Pie Alvarez: 21 lessons in leadership from a 24-year old mayor

A young girl who became mayor at 21 years old, shares lessons in leadership


1. Stop whining, do something. I’ve been very negative about the Philippine government all throughout. Even when I was in college I had discussions with my Filipino friends in the States, and they didn’t want to go back to the Philippines because they were sick and tired of the local government of how it wasn’t really being efficient or progressing the country forward. I had the same mentality but I decided to do something about it. I didn’t want to just complain and look the other way; I wanted to complain and do something about it.

2. Be the boss. Q: Your father says, “Ok you want to run for vice mayor?” No, Dad I want to run for mayor.

3. Give the people the mic. If you ask me if I get to understand the locals in San Vicente, I think it’s really my job to understand them, and that’s why I won in the local elections. Instead of me campaigning and being a preacher I say I will do this, vote for me because I’m this, I stopped doing that and I just listened to them and “Ano ba ang kailangan niyo, ano ba ang mga problema niyo? How can we find the solution? And by doing that I was able to discover all these problems in different villages. One barangay… they didn’t have access to clean water. In another barangay rice resources were scarce. These are problems. These are support systems that needed to be provided by the government, these are very simple. All I had to do was take the microphone and give it to them.

4. Forget the class rhetoric. I’m not a fan of the rich versus poor [paradigm]. I look at them as people who didn’t get opportunities like we did. There has to be that understanding and that sensitivity towards people who are poverty stricken. They are hungry, homeless, jobless. At the end of the day, they live an everyman-for-themselves kind of mentality and lifestyle. We don’t have that, we have a roof over our heads, we have food on the table, we can put our children through school. But they live every single day hoping to feed their families, hoping to be warm and dry at night and hoping to have enough sustenance for the future. It’s a completely different mindset. And for me, yes I belong in one segment, it doesn’t mean I can’t help those that need the assistance. These residents in San Vicente, 80% of them live below [the] poverty [line]. It’s really my job to be able to bridge that gap and provide them the opportunities that they would otherwise not get.

5. Officiating a wedding? Wing it. I had to do my first wedding when I was 21 years old, my first 2 weeks in office. “Mayor, a couple wants to get married.” They basically gave me a to-do list, 1 to 10. First you state the name, then you look at the sponsors, and the family members and the parents. At the very end it says give marriage counselling. I looked at my department head and said “What marriage counselling can a 21 year old give to a couple who’s getting married?” I can say, “Ok love each other” but really! Oh but you know that’s part of the job and I have done 18 weddings since.

6. Get the blood pumping. One thing I learned in San Vicente is that everyone loves to dance till 5 in the morning. They beat anybody in the clubs here, the employees have been sitting on their chairs for the longest time. So I said you know what, in order to get your minds working and to have positive inputs in the office, you need to at least have your blood pumping. We do [dance aerobics in the morning] twice a week. Actually I wanted to do it everyday, but the employees were complaining that they were sweating so much and they don’t wanna change and they only had a few sets of uniforms.

7. Forget about getting a life. You know when they give job descriptions, they should say for local Philippine mayors, they should say it really entails your whole life, you have no private life, you have to be an ATM (Automated Teller Machine), you have to have several helping hands, you have to have insane patience and it’s really not an easy job.

8. You’re a shoulder to cry on. At the end of the day, even though I’m 24 years old, I’m seen as the mother, they always call me “siya ang ina ng San Vicente” (She’s the mother of San Vicente) and I’m like “Oh my God, I’m already a mom.” They look to me for everything, whether somebody gets bit by a crocodile at 5 in the morning, or there are domestic disputes, or somebody stole someone’s chicken, to my chief of police who is a woman and she cried to me a few times regarding her personal problems, and I’d have to sit there in my office, she come’s in with a really disturbed look on her face then just started to vent. And I was just there “Okay. “Water.” “It’s gonna be okay, it’s gonna be alright.” I’m learning, I’m really learning to adapt more to people, with this job. Adapt more to people’s attitudes, people’s feelings, ’cause it’s so crucial. Everyone is so sensitvie and emotional.

