Adolfo Suarez, first President of the Spanish Government in the democratic transition, died on the 23rd of March at 81. He was probably the best politician we have ever had in modern Spain, my home country.
If you ever travelled to the Parador Nacional de Gredos (a state run hotel, in my native Salamanca), in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, go and see a little room downstairs with a small golden plaque on the wall. That little room was once occupied by a few people, fierce historical enemies from the whole political spectrum, from the ex-Franco system, to the clandestine communist party, who were voluntarily locked in drafting the Democratic Constitution of the New Spain. It was 1978. I was 28. I did visit a few years ago for the first time with my family, nobody was around, and I remember my tears. The democratic transition of my country is the most understated and undersold political phenomenon of modern history. It is thanks to Adolfo Suarez, a man from the Franco regime, that we could achieve what we did.
He was chosen by the king against the odds. A member of the old regime with the most unlikely of the briefings: dismantle the regime. So he did. He was charming, intelligent, a good man. He legalised all political parties including the Communist Party, the official devil of past history for many. He reinstalled the historical local government in Catalunya before even any constitutional reform was in place (a fact that many Catalans have forgotten). He navigated through a 48h long tragic-comic coup d’etat. He put together a coalition as a new political party for the transition. The party disbanded after a few years once the transition had happened. He never benefited personally or financially. When he left the Presidency he refused to take any salary or any money from the State. He had an overriding theme in mind. As he put it: ‘to elevate to political reality, what is reality in the streets’.
What most eulogies don’t say is that he had also been a man of great personal suffering. His wife and his daughter died of breast cancer. Two more daughters are cancer survivors today. After the Presidency he lived off his work as a lawyer, but when he wanted to take his wife to be treated in the US, he had to mortgage his house. In recent years Alzheimer’s took over. He could not remember people, or facts, or indeed that he had been the man who saved a country, the first President of the new democratic Spain.
Political lessons aside, he was a leader who: (1) Saw the common good above personal, political, ideology or party; (2) Was resilient like a bamboo in the middle of a storm; he was hammered by everybody and everywhere, those who saw him as a traitor and those who saw him as a fascist; (3) He had a mission and embraced everybody, not a single side of society left out; the exception being the terrorist organizations. He was a giant.
He had the worse possible pedigree: a man of Franco’s regime. He could not have passed a job interview for democratic leaders. He surprised everybody, because he believed in the common good and he had the guts to do it. How many times do we pre-judge people with ‘wrong pedigrees’ in our organizations? ‘He is an accountant, he won’t be a people’s CEO’; ‘She is an engineer, she’ll run a machinery of processes’; He is from big corporate, he can’t run a small entrepreneurial outfit’, etc. How many times have we being proven wrong? Suspending judgement would be a good start!
Not many people outside of Spain would know Adolfo Suarez. He did not make any money from his public work. He did not go on a speaking circuit, nor mingle with global celebrities. He was a good man, an honest man, a transient leader with sense of purpose, with the wrong CV, who, once his mission was accomplished, even forgot who he was.