And now, confronted with a severe crisis, there are growing tendencies across Europe to become more introverted and to give in to the rise of extremist political groups.
Indeed, in recent months, we have witnessed in one after another election far-right parties gaining strength. And, even worse, their ideologies and views are more and more becoming part of the mainstream. This is certainly not a good example of leadership, but petty-politics at its worst.
Another area where we witnessed a tragic failure of leadership is in the Middle East, where leaders have long been out of touch with their people.
Indeed, the leaders of the countries like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria have been utterly unable to see the growing global forces driven by the innovations nurtured here at this university and the Silicon Valley.
Innovations in communications and social media, allow everyone to learn about what is happening elsewhere in the world and make comparisons. In fact, this is perhaps one of the greatest contribution Stanford has made: enabling the transformation of freedoms, democracy and development in the world. Because of your innovations, no regime today has the luxury to govern its people behind iron curtains.
These dictators long thought they could stay in power as long as their armies and intelligence were strong. Even when citizen revolts started, these leaders continued to follow the apparently universal manual of dictators and tried to repress the people by sheer force.
In my last letter to President Assad of Syria last year in August, I told him very clearly that people in the streets will not go away by ignorance or repression. I said that it is time to show leadership and to “lead the change” by undertaking the necessary reforms to address the legitimate aspirations of the people before it is too late. Unfortunately, today scores of people dying in Syria, nearly every day.
So, a good leader must grasp the truth and adapt to the dynamics of change.
Another important aspect of leadership is of course telling the truth at the right time in the right place, no matter how inconvenient the truth is.
When I ran for my party’s leadership in the year 2000, I had to tell my fellow party members that the way we were conducting politics was anachronistic and irrelevant.
Telling that truth was extremely risky at that time when the founding leader openly favored my rival, and it was the party tradition not to challenge the leader’s choices.
Although I was defeated at the party convention by a slight margin, I was able to get my message across, first to party constituents and delegates, and then to the larger society in Turkey. In fact, that reform- and innovation-driven strategy and narrative laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (or what we call the AK Party) in 2001.
At the international level, I dared to tell similar truths to my fellow colleagues from the Islamic world. As early as 2003, I myself made a strong appeal to the leaders of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation countries at a meeting in Teheran. I stressed to them that they must all undertake the necessary reforms in order to be compatible with the universal democratic values.
I also warned them of the dire consequences of failing to do so. So for me, the Arab Spring was not a surprise at all! But just the replay of history and a logical expression of the ultimate aspirations of all human beings.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A good leader has to be patient and prudent. However, sometimes a leader must take risks. And my own test with taking risks, of course, in foreign relations came especially when I visisted Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, upon the invitation of the Armenian President. Ostensibly, the invitation was to attend a football match with the President. But it was much more than that for the leaders of two neighboring nations that had not had diplomatic relations for nearly two decades and that had profound disagreements about our shared history. It was a risky move for domestic political considerations, and it might have been very risky for foreign policy implications as well.
I went to Yerevan, marking the first-ever visit of a Turkish President to Armenia. The reward I was expecting from this gesture was a mending of fences between our two nations. I still pursue this hope. Our mutual Presidential visits will continue to be a symbol of hope for the normalization of Turkish and Armenian relations.
Risky as it was, I did the right thing by visiting Yerevan. Which brings to mind something that the great organizational management expert, Peter Drucker, once said: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
If it is necessary, a good leader should also be able to make difficult decisions and painful concessions. You may well remember that at the start of World War II, Winston Churchill told the British people that he “promised nothing, but blood, toil, tears and sweat” in the face of an existential threat to his country.
In the meantime, a good leader should never lose sight of being “a dealer in hope” for the people, no matter how desperate the circumstances are.
By with his stirring words and stolid resolve, Churchill successfully rallied his people to defend their country and the free world. The hope he gave to his citizens was certainly a vital ingredient of their survival, victory and honor.
When I took the position of Prime Minister in Turkey in 2002, we faced enormous challenges.
We were at the height of an economic crisis that started in the year 2001 when we lost one-third of our national income overnight.
There was also a looming war in Iraq, and we were at the crossroads of negotiations with Cyprus negotiations and Turkey’s EU membership prospects. All those problems required us to make difficult decisions and significant compromises.
Being aware that a leader must materialize his vision, I laid down a comprehensive long-term plan covering all policy measures in the judicial, economic and political domains. In this plan, I did not fall into trap of satisfying short-term populist demands. Instead I focused on the long-term interests of the nation. With this understanding, the AK Party Government strictly implemented our plan. And fortunately, all those difficult choices paid off.
Thanks to those measures, for instance, despite the economic crisis across Europe, Turkey stands out as the second fastest growing economy in the world right after China.
And if Turkish democracy somehow functions as a source of inspiration for people in the Middle East, again this was because of the reforms taken by the Government since 2002.
When we were taking these painful measures at the time, we were also giving hope to our nation for achieving “better democracy”, “a well-functioning market economy” and “an active and assertive foreign policy” on all fronts.
As a result of these reforms, Turkey today is more pluralistic, inclusive and tolerant than ever before. That said, we are also aware that there is room for further improvement in the field of personal freedoms. As such, we are under no such illusion that our task in improving our democracy is over.
