Sunday, September 14, 2014

Behind our gated communities . . .

“We can choose to be in touch with only the reality we want and may gradually fall out of touch with the reality we do not wish to engage . . . What we might call the ‘alternative reality syndrome’ gets worse the higher we climb . . . In fact, the choice of living quarters reflects Pope Francis’s more fundamental preoccupation with remaining in touch, and it’s worth looking at this preoccupation through a leadership lens . . . But it would shortchange Francis to lay out these behaviors without also elaborating the worldview that drives them, as if leadership were merely tactics . . . i.e., a distinctly Ignatian worldview: the Ignatius’s program of meditation is ‘Spiritual Exercises, to overcome oneself and to order one’s life.’ Commit to know yourself deeply, including your frailties, and come to some peaceful acceptance of yourself and your calling to lead. Then, commit to ‘get over yourself’ to serve a purpose greater than the self . . .” [Chris Lowney, Pope Francis, Why he leads the way he leads; Loyola Press, 2013, pp. 59, 60, 67]

Sadly, we Pinoys have yet to be truly self-critical and get over ourselves? The evidence: we have yet to demonstrate a community sense and that we value the common good – and instead we find comfort in our “gated communities” that put us above and beyond thus setting us apart, and out of touch?

Disclosure: My family lived in a gated community in Metro Manila before moving to the US; and as empty-nesters, my wife and I live in a gated community in suburban New York. And it was like yesterday while still in the Philippines when we had houseguests, family friends from Spokane, Washington State, and Jerry [May he rest in peace] commented after he saw how Ronnie navigated the 21 km route to/from Makati Business District and not be stuck in traffic. “So Ronnie, your car has the pass to get through military camps and gated communities? But we all enjoyed our own world.” And today friends visiting wouldn’t miss the dig: “John hates coming to your place; you need a PhD to get through those electronic gates.”

What is the Pinoy worldview especially us in the elite class? “Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow,” so asked Rizal? Why would we accept that we got it wrong thus PHL is underdeveloped and poverty stricken? When our values of political patronage and paternalism come with the bells and whistles of oligopoly and tyranny – despite robbing us of the ability to be forward-looking and set a vision for PHL?

How far do the dots connect? Economic development is beyond economics and being pro-poor is beyond alms-giving. That is why despite being the fastest growing economy in the region we remain economic laggards; and despite CCT poverty persistently stares us in the face!

Does our worldview suffer from “the alternative reality syndrome”? I’ve been asked, you seem to know our weaknesses as Pinoys when you live 10,000 miles away and keep harping on them? [See above re “Spiritual Exercises”] I was born and raised and put 20 years of professional life in PHL and thus our weaknesses are part of me. I am simply thinking out aloud and talking about myself.

“We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking. The very fact that willful blindness is willed, that it is a product of a rich mix of experience, knowledge, thinking, neurons, and neuroses, is what gives us the capacity to change it. Like Lear, we can learn to see better, not just because our brain changes but because we do. As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?” [The Psychology of Our Willful Blindness and Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, 27th Aug 2014]

And asked another, you’re not an economist but you want to talk about the economy? It is like marketing or selling or even a business enterprise. People engaged in such undertakings go outside their expertise to be ahead of the curve. Because problem-solving demands openness and transparency and diversity.

And precisely why we had my Eastern European friends that are based in Sofia come for the few weeks of immersion in the US market – and which they will do periodically. While our NY operations are the youngest of the different locations the environment will pry open their minds – especially given that 11 years ago they complained: “But we’re poor Bulgarians, we can only afford packaged goods at 50 euro cents.”

“While I will give a brief orientation, the real learnings you will find in the trade, in the stores and in meetings with our different partners and individuals, and hence your agenda.” And not surprisingly, they would come back to me: “Wow, this place is so transparent, I was talking to this consultant that represents a software we were considering and he pointed me to another competing product after I presented our situation and our needs.” [And this was the guy who joined the company while still working on his engineering degree as my assistant, translator and driver; but has since earned two master’s degrees and is today our management information and analytics manager.] And another said, “This agency explained they would charge us the agency commission of 15% but the other revealed that being one of the largest outfits globally, media companies discount the charges and so they won’t bill us any commissions.”

And then we sat through hours and hours of product development sessions [see below re lateral and creative thinking] to kick the butt of US-based competition, with the full knowledge that they're the world’s largest MNCs! And as I was writing this blog, there was a call from our Singapore team, another young person – but she has under her belt Western MNC experience – that wanted to know if I was visiting Asia soon. And when I asked how they were doing, she recited their progress country by country; then the two countries where they had issues and how they were dealing with them. And before she would hang up I said: “You don’t need a visiting fireman, you’re doing better than great.”

Most of these people are younger than my daughter, and my former assistant is not even thirty, with more to learn about the competitive demands of the free market especially in a globalized world. Yet they’re not into focusing on the barriers that we Pinoys like to raise to keep foreign competition and investment out – and protect and defend our cacique system and structure. They are taking competition right to the heart of Corporate America. And many of us Pinoys are baby-boomers like me supposedly practiced and skillful in democracy and free enterprise?

But what about benchmarking? Which is measuring ourselves against the rest of the world and picking and choosing what they do best, not what they do badly! Unfortunately, our psyche is so damaged by our subservience to hierarchy – hopefully not irreparably – that we’re becoming weaklings if we’re not there yet? Translation: If we Pinoys are not committed to the proposition that all men are created equal – and the pursuit of an egalitarian society – we shall remain a nation of tyrants and slaves as Rizal saw it; and against the rest of the world we feel inferior?

News items: “PH ranks low in innovations index” . . . “PH lags ASEAN in creative productivity” . . . And we wonder why? We're still debating about export-led versus consumption-driven economies because competitiveness is alien to us? Export or consumption is “activity” consistent with linear thinking (that can easily lapse into analysis-paralysis) and why we rank low or lag in innovation and creativity – and they come from forward-thinking. And just as well, it explains why we can't set a vision as a nation. Forward-thinkers like Edison, Jobs, Gates and even Zuckerberg are not into linear thinking but lateral and creative thinking. 

We were coming down the subway station on 57th Street and 7th Avenue on our way to the US Open to watch Grigor Dimitrov [the best Bulgarian tennis player today and ranked no. 7 in the US Open but probably as admired if not more so as the boyfriend of Maria Sharapova] when one of them blurted: “You’ve talked about keeping it simple for many years now, and yesterday in Boston where we had this big meeting with the agency and the brokers and their sales agents, it finally dawned on me how profound simple is. Everyone’s eyes lit as we all saw how the dots connected. In Europe we always indulged in the caveats.”

Grigor won the match against the player from Israel and the Louis Armstrong stadium erupted in a thunderous applause including the Jewish couple sitting next to us; there must've been a big delegation that came to support the Israeli. And the announcer was beside himself, “Grigor, New York loves you and it was not that long ago when we didn’t even know you.” And his response: “Because I would always lose my very first match. But I’ve since been putting the effort. And this year I’m truly happy that it’s paying off.” But then he would later lose to another crowd favorite from France, which means he has his work cut out for him, like everyone else. It's only those of us ensconced in our “gated communities” that are above and beyond thus setting us apart, and out of touch?

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