Wednesday, November 2, 2011

AIESECers and World-Changing Leadership

*Below is the speech I delivered during the AIESEC Alumni Asia Pacific Conference 2011 last October 22, at the Peninsula Hotel, Manila.

e are here this morning to talk about “AIESECers and World-Changing Leadership,” but I think it's first important to pause, reflect, and see just how much everything is changing all around the world.

A decade ago, many of us would have described change in the context of technology, market shifts, behavioral patterns among consumers—changes that would have affected mostly industries and nations on a domestic level but which have left the world largely the way it was. And then 9/11 happened and shook not just New York, not just the United States, but the whole world to its core. Overnight, big changes happened that affected not just the New York skyline and air travel, but also international relations, military operations, and the very lives of our own people. Suddenly, the world was at war against terrorism, and nothing was quite the same.

The changes that took place in the world beginning September 11, 2001 were aggravated by many more massive changes that happened all over the world. There was the great Asian tsunami of December 2004, which affected the countries around the Indian Ocean (Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India). There was the global financial crisis of 2008, which turned the banking system on its head and sent many countries on its knees. There was the Arab Spring of 2011, where young people from all corners of the Middle East used technology to call for reforms and take back power into their own hands. There is an impending food crisis not only in Africa but in many other parts of the world, and international organizations have been warning us against civil unrest due to hunger. There is the constant, imminent wrath of climate change which continuously threatens to destroy property and lives.

The world is constantly shifting, constantly on edge. While there have been many positive developments in science and technology, in the arts, and in our shared quest for human development, larger, more urgent issues always seem to threaten to turn the world upside-down. This then begs the question: How does one lead in a world like this? What kind of leaders do we need for a time when old orders and systems are being crushed and when nothing seems predictable?

I am reminded of my early years in AIESEC, in the early '80s, when the situation in the Philippines was just as tense and as chaotic as it often seems to be these days. Back then, the Philippines was under a dictator who seemed bent to keep us in the dark ages. The Philippine economy was in near-collapse, jobs were scarce, our civil liberties were curtailed, and people were being killed for speaking out against tyranny. The future seemed hopeless, and when a senator and a patriot named Ninoy Aquino was killed just as he arrived home from exile, the Filipino people was caught in between raging anger and dumbing despair. It took us almost three years to find our voices again and finally overthrow a dictatorship as a people. Finally, in 1986—twenty-five years ago—the Philippines staged the first bloodless revolution that became known as People Power.

It is said that People Power sparked the fire that led to the crumbling of many other oppressive regimes in other parts of the world. Three years after Filipinos took to the streets to oust a tyrant, Europe found itself changing with the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution. In more recent decades, China has undergone its own silent, bloodless revolution through the opening up of trade and markets. From a country that was once beset with poverty and strife, China is now one of the world's largest superpowers. All these changes that began one generation ago have helped to spark hope in humanity's shared future.

Why am I going back in history to 25 years ago, and what does this have to do with the world's current crises and problems? When we look back at the events that shaped those revolutions, we will see some common threads that we need to rediscover, as a human race, if we are to find our way back into a brighter future.

1. We need to DARE to RE-IMAGINE. And when we talk about re-imagining, we mean more than just “thinking out of the box” or being creative or innovative or resourceful. When we talk about re-imagining, we mean removing all boxes in our heads—all concept of boundaries and limitations—and we need to change the way we think about ourselves and our world.

When the Filipinos took to the streets in 1986 to oust the dictator Marcos, we dared imagine ourselves a free people living in a democracy. When our people squared off with huge tanks and guns and with nothing to shield them but their own bodies, we dared to re-imagine that change can happen without bloodshed. The same can be said for the many other revolutionaries that worked for freedom in many other parts of the world—in Germany, in Eastern Europe, in China. They first dared to re-imagine that such changes were actually possible.

