Mar Roxas, leadership and letting go

Maria A. Ressa

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Mar Roxas, leadership and letting go
Perhaps the greatest challenge Roxas faces in the coming months is to find his authentic voice, strip away many of the habits he’s learned in the public eye to gain clarity of thought, and become the leader that he wants to be

MANILA, Philippines – It’s hard for 58-year-old Manuel “Mar” Roxas, an experienced public servant and grandson of a former Philippine president, to find the balance between control and trust, calculation and instinct, logic and emotions.

In more than 2 decades in the public eye, Roxas developed a reputation as a micromanager obsessed with workflows and maximizing efficiency, proud of a leadership style that tries to dispassionately and meticulously find a solution to a problem. 

Gumawa tayo ng food pack relief,” Roxas told a live Rappler panel discussion on October 29 with managing editor Glenda Gloria, multimedia reporter Bea Cupin, and me. He was the second interview for our #TheLeaderIWant series. “Just the sequencing and knowing what should come first is very important. Dumating ang bigas. Dumating ang de lata. Walang plastic so hindi ka makakilos kasi saan mo ililipat at ipapackage at things like that. I’m just showing you that management is not something that should just be diminished in purpose.” (The sacks of rice arrived. The canned goods arrrived. But we had no plastic bags for packing, among other things.)

Those same qualities, however, also become his greatest weakness: making him seem indecisive and disconnected from the public, out of touch and temperamental.

“Sometimes, my passion is misinterpreted to be suplado, but I mean no ill will,” he told us. “I’m just passionate and impatient for solutions.”

What’s at stake

A Wharton graduate and former investment banker, Roxas returned to the Philippines in 1993 after his brother, groomed to fulfill their family’s political ambitions, died of cancer. Roxas came home reluctantly, ran for, and won his brother’s congressional post. (READ: Speech of Mar Roxas accepting the LP’s nomination)

After that, he became a senator and held 3 cabinet posts under 3 different presidents, heading trade and industry (DTI), transportation and communications (DOTC), interior and local government (DILG).

In 2010, he stepped down as the Liberal Party’s presidential candidate to give way to now President Benigno Aquino. Roxas became one of Aquino’s most trusted advisors, the public face of crisis management in the last 6 years. 

Now, despite initial low ratings, Roxas is Aquino’s anointed successor, with the full political machinery of the ruling party, to carry forward “Daang Matuwid,” the government’s “Straight Path” to reforms.

Much is at stake for the Philippines in a presidential race that analysts say is too close to call. The winner of the 2016 elections runs the country until 2022.

“2016 is very, very unique,” Roxas told us, “because for the first time in many generations, it is actually a valid campaign platform to say ‘ituloy.’ Kadalasan, in every election, patalsikin, baguhin, reporma, etcetera, ang panawagan.  But for 2016, because of the performance of President PNoy (Aquino’s nickname and a play in the slang for Filipino) and Daang Matuwid, it is a very, very valid, credible platform for us.” (It used to be that in every election, the call would be to oust, change, or reform.)

His long, measured responses are typical. He wove clear talking points into his answers. When we asked him why he took so long in his answers, he said he wanted to go beyond television soundbites and provide context to some of his most controversial decisions.

“The lessons of leadership have always been there,” said Roxas. “It’s credibility. It’s transparency, and it’s really inclusiveness, consensus-building, consultative. There’s an old Chinese proverb that I always remember and apply to the best that I can. If you want to go fast, bring few.  If you want to go far, bring many. And that speaks to gaining the trust and the confidence of the entire Filipino nation. And you can only really do that by being truthful and credible.”

Roxas came to our office-studio with a handful of aides. It’s clear the campaign period had started. This was the second newsroom he faced that day, and he was losing his voice. 

Our goal was to dig beneath the veneer, always the challenge with a practiced politician. 

Why does such an intelligent, hardworking man fail to inspire so many? What are his underlying values? What kind of leader is he? What kind of president would he make?

Control and trust

Two points characterize Roxas’ management style: he wants to physically be in the center of the crisis; and, he believes the devil is in the details.

The problem, though, is that such attention to detail from a leader can also choke the pace of a response in a top-down, hierarchical Philippine bureaucracy, especially during crisis.

Roxas pointed with pride to his handling of the worst typhoon to hit land in recent history, Super Typhoon Yolanda (known internationally as Haiyan) on November 8, 2013.  As then interior secretary, he was in charge of the preparations of the national disaster council, known as NDRRMC.

He said he felt local officials were not taking the storm seriously so he decided to go to ground zero with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

“It’s really keeping the confidence alive of the rest of the populace – providing leadership at the ground level,” said Roxas. “The lesson there is presence counts.  It’s the lakas loob.  It’s the confidence.  It’s the hope that your presence conveys to the victims that hindi kami nag-iisa.  Hindi kami nakalimutan. At kahit papaano, makakarating yung pinsala o makakarating yung problema namin sa mga matataas na opisyal.” (It’s the assurance that the people are not forgotten. That their problems are heard and addressed by high public officials.)

While administration surveys showed the people of Tacloban appreciated their presence, many criticized the government’s – specifically Roxas’ – actions.  After all, there were large chunks of time during critical moments that the government’s crisis managers couldn’t be reached. 

Military, police and local officials told Rappler the presence of the 2 cabinet secretaries in Tacloban slowed down the pace of local response. Most, they added, deferred to Roxas for decisions he had neither the big picture nor the local experience to make.  

Indecision wasted crucial minutes and hours – something Roxas vehemently denied.

Sala sa init, sala sa lamig (Damned if you, damned if you don’t). You know what I mean?” he told us.  “You’re not there – bakit wala dito yan? Pag pumunta ka naman, bakit nandito yan? Right?”