A leader must have a fair and realistic assessment about the shortcomings of his country or organization.
As the President of Turkey, I know very well that we still have a long way to go in broadening the liberties and strengthening the civilian pillars of our democracy. But there is widespread agreement across the spectrum in Turkey that we must further develop our democratic standards.
Towards that end, we are now in the process of drafting a new Constitution with the active participation of all political parties, NGOs, professional associations, universities, think-tanks, intellectuals as well as ordinary citizens.
This inclusive approach to constitution writing is also important for the development of a culture of compromise, which I believe is the backbone of maturing democracies.
Parallel to Turkey’s profound political transformation, we have enacted across-the-board economic reforms with tight financial discipline. These were very tough and not highly popular choices at the time. Thanks to these structural reforms, the resilience of the Turkish economy has now been boosted against major external shocks.
As a result, Turkey has become the 16th largest economy in the world with a GDP of more than 1 trillion in US Dollars.
Turkey’s development policy has a qualitative element, too. As we all know, science, technology and innovation are essential elements for nations that aspire for a better future. In this regard, Turkey has made great strides in recent years towards becoming a knowledge-based economy.
Research and development expenditures have increased threefold in the past 10 years. This increase in R&D expenditures has almost quadrupled the OECD and EU27 averages. During the same period, the number of Turkish international patent applications has increased by more than 300 percent.
Moreover, the ratio of internet users is one of the highest in the region and yet fastest growing in the world. Turkey has the fourth-largest number of Facebook users globally, for instance.
Last, but not least, we now have 173 universities in Turkey. Eighty-nine of them have opened since 2006.
In a nutshell, these statistics suggest that we have been heavily investing in education, science and technology to raise the future leaders of Turkey. We are undergoing nothing less than a profound transformation.
Transparency and accountability are the ultimate assurances of credibility in politics and business alike. You all well know that in 2008 the global financial crisis was triggered in large part because these notions were not followed by some financial institutions. When leaders do not abide by these principles, sooner or later they will lose their personal or corporate credibility, which means they will eventually lose their authority to lead, , too.
On the other hand, a leader must properly communicate with the people. For my part, I am an eager user of the social media. I use both Twitter and Facebook to my message across to the people and interact with them directly. In fact, later on today, I will be sharing my experience here, too, on my Twitter account, which currently has 1.8 million followers.
There is another important aspect of leadership: not individual leadership, but collective leadership, institutionalized leadership is important, too. Leadership does not necessarily depend on a single person or a single country. If we can institutionalize leadership, then we will more likely have better global governance.
In fact, today the state of affairs among international systems is rather problematic. There is a growing consensus that we now need to re-think global governance structures to address new risks, such as widening income disparity among nations and poverty, the apparent weaknesses of our global financial architecture and cultural polarization.
Besides, no nation, however self-sufficient or strong it may be, is capable of coping with the complexities of today’s world alone. In such an environment, unilateral actions or remedies are proving to be not only less and less effective, but also increasingly anachronistic.
Effective global governance requires institutionalized collective leadership through reformed organizations such as the UN and G-20.
In today's globalizing world, where fast-paced change is engulfing the entire community of nations from every conceivable direction, leadership is not an easy task.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Turkey will not relent in trying to lead our own nation and others as positively as we can.
As the leader of a dynamic country whose experience in transforming itself is being watched closely by a wide audience, I myself also feel the responsibility to lead by example.
Therefore, I will continue to press both at home and abroad for a more pluralistic and inclusive democracy, more sustainable development, more collective security and more intercultural and inter-religious tolerance.
As someone who came out of a medium-sized Anatolian town, my whole life has been a constant struggle seeking a better life and world for my fellow countrymen.
There have been times when it was difficult even to stay afloat. But I always followed my hopes and dreams and never fell in despair.
So far in my speech I have characterized the era we are going through as one of change, innovation, commitment, cooperation, people's empowerment and leadership.
Throughout all my life these were precisely the notions and principles that guided me, too.
I have always been attached to my conservative and traditional values. Nevertheless, my cultural identity and those conservative values did not inhibit me from adapting to the ever-changing realities of the world.
I have tried to be modest, tolerant and humble in my political discourse and paid utmost attention to adopting a constructive political language.
I have been prudent, patient, perseverant and pragmatic in most of my professional, political and diplomatic dealings.
But on the essential matters when my principles clash with pragmatic opportunism, my instinct always goes with the principle, and I will fight for principle to the end.
In that regard, I was put to test when I ran for the presidential office. Despite all the unfair and artificial pressures inflicted upon me to decline my nomination, I pursued my vision and sided with my principles.
Speaking from personal experience, all I can leave with you today is the strong but simple advice that you never shy away from taking responsibility and that you lead when you can.
Graduating from Stanford, you will already be equipped with the necessary tools to succeed as leaders.
Stanford graduates before you have done so much to change the world. However, we expect more from you in finding solutions to global problems such as poverty, global warming, energy security, and biological security.
I firmly believe that with your outstanding leadership qualities and culture of innovative entrepreneurship, you will make an enormous difference in the resolution of these global problems, too.
Again, thank you for the invitation to be here, and I wish all of you the best.