2. We need to have COURAGE to realize our visions. In order to effect world-changing transformations, we need to be leaders with the courage and the tenacity to see our visions through to fruition. We need to be like generals leading our men from the front, instead of commanding them from the safety of a desk. If you look at many of the world's visionaries, public leaders, and game-changing innovators and entrepreneurs, you will see that many of them took risks even—and especially—when they knew that failure was possible. The Filipino people confronting the army tanks in 1986 did it at the risk of death. Looking at a more recent example: the late great Steve Jobs did it with Apple, even when nobody believed in him and even when his own company kicked him out for a decade. I have always believed that the things that are worth risking for are the things that will truly make a difference in the end.

3. We need to RALLY PEOPLE around our vision, and we need to work together to make a large impact. All of the examples I have just spoken about talk about the power of people, the power of collective action. (Even Steve Jobs, for all of his genius, could not create the products that he did were it not for his engineers and product designers at Apple.) Especially in this day and age, no leader can afford to stand on his own. If you want to lead, and if you want to change the world, then you’ve got to be ready to INSPIRE people. Inspire people with your vision, with your words, with your actions. Know what makes people tick, and motivate them to take the journey with you. The world cannot be changed by any single individual, and if you think that it's “just me against the world,” then be prepared to fail. World-changing leadership is that which breaks barriers, builds bridges, and brings people together.

When we look at all the changes happening in the world today, it is clear that we need to be and do more than what previous generations have been and have done, in order to make meaningful changes that can reverse the damage brought about by conflict, greed, oppression, and climate change, among others. Einstein himself said that “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

It will take a different level of thinking—a new kind of re-imagining—to quash terrorism, just as it will take a different kind of re-imagining to reverse the damages of the global financial crisis or climate change. As we move further into the 21st century, we need to be two steps ahead, not just of the competition, but of our own selves, in order to be effective and inspiring leaders. We need to know how to bridge gaps and to connect people and ideas.

There's a fourth quality of world-changing leadership that I'd like to share, and I'd like to put it in the context of my own work as chairman of the Senate committee on agriculture and food. Here in the Philippines, the average income of a farmer is P23,000, or roughly $500 a year. The average age of such a farmer is 57 years old, which means our farmers are poor and they are old and dying. The very people who are supposed to be putting food on our tables are the ones who cannot feed themselves. The Philippines is heading into a food crisis, and unless we do something drastic to improve the incomes of our farmers and ensure sustainable food production, then our people will go hungry.

In an age of rapid technological advancements, it will be easy to say that technology can solve many of our problems. Technology, as we've seen in the case of the Arab Spring, for instance, is only an enabler or an amplifier of change. But it cannot solve the world's problems. It cannot make systems more just. It cannot teach people to care for the planet. It cannot stop wars. I would like to believe that the fourth quality of world-changing leadership, and perhaps the most important, is that we need to put PEOPLE FIRST. We need to practice the kind of leadership that is inspiring and can move mountains, but we need to be clear about who it is that we're moving the mountains for. Are you leading for the sake of power and influence, or money and fame, or are you leading to truly make a difference in the lives of people? People like children, or refugees, or workers, or, in my case, farmers and fisherfolk and the people who depend on them.

If we look closely at many of the problems besetting the planet today, we will see that they exist because of selfishness, greed, and lust for power. War is happening all over because we have forgotten our common humanity. Hunger is prevalent because those who have plenty are protecting the status quo at the expense of those with none. The earth is dying because of our greed and our penchant for consumption and waste, without regard for what will be left on this earth for our children. All our problems exist because we have failed to put people—the Other, the greater majority—first.

In closing, I urge each one of you here today to take a closer look at the kind of leadership that you are promoting and living out. Is it a visionary kind of leadership—one that re-imagines humanity's shared future? Is it a bold and courageous kind of leadership—one that is not afraid to dare and to do what is right? Is it the kind of leadership that inspires people across nations and languages, the kind that brings people together instead of breaking them apart? Lastly, is it the kind of leadership that moves with empathy and compassion— the kind that recognizes the humanness in the other and, thus, acts for the greater good? If it is, then we'll need to work harder at it, and we'll need to build more leaders of this mold—AIESECers and non-AIESECers alike. We've got to acknowledge the challenges that the whole world is facing today, and we've got to work as one people to get ourselves out of this mess.

The world is giving us one huge opportunity to step up, and if we do this right, then we won’t just change the world. We just might be able to save it.

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