He was widely criticized for politicizing the Yolanda response in a now infamous cellphone video clip which showed him in a meeting with Tacloban Mayor Albert Romualdez.

“Your detractors to this day are still bringing up in social media that meeting between you and Mayor Romualdez where he claimed that you were asking for documentation when his city was in need,” asked Bea Cupin.

“It was really my effort to tell the mayor, hindi ko talaga gustong ma politika ito. In fact, you must remember that this is a political situation because of who you are and who the President is,” said Roxas, referring to the Romualdez family’s ties to Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, ousted by Cory Aquino, President Aquino’s mother.

“Unfortunately, na-politika ito,” explained Roxas. “Just a matter of statistics: out of the 2 billion pesos that passed through DILG to help local government unit cities and municipalities with reconstruction, P400 million went to Tacloban.”

Roxas defended his actions, claiming the government did all humanly possible to deal with a force of nature.

Calculation and instinct

“We also say that leaders are sometimes faced with very limited options and limited time to act on certain things,” said Glenda Gloria. “Do you have any one major decision which you based primarily on your gut feel or instincts? My instincts told me I’m going to do this and therefore I will make that decision.”

Roxas paused before responding.

“I will have to give that a good think,” he said. I was disappointed because I wanted him to show us what he’s made of. He refused to take a risk and shifted to safer ground. “Basically, my instinct is always what’s straight up, what’s common sense, what’s effective.”

I followed up trying to understand his decision-making process, incorporating numerous reports through the years from people he worked with about an onerous process that often led to long meetings and no decision.

“Your critics point to moments of indecision at key times of historical impact, like at the time of President Gloria Arroyo when the Hyatt 10 came out, you sat on the fence,” I said.  “In key moments, your critics at DOTC or DILG say that it takes you time to make a decision.”

“I think that by definition, they’re from critics so what do you expect?” he parried. “During the time of President Gloria, I served in her Cabinet. The Hyatt 10 had made a move. I kept quiet, having just been elected to the Senate. At that point the issues they were raising were issues within the cabinet that I was not privy to. And so I remembered that my statement at that time was that all of these allegations should be investigated and that the truth should come out.  Subsequently, I made my break with President Gloria.”

“At the DOTC, I think it is important to note that DOTC is involved in programs and projects that span 4-5 years, railways, roadways, airports,” he continued. “You don’t buy these off-the-shelf, but if you are looking for decision-making, I decided quite clearly, for example Passenger Bill of Rights. I didn’t think it was right for airlines to just bump off passengers or cancel flights. So even if it was harmful to people who were operating this business, whom I knew, I said you cannot do this.”

I tried to explain why I asked. I was looking for a sense of perspective, an acknowledgment of lessons learned. By being transparent, I hoped he would show us how he learns and evolves.

“Let me say the spirit for this question,” I said. “It’s really that oftentimes a leader’s greatest strength is also his or her greatest weakness, and in your case, your corporate background, your attention to detail, these are all strengths, right? And yet at the same time, at key moments, by looking at too many details, it may prevent you from making a critical decision. In the case of Yolanda, for example, reports came out that you asked for the numbers of the people who were there – counting the people – instead of actually bringing help immediately.”

“I think, first from here, I will dispute the premise of your question,” Roxas responded. “At no time did I say, ‘well, how many people have been affected.’ Clearly, there were tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, right?”

“But that data gathering in that moment,” I interrupted. “Because a leader would have to make decisions with imperfect information.”

“Again, I dispute that there was data gathering that was being done.”

I understood his defensiveness because in Roxas’ view, he was unfairly criticized for doing his best.

“Nobody really knew,” said Roxas.  “There was no communication.  There was no cellphone.  There was nothing: no power, no water, no life.  There was really nothing.  So it was all – let’s bring it as much as we can.  As fast as we can.”

“You’re saying you didn’t have these moments of indecision,” I asked.

“I think so,” he quickly answered. “I would really dispute that.”

THE PRESIDENT'S MAN. Mar Roxas after he was endorsed by President Aquino on July 31, 2015. File photo by Rey Baniquet/ Malacañang Photo Bureau

Logic and emotions 

Few doubt Mar Roxas’ intentions: many agree he isn’t corrupt and will attempt to run a professional government. He is smart, calculating and experienced, but questions remain about his vision and boldness.

President Aquino bypassed him early this year in a bungled special operation that caused the deaths of 44 Special Action forces troops but which was meant to kill a high-value terrorist target. (READ: Aquino broke chain of command in Mamasapano)

During that time, Roxas stood by his president, but he admitted that he handed in his resignation.

“So were you angry,” I asked.

“It crossed my mind that … what happened?” he said. “How come I did not … there was no clear sort of getting, being made part of the loop, but it would be purely egotistical on my part.  It would just be – ano, na-hurt ako? Ano, political act? I mean, the country’s in crisis, PNoy, his leadership. We have to maintain security. The PNP itself needs a stabilizing element.”

President Aquino refused to accept his resignation, and Roxas soldiered on.

Our time with him showed a man steeped in operations, focused on the details, with good intentions and a broad brush stroke of the global landscape. When I asked him to name his top 3 priorities for his first 100 days, he said all were all equally important.

The reality, though, is that choices always need to be made. Not making a choice is sometimes worse than making the wrong choice. Good leaders make the best choice in the moment by allowing the people below them to do their jobs and pulling out of the details to see the big picture.

Perhaps the greatest challenge Roxas faces in the coming months is to find his authentic voice, strip away many of the habits he’s learned in the public eye to gain clarity of thought, and become the leader that he wants to be. –




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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.