The courage to lead
Editor's Note: This is the commencement speech delivered by Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria A. Ressa to the Ateneo graduating class of 2015 on Friday, March 27, 2015.
Congratulations, Ateneo Class of 2015!
Welcome to our science fiction world – one that may seem like it’s spinning out of control…powered by technology that is changing everything from the way we think, to the way we communicate, and the way we act.
The impact of social media – good and evil – well, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Technology’s network effects are creating new global coalitions and alliances – from saving the environment to protecting the youth from ISIS, the Islamic State, which has learned to use social media more effectively than governments.
Our principles of economics and business, the way we build companies, are in massive upheaval. It’s happening globally, and it’s coming to the Philippines. In 2011, Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business predicted that in 10 years, 40% of existing Fortune 500 Companies would no longer survive. Richard Foster of Yale University estimates that the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has decreased from 67 years in the 1920s to 15 years today.
For centuries, we lived in a linear production world where businesses were producers who sold to consumers, but today, consumers are creating value and becoming producers…giving birth to new, technology and data driven companies like Waze, Uber and Airbnb.
Rappler couldn’t have existed 5 years ago. Technology allows us to do more with less.
In 2012, Eastman Kodak, which invented and rejected the digital camera, declared bankruptcy…at about the same time a startup called Instagram, 3 years in business with just 13 employees, was bought by Facebook for $1 billion…and this happened while Kodak still owned the patents for digital photography!
Exponential growth companies are challenging traditional business models because they’re growing – and moving – ten times faster.
The only constant is change, and the rate of change is accelerating. If you only learn and follow today’s “best practices,” you’ve already failed because it will lead to a dead end.
Juxtapose this against the two faces of the Philippines today: the good news – we’re the second best performing economy behind China, but scratch beneath the surface and you see the cracking infrastructure, the demographic shifts, the gap between the rich and the poor – the haves and have-nots – our weak institutions, endemic corruption, a lack of transparency and accountability.
These 3 overlapping realities show you why now more than ever, the Philippines needs leaders – not just in government, but in business and social enterprises. Not connect-the-dots bureaucratic top-down leaders, but competent, self-aware, the buck-stops-here mavericks willing to lead us down a different path.
Like Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore. His death this week marks the end of an era for Southeast Asia. The last time I spoke with him, I asked him what advice he would give leaders. He said: “First, don’t try and seek popularity. Popularity is an evanescent, fickle thing. Gain respect. That’s not easy to achieve, and if you don’t misbehave or squander it, it will last.” He said, “This modern society, they take straw polls, and they govern according to what the polls show – which way the wind is blowing. I think that’s a disaster. That’s not leadership.”
Leadership requires courage – and there are many different kinds our world needs today. I was a journalist before some of you were born. To me, journalism is a calling – it tests you physically, mentally, spiritually.
The first type of courage, I think, is the easiest. As a warzone correspondent, courage was about going in when others were leaving and staying with the story because being there makes a difference. It’s about being responsible for the actions and the lives of the people who follow you – and because you take that responsibility, making sure your choices go beyond your selfish interests.
Then there’s inner courage, self-control. Another man who died recently actually symbolized that for me: Leonard Nimoy, Mr. Spock, the Vulcan who controlled his emotions. When you’re a leader, you can’t afford to lose it, and when I felt on the verge of doing that, I thought of Mr. Spock.
Whether in Indonesia, East Timor, Kashmir or Pakistan, conflict reporting requires presence of mind and clarity of thought. You can’t do that if you’re lost in emotions or in a blame game when things go wrong. All that is a waste of time and energy, and if you wallow in emotions, you will make the wrong decision. Save it for later. Solve the problem first.
From something as basic as last-minute information coming in before a live shot, you absorb it, instantly organize in your head, maintain clarity of thought for the big picture, to deliver the information in the simplest way possible when the anchor tosses to you. That’s the easy test.
A harder one is staying present tense on coverage, like the time a bomb exploded in Pakistan, and my cameraman rushed towards it. I remembered the way the terrorists operated and pulled him back. Sure enough, a few minutes later, a second, larger bomb exploded, harming those who were drawn in by the first one.
Or one of the toughest moral choices I’ve had to make – this time in East Timor. It was in the final days of the Indonesian military’s scorched earth policy, when they were killing pro-independence supporters. My team and I were leaving the capital, Dili, to head to Suai, about 4 hours away. We were about halfway there when we stopped for gas, and a man - a friend, a source - came running to our car. He asked for a ride back to Dili because he said he was being hunted and feared for his life.
I couldn’t turn the car around because we needed to get to Suai after reports of more violence. I couldn’t bring him with us because it would take him directly to the military and make all of us vulnerable. Our first responsibility was to get the story for our global audience. So I told him we could pick him up that evening on our way back to Dili. When we came back, an hour late, he wasn’t there… and only later would I find out he had been killed.
In situations of anarchy and war, it’s hard to distinguish right from wrong. There is only your mission, the purpose you are there.
