Leadership Conversations in the Philippines

by Nirva’ana Ella Delacruz

Dressed in what appears to be a white Chinese traditional tang suit, Dean Williams speaks with a tempered Australian accent – that sounds almost American – and sallied forth into an exposition of why prevailing conceptions about leadership are passé for an increasingly volatile and fast-changing global landscape. “Our framework for leadership is meant for an old world,” he said. I immediately received the impression that our speaker, with his straightforward and almost drill sergeant-like mien, knew what he was talking about, not from textbooks but from firsthand experience.

It was the first day of the Global Change Agents Program: Leadership for Social and Economic Renewal, held from April 19 – 21, 2018 the second such program held in the Philippines, and while I expected some smart and penetrating discussions from Williams, an adjunct professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he chairs the Global Change Agents program, I wasn’t quite prepared to clap my hands over my mouth from laughing too loudly at the various comedies of leadership errors he encountered in his nearly two decades of developmental leadership work in countries like East Timor, Madagascar, Singapore, Nigeria, Myanmar, Australia, and the U.S., among others.

Stories were quite a potent mix of both historical and hysterical at once. Williams, who also led the World Leaders Interview Project at the Center for Public Leadership, shared seemingly mundane stories from his life such as interviewing the Dalai Lama with his then 10-year old daughter, shipping a bunch of straitlaced Bruneian bureaucrats into the untamed Brunei jungle for a week of survival training, as well as surviving a coup d’état attempt during his time as Chief Advisor to the President of Madagascar (A military leader was convinced too many changes were happening in the country and ordered his men to shoot the plane bringing Williams and the President back to the capital city Antananarivo.) Forget about academics being boring, if this guy’s life is made into a movie, I’ll be watching.

Williams is, undeniably, a truly global influencer and a seeker of original solutions, who makes the heavy lifting of initiating organizational and institutional change creative, fascinating, and, necessary.

As one member of a small group comprised of top level executives and leaders in politics, finance, business, and the non-profit sector, my mind was racing and intrigued by the idea that a position of power and authority does not necessarily equate to leadership. Tell that to a burgeoning country like the Philippines where the padrino (patronage) system is part of the socio-cultural DNA. In nearly every field, from politics to the military, to business, and the Church, if you don’t have someone to back you up – someone with connections, power, and wealth – you probably won’t get very far. Never mind leadership, the simple question is about survival. And for a considerable number of some 103.3 million Filipinos, nepotism, cronyism, and the oligarchical rule of an elite few are allowed to perpetuate as a matter of making it to the next day.

As a regular volunteer for a Church-based election watchdog since my teens, I’ve heard about massive vote-buying, which happens as a matter of course in many poor provinces, particularly in Visayas and Mindanao. A farmer, for example, may be fed up with the dirty tricks of generation after generation of a certain political dynasty in his town but will only too gladly vote for them again this year in exchange for USD 10 because it will put food on the table later that night. (In some areas, this price could be up to USD 140.) Realities like these in the Philippines makes ruminating on the intricacies of modern leadership almost seem like a luxury few can afford. But I realize this makes the task of bringing about meaningful change all the more pressing and relevant.

Another key learning that is probably the first great diagnostic work of leadership is ascertaining if you’re facing an adaptive challenge or a technical one. Knowing the difference is, I believe, a pivotal point in reaching multilateral solutions that actually work. One more constructive and highly visual concept is the idea of leadership as alternating between “getting on the balcony” and “being on the dance floor.” By preaching this gospel of activity and involvement interspersed with periods of Zen-like calm and detachment to look at prevailing dynamics and realities on the ground with clear-headed objectivity, Williams dispels the notion of good leadership as perennial motion. This is good news for entire generations of a harried and frazzled work force that can’t seem to pause long enough to deconstruct why they think what they think, much less interpret why others act and think the way they do.

All at once, the leader is called to be a psychologist, a mentor, a disruptor, a monk, an experimenter, an artist, an observer of human drama but above all, a lover of the highest good. Our speaker and main facilitator pointedly talked about the “personal work” of leadership and the question “Who are you being when you exercise leadership?” Probably without directly meaning to, Williams makes the case for leadership as all too real laboratory work for “becoming truly human,” because desiring purposeful change is a function of compassion.

I have to admit, I’m still bubbling over with ideas and what ifs after this program; to be sure, all this didn’t happen in a vacuum of “uhms” and shuffling of feet. You know how in a particularly tricky college elective, you sometimes choose to remain completely oblivious to your nose-picking seat mate just to conserve your mental energies, because you just have to keep your head down and focus on taking notes? This was hardly the case for this program, as I would say, hands down, my co-learners were a startlingly impressive mix of engaging individuals from various fields who left me inspired, energized, and audacious enough to try just about anything under the banner of purposeful change.

I realize this is exactly the design of the program: to create a plexus of adaptive leaders initiating change and collaborating in the future. Faustino John Lim, Center for Asia Leadership Initiatives Co-founder and Director of International Affairs, explained how the program is far from being a one-shot deal. “We would like to cultivate connections between like-minded and like-valued individuals from business, government, and the non-profit domains to help lead change within their respective domains. … We would also like participants to discuss how we can strategically leverage each other to help define and initiate the changes we want to see,” he said.

As economic forecasts continue to predict that the Philippines will remain one of East Asia’s top growth performers while still being beleaguered by issues like corruption and poverty, the contexts where adaptive leadership can and should be done is almost dizzying in its number and complexity. For a media practitioner and social communicator like me, hope burns bright for this country that still knows compassion, for selflessness is the lodestar of leadership.