Learning about Leadership that Can Change a Nation
HR & OD Consultant
Philippine Society for Training & Development (PSTD)
Adrian Jarabejo Robles just completed the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge 2016 Spring Course. Robles is currently working as a freelance HR and organization development consultant, after having previously been employed for Manila Electric Company (MERALCO) as the Head of People and Leadership Development. Before joining the course he had served as Immediate Past President of the Philippines Society for Training and Development (PSTD) and still remains on the Board of Trustees. Robles has also completed a master’s degree in Human Resource Management and in Industrial Relations at the University of Sydney.
―What did you learn during the six weeks in Japan?
The initial courses that we studied included strategic management, organization behavior, international marketing management and international security and cooperation. The last two were subjects which were very new to me, and I’m very thankful that I learned so much from that coursework. Moreover, the core subject of this program is knowledge management, and this was also something very new to me yet very much related to my role as a trainer.
―What was different about the Hawaii module?
In Hawaii we also had a course on multiculturalism where we studied different cultures in Hawaii, like the cultures of Japanese and Filipino migrants in Hawaii. Also I noticed that Hawaii is a very Japanese-friendly destination, with Japanese-speaking staff members employed in stores to specifically assist Japanese tourists, and we felt that Hawaii is becoming a very Japanese-friendly community. The course made us really examine the question ‘who drives the culture of a certain place?’ Is it the locals? Or the tourists?
We also learned about the ethnography of Hawaii’s native population. At one point we visited a site where we looked at the different indigenous peoples of Hawaii and other Polynesian islands. We tried to use ethnography to understand their culture – another skill that is very helpful for me as a HR consultant. Normally when I do organization assessment, I approach it with surveys, with the things that I know. But ethnography taught us how to live with people, observe their way of life, be with them, and spend time with them until one is able to have a more objective way of assessing what that particular culture is about.
A major component of the Hawaii module involved work with an actual organization to address a problem. Luckily the organization assigned to my team was the Alzheimer Association in Hawaii (which is related to my Capstone Project on dementia), so I had a chance to work with them and develop a marketing plan for their fundraising program called The Longest Day. I’ve worked as a consultant before, but this was a new experience for me and my classmates, because we had to work with an actual client and talk to them about a real problem. Despite our very limited communication abilities, we nevertheless had to come up with something very relevant to our client. This consulting experience was a good opportunity for us as we had to use the different tools that we learned throughout the program.
―During the Singapore Module, you met people from notable organizations in Singapore and had a chance to listen to their thoughts. What about those opportunities made impressions on you?
During our one-week stay in Singapore, we learned about how Singapore made it as a successful country, transitioning from a state with no natural resources and uneducated and unskilled population, into what they are now. Singapore was my favorite of the four modules because the professors and speakers involved provided us with everything that one needs to know if you want to develop a nation.
The surprising thing about this was that, when one of the professors made us realize that there’s actually nothing special about the strategies Singapore has used – they are all things that every leader and manager knows already. But it’s the combination or the timing that was important. So it really made me ask myself the question, “Can we do it in my country, the Philippines?” Unlike Singapore, the Philippines is very rich in natural resources. Singapore’s population was once unskilled and illiterate too, while today we have one of the highest literacy rates with good, professional people. Singapore didn’t have strong industries when they started, while we have a great deal of industry. So what’s wrong? Is it the leadership?
I found it very interesting that in regards to leadership, one of our speakers said that Lee Kuan Yew didn’t have a track record of accomplishments when he started. He only had a clean reputation and a simple passion to make it work. As a leader, I strive to emulate him in this aspect. I need to find my “true north” and should be willing to make decisions and actions based on that, not what others dictate or impose on me. Lee Kuan Yew may not have been popular to some Singaporeans, especially during the start of his leadership, but he definitely earned their respect and admiration by the end. What makes him different than other leaders is his ability to properly execute his plan and vision.
―Do you see any application of this case to the Philippines?
I really do. After learning about the Singapore model, it gave me some hope that perhaps we in the Philippines can do something about our situation. Perhaps what we need is a new type of leader. And this is perfect timing, because we have just elected a new president in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and people are hoping that he can be a similar figure to Lee Kuan Yew in terms of his leadership style. Perhaps what makes Lee Kuan Yew different from others is that he was very autocratic. He had a significant amount of power. It seems to me that had no choice at all so they just had to follow him. Perhaps our difficulty in the Philippines stems from having too much choice or freedom. But I do think we need someone like Lee Kuan Yew.