9. Don’t pay attention to the superstition. I’m a big fan of all these western celebrations. When i was growing up here [in Manila] in the village, we would always have trick or treat, and it was fun to dress up in costume. So I thought about bringing it to San Vicente, so my town has never experienced halloween. So I went to Divisoria to buy jack o lantern candy dispensers and when I brought it the munisipyo my staff said “Mayor what are the pails for?” So I held a ball, the Scary, Scary Night in San Vicente, come in your scariest costumes, we even had a horror tunnel where I made the engineering department build fake coffins. And they didn’t want to do it because they’re so superstitious, and they didn’t want to rent the coffin either and be lying on it. And I said who wants to volunteer to pretend to be dead, and they said “Mayor, it can’t be.” They’re so traditional in that sense.

10. Get the kids on board. All my volunteers were all from high school, all the kids. (Host Jay Buenaflor interjects: “They understood halloween.”) They loved it. They were doing Emily Rose (The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a 2005 horror movie) in the horror tunnel, and the funniest part was when they dressed in costume. When event day came I was so shocked, their costume was the scariest you could ever be. Here [in Manila] you’d see Tinkerbell or Superman, there it’s Superman but dead, it’s Tinkerbell with blood. It’s insane, it’s angel but zombie.

11. To survive, we need to protect the environment. Palawan is one of the last frontiers in the Philippines, and it’s truly one of the lush provinces I’ve seen. San Vicente, it’s insanely covered with super-lush forest. For me it’s important because we rely on our natural resources and our ecological biodiversity to survive. I’m not trying to be an environmentalist, but it doesn’t take much to understand how important it is to preserving and protecting the environment. And in a lot of areas in the Philippines, we actually abuse that, and in San Vicente, I want to be able to protect it.

12. Have a vision, leave a legacy. The idea is to develop San Vicente into a tourism destination but in a sustainable way. Because we’ve already witnessed so many times how tourism impacts local communities, we’ve seen it in Boracay, in Bali, in Thailand and what I want to do is take the best practices and translate that into my town. One of them is urban master planning. Reason being is if I’m no longer mayor, the town has to be protected, the grid system has to be in place, the electrical system, the water system, even ways for floods, the map of that to show, in case disaster strikes, the locals know where to go, where not to go. It’s a whole concept of master planning that I’m working with Palafox right now, the daughter (of Jun Palafox, the architect & green urban planning advocate) Carmi. She’s very good, she’s young and energetic and she’s very open-minded– it’s basically urban planning for a rural town.

13. Inject professionalism. Being educated in the western world, and having that kind of experience working in western setting, I worked for Chanel for two years, there everything is important: being on time, answering your e-mails, having everything documented, everything is fair, there is no gender inequality. When I became mayor, you know meetings with my barangay captains, come at 8 o’clock, an official meeting, and everybody would come in at 10 a.m., sometimes even later than 10. And I’m like, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time, nor should you waste mine. So when we call for a meeting at 8 or 9 o’clock, be there 10 minutes before. If not I lock the door. And they all call me Mayor Terror. Now they’re all on time.

14. You can ban cockfighting. You’ve also banned cock-fighting? I didn’t exactly ban it completely, I’m just not for cock-fighting. When I travel on the road on a Sunday, and I say where’s everyone, all the men are in the arena, and they’re all drunk. And although it’s a traditional pastime, in a town where most of the residents are poor and struggling, I don’t see the point, to be dealing with cockfighting– activities that don’t make them productive the next day. And so it’s not something I encourage. It’s not something, okay, Mayor Pie sponsored cockfighting this weekend. No, they’ll never get that. I prioritize projects that have a long-term impact versus short-term gains.

15. Filipinos are very sensitive. Being a leader in a very high position, I have to be very careful in what I do, because if I allocate support or funds and then I don’t include others, people become very skeptical and they get very negative about it. “Mayor excluded us.” “Nagtatampo (they feel hurt).” That’s very difficult because I wanna help everyone. And you know in economics nothing in life are free. So its not like you can it’s very difficult to help everyone at one given time.

16. Filipinos are hard-working. In my town where there’s so many poor families all the mothers and the women that are unemployed go to me and say “Mayor, gusto po namin ng trabaho.” (Mayor, we want to work.) That to me shows a lot about their character. Filipinos are gonna work as long as the jobs are there. I don’t think we’re tamad (lazy) culture at all, it’s just a lack of opportunities, jobs, and the industry to support it. That’s one thng I learned about the Filipinos, you give them a job, they’ll really work. And for me that says a lot about our future, about our promise, and its a really good thing.

