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National Customers' Choice Annual Awards 2014 for Business Excellence and Outstanding Professionals
04 December 2014

Excellence and Meritocracy

            (Appropriate greetings)

            I would like to begin by saying that I am truly honored for the invitation the organizers of this event had extended to me. I know that as accomplished entrepreneurs and professionals that you all are, you have probably heard of all the possible inspirational nuggets from experts and captains of giant businesses and industries. And since I am not really a businessman in the traditional sense of the word, let me just share something distinct and personal with you all – and that is, my business as a public servant, more specifically as a military officer and later as a state ambassador.


The right foundation: The road to personal development


When I was a young boy, I was my father’s hands-on assistant in his DIY (do-it-yourself) carpentry work at home. And one of the vital principles I learned was that I should never compromise the quality of the structure’s pillars. A pillar is a firm, upright and integral support for a superstructure. It provides for or strengthens the foundation in which the structure stands.

I was fortunate to be raised by parents who, as public school teachers, taught me early on life the value of excellence in all my pursuits. They instilled in me that merit should be my key determinant in assessing the worth of an individual. These two values – excellence and meritocracy – have been the foundation in which I built my career upon.

I grew up in a humble environment without any prominent personalities, friends and relatives to back me up early in my journey in life. So I had to work my way up through sheer hard work, sacrifice and innate talents. Admittedly, it was difficult to navigate in a setting where patronage and partiality were the norm. But, that made a tremendous influence in me as I matured and occupied accountable positions later on in my career.

Meritocracy gives equal chance and opportunity for anybody to rise based on his competence and ability. Such objective criteria encourage improvement not only in the individual, but also in the organization as a whole. It was, therefore, a blessing in disguise that I was born not with a "silver spoon" or endowed with influential "backers" to lead me to easier path.


The higher ground: The path to position of influence


            Meritocracy has also allowed me to stand on higher ground as I make key decisions at work that ultimately affected my personal life and the lives of those who I am accountable for. Since I am my own person, no one can influence or pressure me to do or decide on things that do not agree with what I believe in.


            The fact that I was able to enter PMA and become a military officer purely on merit made a permanent imprint on my leadership philosophy. Throughout my military career, I made it known to everyone that there is no room for palakasan or influence peddling in my system. In all my dealings, I have been consistently firm - firm in my dedication to excellence, even if it makes me temporarily unpopular. When it comes to promotions and appointments, it didn’t matter if you are my relative or kababayan or my mistah. I put utmost premium on merit as a determining factor in the evaluation of people in the organization.  


While I was not an outstanding student in PMA, I strived hard and gradually learned my lessons as I progressed in my career as an officer. I needed to improve and excel in all my undertakings, be they schooling, office assignments, and field duties to make a distinct mark in my career. So I worked hard to be able to deliver what was expected of me. And, modesty aside, I managed to top my career trainings, both in academics, physical and extra-curricular activities. I likewise accepted all types of assignments in any conflict area and worked even harder without regard for reward or anything in return.


            Yet, it was actually more challenging when I held positions of high command such as the Commanding General of the Philippine Army and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The saying, “it is lonely at the top” is true. At no time does a leader feel lonelier than when having to make a critical, high-level decision dealing with life and death, success or failure, victory or defeat. Generals are very much humans and are subject to the strains and stresses of the mind just like any other else. But their mistakes are counted in deaths and destruction; a responsibility that no sane person takes lightly.

It didn’t help that subordinates sometimes criticize you. Some may even become impatient when they receive a late or an unclear decision. At times, your competent and very professional staff have opposing views and you cannot just take them lightly. I never realized the feeling of isolation until I came to those times that I have to make momentous decisions, with full knowledge that failure or success rests on my judgment alone. Adding up to the pressure is the fact that you have to explain to the very people that you serve – the Filipino public – your significant decisions, which are oftentimes, misinterpreted by the "all-knowing media."


            But I later learned that, ultimately, your integrity and credibility are your best defense. Again, if you know where you stand on issues, pressures from other people would not break or even bend what you know is right. Although you take suggestions and inputs from others, at the end of the day, it is your responsibility and accountability as a leader to decide.