The current president-elect, Duterte, is only known for his track record because he was able to manage one of the biggest cities in the Philippines. Yet my experience in Singapore made me realize that Duterte has to be an authentic leader, just like Lee Kuan Yew. I learned in this program that being an authentic leader means acting based on your own beliefs and values and not because you want to please other people. If my president can be very authentic and do something, which he feels, will truly be good for us, and with the cooperation of the people, there is a strong chance that it will work for the Philippines.
―What else do you feel was key to Singapore’s development?
I would say that it was the sense of identity. When Singapore started out, they lacked nationalism because most of the people there were migrants from China, India, and various other places. So in the beginning of the nation’s history, nobody was able to say definitively, “I’m a Singaporean.” They would always say “I’m from China,” or “I’m from India.” But the government was very deliberate in making them feel that “We are Singaporeans.” They made a deliberate effort for them to become one nation, to have one voice and one vision, which I feel is perhaps what is lacking in the Philippines. Maybe we need to have that. Since the Philippines is an archipelago composed of thousands of islands with different cultures and languages, it is really important that we unite towards one shared goal: make our country progressive and peaceful.
―You visited the Doi Tung Project in northern Thailand. What was remarkable about this part of the course?
Thailand is a totally different module as well. Our presenters began by telling us about sufficiency economy, which has become their strategy or the main theme of how the Doi Tung Project should live, and these concepts are very similar to organizational sustainability. They talked about living in moderation, which was a new topic for me. When I was studying organizational sustainability in Sydney, I remember wondering, “Can this really work? Is this really possible? Or is this just for developed nations because they can afford to do good as they are already better off than developing nations? Will it really work for Asian countries?” In Thailand, apparently, it does work.
But again this touches on the subject of leadership. One of our observations was that maybe sustainability works here in Doi Tung because it came from the King himself, and the people in Thailand hold him in very high esteem. All of the people with whom we spoke, including one man who owns a manufacturing company as well as a group of people who helped develop and transform the community from what used to be an opium plantation into a sustainable community, were all very consistent in mentioning this.
This philosophy of moderation really stood out to me in the Thailand module, especially in seeing how the Doi Tung Project seeks to empower the community. They strive to create more jobs so when they work with a particular partner, for example, they would immediately tell that partner, “Our operation needs more people. We don’t want to automate and we’re not after the profit because we want to create more jobs for the people.” Doi Tung really is not about the profits but creating opportunities for others. Had this been the case in Singapore, perhaps, immediately Singaporeans might had thought, “Ok, let’s build machines or anything that can automate this so that we can produce more products.” It seems to me that from our visit in Singapore, excellence and efficiency are essential for them, while at Doi Tung in Thailand, moderation and sufficiency are the key concepts.
―How do you think you will utilize what you have learned from this course?
I really feel privileged that I was given all of this knowledge. But more than just knowledge, what really made this program different was that it gave me hope and motivation to do something for my own country.
Early this year my mom experienced temporary dementia after surgery and my family didn’t know how to respond or how to best take care of her. It was at this point that I realized that my government has not done much to help elderly people. In fact, a bill proposing to establish an institution that will conduct research on Alzheimer’s is still pending in our congress. I was looking for communities who can help us with this issue but I only found online communities abroad. So with my Capstone Project of “Developing an Age-Friendly Community: Building a Society that Cares for the Elderly” I’m hoping that, by deliberately starting or organizing conversations about aging and the elderly, I can create ripples so that other stakeholders will be involved and people, including the government, will start caring.
In Japan, an aging society is an important issue as the government has taken initiatives to address the problem at hand. In contrast, the Philippines is a young society with a median age of 24, while that of Japan is 40 plus. This seems to be the reason why it’s not a priority of our government to think about the elderly. With my project, I’m also hoping that young professionals like me will join me in “Designing our Future,” which is a conversation which will center on how we would like to design our community so that we can be well taken care of when we get old.
If there is no priority, then there is no program, and subsequently there is no budget. So what about us who have family members with dementia? What do we do? We don’t know. So for me, the campaign is an innovation. This is something I can do. If I work on something that can help people who are struggling with dementia, even if it’s just to raise awareness and knowledge about this disease, then merely getting people to talk about it is, for me, an innovation. This is the one thing I really learned about this program. Social innovation doesn’t have to be something big; it doesn’t have to be something grandiose or messianic. Even small innovations can have big impacts, as long as it creates a ripple that will eventually form a wave.