17. It’s possible not to be corrupt. I think that the new kind of government has to be more transparent and they have to be more affirmative when you have moments when corruption can take place its very easy for you to do a project and allocate a certain percentage to say a “buffer” and that buffer would probably go to the pockets of several people, but I don’t know why you’d have to do it. You’re not in this job to steal, you’re in this job to serve. So when people say you know the goverment is corrupt, it’s a choice by these leaders. Again it goes back to the drawing board, you must pick or vote for the good leaders who won’t choose to be corrupt. I don’t steal because I know it’s not right. I don’t steal because it’s not what my job is. And I don’t steal because you shouldn’t, it’s a normal human know-how that you shouldn’t take something from your neighbor.

18. Corruption is subtle. It’s not like a handout over the table, it’s definitely more subtle than that and it’s very ingrained in the system. I’ve heard these stories from other officials who are also young, actually a congresswoman who was looking at a project, and they said there’s this buffer for this amount and she said why and the whole office said, oh it’s always been that way. For some people who are having a hard time to confront corruption its because it’s really in the system. If someone comes up to me and says, hey, do you wanna do mining in San Vicent,e and I’d say no, and what about mining now, and they’d slip me a check or something, that’s not going to happen. That’s not my job and my responsibility is to protect the town. To protect the town that means I don’t steal and be corrrupt and that’s what I’m gonna do.

19. Power corrupts. When power is given to you, you don’t get it — it’s given to you by the people. You have to be responsible with power because power can go good or bad. Being a leader requires so much more sensitivity and endurance when it comes to something that is so great, which is power. Having that ability to command, to lead, to execute, on a very big level, it’s huge, it really gets in your head. When I’m all by myself and I have certain reflections where I’m like, I could be doing all of these, I could be power tripping. At the end of the day, it comes to who you are at your core. Who you really are as a person. If you’re a good person and you’re God-fearing, then it shouldn’t be a problem.

20. Understand your past. Q: Your father was involved heavily decades ago in logging in Palawan. He had an unsuccessful bid for governor, he’s still heavily involved in politics there, doesn’t he represent the old guard, the old politics that you’re railing against? That’s very true, my dad was a logger, in San Vicente actually, his concession was there, and the reason I chose to run in San Vicente is because we had employed so many families when he was logging there. So the connection and relationship with these residents were very strong already even before, that’s why I felt I really needed to do something about it to help the families na napag-iwanan (that were left behind.) The reason why his logging concession was put to a stop was so that the strategic environmental plan in Palawan would be implemented. That plan to protect Palawan would not have been implemented unless all loggers stopped their concession. My dad was one of them actually.

Big misconception with logging is that it’s bad. If I look around the world today so many of our products are wood. It would be wrong for me to say that we don’t need the lumber, we don’t need the timber. I don’t believe in completely exploiting our natural resources. My dad was a sustainable logger. And if you visit San Vicente now and we take you on a aerial tour, among the 23 municipalities in the entire Palawan, San Vicente is the most lush area you will see. Full of trees. The only areas bald spots right now, and very few, are kaingin, that’s when the locals slash and burn part of the forest to plant because they don’t know any better.

There are loggers that give a negative message or impact, and there are very few who actually do it right. My dad would only log out of a hectare, less than 10 trees, and then he wouldn’t log anymore and he would go on to another part of the forest. I think it’s important for us to understand also that not everything we think is bad is truly bad. Again we said it a while ago, government is corrupt, it’s very negative, but then look at me I’m not yet corrupt and hopefully will not be.

21. We need young blood in politics. I encourage more people to be involved in public service under their 30s. We need more young blood. The older generation are there, they have the wisdom, experience, probably the know-how, they’re also less optimistic, and they’re less naive and gullible. Which is something we have going for us. I still believe that it can still happen. I’m not gonna say, oh, you know, that’s just how it is. I’m not gonna leave it at that, no. I know it’s gonna change and it’s going to be for the better. I’m going to make sure that I’m here to make sure that it happens. – Rappler.com

(These are excerpts from Rappler’s interview with San Vicente Mayor Pie Alvarez on Breaking Glass. Alvarez is a daughter of businessman and former logger Pepito Alvarez.)