Then there is the courage of your convictions – speaking against injustice, abuse of power, taking a position based on principles. Drawing lines you will never cross. I say that a lot because this is the only way you will stick to the ideals you have now.
This may be the largest group of non-corrupt people in 1 room. You have to stay that way, and the reason you will stay that way is because in your head, you draw that line very clearly so that whatever tests you, you know that if you move from this side to this side, you will become evil.
When I returned to the Philippines at the end of 2004 and headed the largest news group in our country, this is the courage I needed because I wanted to change culture. It was about standing up to vested interests of power – from the owners to politicians to corporations and lobby groups. We took a zero-tolerance approach to corruption, firing anyone found guilty of accepting or soliciting a bribe. We tried to build a culture of transparency, of meritocracy – to eliminate feudal ways of management and give a level playing field. It didn’t make me popular.
And again, I heard Lee Kuan Yew. How did he fight corruption? He first jailed the corrupt ministers – who also happened to be his friends. I have never lost as many friends as the time when I was heading a network news group … nor been stabbed in the back so often. People do it because they feel they have to, but I think it left a longer-lasting mark on their character than the temporary pain they gave me. It’s okay. Think Mr. Spock. And remember Lee Kuan Yew.
How do you deal with critics? Listen and learn. Change if needed. But also keep in mind that if you’re trying to fight conventional thinking, you will be criticized. Actually, come to think of it, if you’re not being criticized, you’re probably not working enough to change the status quo - and this status quo, ladies and gentlemen, is something you have to change.
Now let’s talk about what may be the hardest kind of courage. How many of you have seen the movie about scientist Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything? When Hawking was 21 years old, he was diagnosed with ALS, a motor neuron disease, leaving his mind trapped in a body he cannot control. His young girlfriend, Jane, married him and found the courage to love and care for him as his body degenerated.
The simplest things we take for granted, like taking a step or moving a finger, he couldn’t do, but his insatiable curiousity about the world allowed him to bridge the gap between knowledge and reality – to explore questions about the beginning of time and the existence of God.
This is the courage to be there through the painful, back-breaking choices and moments of just getting through the business of living – eating a meal, taking a bath or even just communicating a thought. It is painful and real, delving into the true nature of courage and the strength of love – because that is what keeps you through those painful, demanding moments in our lives.
The courage of leadership is personal: it is showing up, being there, committing to do the difficult, simple, repetitive tasks and having the courage to do the right thing even when it isn’t what you want to do. It is being able to make life and death decisions: to have the ability to set aside your selfish interests so you can help the people you love live better lives.
The movie ends with the voice of the real Stephen Hawking saying this: “We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there is life, there is hope.”
While there is life, there is hope. That is coming from a man trapped inside his body in a wheelchair. How can anyone complain about anything after that! All my problems disappeared. I realized I had no problems.
Our world demands courage and love – the courage to commit, to stay the course, to do the hard things that build character and integrity - and I hope the more than 2,000 of you here have that because that is the spark plug for our nation. That comes from love – of your partner, your family, your friends, the company you will join, your nation.
It’s been nearly 30 years since I sat where you are now, and I still have the same ideals I had when I graduated. These ideals we poured into Rappler, a truly independent, corruption-free news group. 3 years ago, we started with 12 people, and technology allowed us to grow extremely fast, in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible – both in reach and revenue.
We use technology to harness the zeitgeist of our people and help build institutions bottom up. Together, we can challenge old power structures and give new meaning to people power and democracy.
It’s a wonderful fusion of experience from the old – a handful of 40 and 50-somethings – combined with the smartest, most idealistic digital natives we could find. Our 20-somethings’ passion energizes me every day – and one of them, while handling his full time, very demanding job and bosses, made time to go to school. Congratulations, Paterno Esmaquel! (and 2 other reporters who also made time to go to school, Chiara Zambrano from ABS and Victoria Tulad from GMA7)
We believe solving our nation’s problems begin with stamping out corruption. Our editors have written books on it: Chay Hofileña wrote the book on media corruption; Marites Vitug wrote 2 books on judicial corruption; and our managing editor, Glenda Gloria with co-authors Gemma Mendoza and Aries Rufo, wrote the book on military corruption; and Aries wrote the book on corruption and hypocrisy in the Catholic Church.
Power does corrupt, and the way we hold it accountable is to shine the light. We need to see the way things really work, the corrupted values that make wrong seem right. Until today, I still get an advertiser or two who say, hey, we advertised in you, why did you attack us? Do you see the implicit values in that question that are just so wrong? Nothing personal, but our stories are for the public good, the society we are building, and the mission of journalism – to hold the public and private sectors accountable to the people.
Do not accept the world you see today. We can solve old problems in new ways. Find your allies – because you can’t do this alone. I wish you the courage to lead this change.
Why do I still have hope our nation will change? Because of you. Because of technology and how it amplifies your ideals and your power. Because you really can change the world.
Congratulations again, Class of 2015.
Sleep well tonight. Dream of a better future. Then go and make it happen.
Thank you. – Rappler.com