A great leadership lesson

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    ‘There’s so much I picked up from RLC during all those years that I had the privilege to interact with him, as a staffer and later on as a friend, but if one stood out from all our interactions it would be that moment in time when he reminded me that my job was to tell him what I thought he needed to hear, especially if it was not pleasant news.’

    I THINK I’ve said it a couple of times in this space, but for one who had a hard time getting over the hurdles called Math 11, 14, 100 and 101 in Diliman, I’ve had a blessed career path. And the career path that opened up to me was partly due to some talent I had (have?), partly due to my good looks, and (because this is the Philippines) partly due to people I knew who helped open doors for me.

    Along the way I’ve picked up so many invaluable lessons. Lucky me.

    One of the very first such doors was opened for me by Atty. Napoleon J. Poblador, who comes from a distinguished line of professionals, mainly from the legal and medical field.

    “Pol,” as we called him, was an outstanding UP Law student who became editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian. I was a member of his Collegian staff, thanks to the endorsement of his sister Nancy, my high school classmate, also a member of the staff, and now an anesthesiologist and wife and mother of two based in Tennessee.

    After graduating from the UP College of Law as part of the Class of 1983, perhaps one of the most distinguished (and controversial?) classes ever, Pol joined the Ponce Enrile, Cayetano, Bautista, Reyes and Manalastas Law Office, more popularly known then as PECABAR. There, aside from legal work, he started handling the speech writing requirements of Assemblyman Renato L. Cayetano (or RLC, as we called him) who represented the district of Muntinlupa, Taguig and Pateros. But you can imagine how much billable hours are lost when someone like Pol has to focus on speechwriting instead of legal drafting. So one day, out of the blue, I got a call from him: would I be interested to take over the task of writing speeches for his boss? This was in 1984. I was 22 years old.

    I ended up working for RLC from 1984 to 1987, when he lost during the first post-EDSA elections for the House of Representatives. In between, there were the interesting days of visiting the EPZA Zones in Bataan and Mactan (RLC was also deputy minister for Trade and Industry under Bobby Ongpin); the exciting days of meeting in the Enrile residence during the Cory years, and of course, before that, the tumultuous five days that made up the EDSA People Power revolution. It was during EDSA, when RLC was holed up with Enrile and the RAM Boys in the DND office in Camp Aguinaldo, that I first met the very young Cayetano children who came to the camp gate in the hope of being allowed in to see their father. No one knew at that time whether Enrile, RLC and the rest of the group would ever leave the DND offices alive.

    But this piece is about a specific moment of time which is forever marked in my mind, a time when a leadership lesson was imprinted on my consciousness. The year was 1987, and the Constitution has just been ratified, and the country was now in the midst of a national campaign for the first Senate and House of Representatives under the new dispensation.

    RLC was running for his district, now shrunk to Taguig and Pateros, against Atty. Dante Tinga. Tinga had the endorsement of Cory and was riding on the post-EDSA euphoria and the clamor for change. I remember how barangay captains of Taguig and Pateros would visit RLC in his second floor conference room at Vernida IV to appraise him of the status of the race. I would listen in; the comments were usually something like “lamang tayo dito Assemblyman” or “mahigpit Ang laban, Assemblyman” but it all boiled down to the request of the kapitans for more spending.

    It was at that point that a thought struck me: maybe I and some of my UP Law friends could walk around Taguig and Pateros and do an unscientific survey to see whether things were as good as we were being told. So I gathered a few of them (now accomplished Attorneys Ven Canta, Ariel Magno, Jaime Fortes and Rowel Barba) and we did our unscientific survey walking the streets of Taguig and Pateros. When we were done, I gathered the results and then went to see my boss.

    I remember sitting in front of his desk and telling him that based on our unscientific survey, he was coming in second in most areas, sometimes a far second to Tinga. I showed him our tally sheets. (I even remember there was a third candidate on the ballot, a brother Muslim, who was not doing poorly in some areas). And after telling him the “bad” news, I apologized. That’s when he said something I have never forgotten.

    “You have to tell me what you think I need to hear even if it’s not good news and especially if so,” he said. “Whether I agree or not is my problem. But you won’t be doing your job if you don’t tell me.” And then there was silence. I took that as my cue. I stood up and went out the door, leaving him to his thoughts as he looked over our unscientific tallies.

    I can imagine how many in my shoes would tremble at the thought of having to be carriers of bad news to the boss. But, as was in my case, when the boss has a mature outlook, the task is thankfully made a little easier.

    Our unscientific survey was on the money. Dante Tinga (who years later was elevated to the Supreme Court by GMA) defeated RLC to become the first representative of the Taguig-Pateros legislative district in the new Congress of the Philippines.

    But RLC would make a comeback. After Fidel Ramos won the presidency, he chose RLC to be his presidential legal counsel. A popular legal advisory talk show was great exposure for RLC, and this helped propel him to the Senate as the second highest vote-getter in 1998.

    And there he served till his death in June 2003 at the age of 68.

    There’s so much I picked up from RLC during all those years that I had the privilege to interact with him, as a staffer and later on as a friend, but if one stood out from all our interactions it would be that moment in time when he reminded me that my job was to tell him what I thought he needed to hear, especially if it was not pleasant news.

    A great leadership lesson that is timeless, if you ask me.