            The crisis in our leadership nowadays is that people act based on their convenience. As leaders of men and women – actual people – who rely so much on us, we could never afford to just flow with the current. You will never gain the respect and trust of people if you do that – how much more, to expect them to put their lives on the line for you.


Beyond business: The route to real excellence


This is why while I was very particular with excellence and meritocracy as hallmarks of individuals in the organization, I stress the need for fairness and justice, as well. As one strives for excellence and moves up the ladder of the organization, he should never wrongfully step on others' toes. Success should not be achieved at the expense of others.


This, I believe, is one of the essence of real excellence: excellent people do not dishonour other people – regardless of who the person is. They do not prosper onto life at the expense of other people’s sufferings. Instead, they go with them. They even serve them. They do not consider themselves better than anyone else.


When I evaluated the AFP Officers Promotion System, I reinforced the culture of meritocracy. Thus, I instituted the inclusion of Physical Fitness Test as a requirement for promotion to ensure that soldiers are always ready to answer the call of duty. And because I wouldn’t initiate a policy that I cannot perform myself, I also went through the physical fitness test. I myself was not exempted from my own policy.


If we want real excellence, we want leaders who ‘walk the talk.’ We’ve had enough of leaders who have hopeful but empty words. We need leaders who lead by example. Because really, leadership starts with oneself.


I remember when I was commander in Abra, I had to deal with personnel who frequently got drunk and homesick. The mountainous area was very remote and unforgiving, which affected the discipline and the morale of the soldiers assigned there. Most of them grew their hair up to their shoulders and even wore earrings.


            To address this, I made the effort to visit the troops on foot to show them I shared in their sacrifices. I had to walk 12-14 hours from one detachment to the next. At times, I would leave in the early evening to pleasantly surprise the soldiers at dawn. The soldiers knew I exerted that much physical effort and risked being ambushed by the NPA. I would eat the same provisions they had: usually rice with sardines, pork and beans, or corned beef. I made sure I spent one night in each area to bond with the detachment, to attend to their concerns, and to remind them what it meant to be soldiers of the Republic. It had a positive impact on them. They shaped up soon after that visit.


            Even during my busiest stint as the Chief of Staff of the AFP, I would still make time to visit the troops. Nothing beats a command presence especially in the battlefield. Seeing that the commander continues to stand firm and believe in the mission, regardless of, is enough to boost the morale of your men.


            At the end of the day, we are human beings. More than the achievements and accomplishments, you would wish to be remembered as someone who has made a positive impact in the lives of others. You would want to be regarded as someone whose humble ways – amidst difficulties and tremendous pressure – remain committed to doing the best he or she can for a task greater than his or her self.


Concluding remarks


I know that this may sound utopian to most of you. Maybe it was sheer luck for someone like me – an unknown boy from Mindanao to rise up from the ranks and be given the chance to serve in significant positions in our country. And I will not be playing naïve by saying to you that all things went well when I remained true to my values.


Because a lot of things had and will continue to shock, disappoint and frustrate me. I thought that by working in the military, I would see them all. But this also happens in a civilian setting. I guess it happens more in a place where human can just freely be themselves. But I believed in the best of things anyway. I believed in the system of meritocracy anyway. I worked hard anyway. I remained true to the values of love for God, love for others and love for country anyway – even at the expense of my own life.


And now, I stand here saying that it was all worth it. This is the only way I know we can challenge the existing system of self-centered excellence: by pursuing what is just and fair. Gone are the days when it is still ‘business as usual.’ It is high time that we realize that it is only when we do things with the highest professional and ethical standards, can we only establish a stronger social order that will open doors for development. In a generation where self-interests are usually the driving force for achievement, to celebrate excellence without a sense of justice is plain self-glorification. Tonight, as we recognize individuals and organizations that made a distinction in their respective fields, we likewise remind ourselves that we seek to be the best that we can be not only for ourselves but for the good of others, the organization that we are in and the society and country in general.


Maraming salamat at magandang gabi po sa inyong lahat.

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