Legends of Leadership and Management – Adolfo Suarez (1932- 2014)

He was a results oriented leader who negotiated his way to a democratic Spain. He was an insider who changed the system while being a part of it. He firmly believed that success of democracy lay not in winning, but in the participation of the entire spectrum of thought. And when armed rogue commanders took over Spain’s Parliament for 22 hours, he stayed in his seat in open defiance, to protect the freedom and democracy for Spain. For his indomitable courage, the ability to work across the aisle and establishing a huge change in the political structure of Spain, Adolfo Suarez makes it to the list of legends of leadership and management.

Adolfo Suarez, then 43 was picked by King Juan Carlos to form a government in 1976 following the death of Gen. Francisco Franco – a brutal dictator who ruled Spain since World War II. At that time, Suárez was a relatively obscure member of the Franco regime. Not many thought he had the ability to heal decades of wounds from an autocratic regime.

Suarez knew that reconciliation across the diverse thought spectrum was the key to a stable Spain. In a speech to the lawmakers in 1976, Suarez said, “The point of departure is the recognition of pluralism in our society — we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring it.”


This pluralism included the Communist Party, which had been banned under Franco. In a secret meeting with Santiago Carrillo, Spain’s long-exiled Communist leader, Mr. Suárez offered to legalize the Communists in return for a pledge that they would join the election. Democracy was not about winning, it was about giving opportunity to the entire spectrum of thought.

Clear vision and Speedy Execution:

Suarez had the vision of a democratic Spain where no college of thought was left behind. And he was equally brilliant with the execution.


Suarez’s biggest obstacle to reform was the Francoist establishment. The strategy he used to overcome this obstacle, was speed. He introduced measures faster than the Francoist establishment could respond. He recognized popular sovereignty, promising a referendum on political reform and elections before 30 June 1977. Throughout the summer of 1976, Suárez talked to opposition figures. Concerned that the pressure for change from the left might provoke a brutal reaction from the armed forces, Suárez met senior generals on 8 September and explained the reforms.

Within a year of his appointment as Spain’s then-youngest prime minister, Suárez had passed a law establishing a two-chamber Cortes (Parliament) and universal suffrage; had legalized the left-wing parties, including, most vitally, the communists; had declared an amnesty for political prisoners, legalized trade unions and dismantled most of Franco’s four-decade-old political machinery; had got his reforms heartily approved by public referendum, as well as by parliament; had called free elections, formed the Union of the Democratic Centre (UCD) to fight them, won, and was on his way to drafting a new constitution. He had only one agenda, democracy. He went for it with all the impatience of a man.

The approval of the constitutional text by the congress and senate on 31 October 1978 and its ratification by the referendum of 6 December marked the peak of his achievement.

Despite abstention calls from the opposition, political reform was approved by 94% in the referendum.

An artful negotiator and a problem solver

Though relatively young at his job, Adolfo Suarez possessed immense talent for political intrigue. He could sniff out the ambitions and weaknesses of colleagues. He could cut deals, after taking people into his confidence with a ready laugh and a slap on the back, and for making even enemies feel—as he charmed them with the offer of a cigarette and a light—that they were intimates, and could do business with him.


His mantra was to get Spanish politics back to normal, out of the long and bloody shadow of the civil war and set Spain in the modern world.

In the run up to the June 1977 elections, Suárez opened secret negotiations with the Communist leader, Santiago Carrillo that paved the way to legalizing the Communist Party in April. This infuriated reactionary military officers, prompting a rash of golpismo, or military conspiracy. He countered them by courting more liberal officers, especially Gutierrez Mellado, and sacking hardliners.

With elections ahead, in the spring of 1977 Suárez united groups of progressive Christian Democrats and conservative Social Democrats into the Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD), Even the Francoist elements of the Movimiento joined Suárez, in the hope of electoral victory.

In February 1981, when armed rogue commanders took over the Cortes for 22 hours, only Mellado, Carrillo and Mr Suárez stayed bravely, or recklessly, in their seats: right, left and centre in open defiance to protect the freedoms he had won.

Marketer par excellence – optimal use of the media

By June 1977, when Spain held its first democratic election since 1936, Mr. Suárez “epitomized the changing face of Spain and the emergence of a new middle class. Per Robert Graham, a foreign correspondent in Madrid: “His clean, youthful looks were in themselves a breath of fresh air. He represented what many Spaniards aspired to be — a provincial boy made good, with a devout wife and a large happy family.”


For a society torn after decades of oppression of a brutal dictator, Suárez established an immediate connection with the people. He refused to make most of his TV appearances from the opulent setting of the Spanish Parliament, opting instead to address Spaniards from the comfort of his own living room.

Spain’s national broadcaster spoke to experts who argued the country’s first democratic Prime Minister was blessed with rare telegenic traits: an appearance or manner that was very appealing on television.

The run-up to the elections of June 1977 assumed an air of popular fiesta, but Suárez’s campaign concentrated on the media, where his resources were virtually unlimited. His other advantages were overwhelming. The banks funded a huge advertising campaign. Every housewife in the land was sent a letter from Suárez outlining his plans to improve living standards and the UCD propaganda machine worked especially hard to build on Suárez’s film-star looks. Sixty per cent of UCD voters were to be women and they carried Suárez to victory with 34.5% of the vote; the Socialists polled 29.2%.

Honest, upright and a graceful exit

In January 1981, as divisions mounted among his own UCD supporters, Suárez announced his resignation after four and a half years on the job. He concluded his resignation speech with, “But I do not wish to see this democratic coexistence become, once again, a parenthesis in the history of Spain.”

After leaving office, Suárez could have done with extra financial aid to cover his wife and daughter’s medical costs, both of whom suffered breast cancer. Instead, he chose to auction off his home in Ávila and use only the earnings from his law firm.


In the last decade of his life, clouded by Alzheimer’s, he gradually forgot that he had ever been prime minister, or what he had done for his country while he was. A poignant photograph, soon famous all over Spain, showed him in 2008 with Juan Carlos, the burly king with his arm round the shoulder of his diminutive first prime minister, in shirtsleeves. The two men were walking away from the camera as if to say, job done. As indeed it was




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