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Motivation, Character, Wellbeing:  A Roadmap for Troubled Times

Keynote Address for the Council of Management Educators and Practcioners in the Philippines
Ateneo de Naga University
7 May 2021

To President Dr. Agapito Rubio and the other distinguished officers of the Council of Management Educators and Practitioners in the Philippines,  to all the heads of schools, administrators, faculty, and students  a blessed day to all and welcome to this COMEPP NCR/Luzon online virtual conference.  We wish you  from here in Naga a blessed day, marhay na aldaw asin maogmang pag-abot po sa saindo gabos, a warm welcome even if only virtually, here in Ateneo de Naga University.  We are truly pleased and honored for  this opportunity to host this online conference.

I have been asked to speak on the theme “Motivation, Character, and Wellbeing:  Keys to Seeking the Thrill for Victory During Difficult Times of Pandemic.”  However, I would like to be honest with you and say that when I first read this theme, there was something I found off about it, and it took me weeks since I first received the theme from President Pepe Rubio that I finally pinpointed  what I found discordant.  It is about the idea of seeking the thrill of victory.  Not that we do not desire victory.  In fact victory over the pandemic, victory over this terrible, protracted crisis is something we all are dreaming about.  But there seems to be a missing, intervening step, something we have to go through before we can finally attain victory.  And that intervening, missing step is meaning.  

And so with your indulgence, I would like to rephrase our conference theme, at least in the way I will reflect on the theme this morning, as follows:  “Motivation, Character, and Wellbeing:  Keys to Seeking Meaning During Difficult Times of Pandemic.”  I would like to reflect on this theme, and the focal idea of meaning, again with your indulgence, from the lens of my own personal background as a manager, and educator, and a priest, and how all these converge in our mission here in Ateneo de Naga University.  I will follow the flow of our theme of motivation, character, and well-being stated in our theme.

First, motivation.  What should motivate us during this time of the pandemic?  What should motivate us is the truth.  The truth about the grim reality of the pandemic, but also the truth that this pandemic will not last forever, it will end someday.  If we are motivated by the truth, then our work becomes meaningful, no matter how difficult it is.  And the more I reflect on this truth, the more I realize it is the foundation of sound management practice.

I am somewhat awed by this assembly of very experienced and qualified managers.  However, I do have a background in management, having majored in Legal Management in the Ateneo de Manila back in the 80’s.  I thought I was planning for a career in corporate law, until the priesthood and the Jesuits caught up with me.  But surprisingly, one of the key insights I go back to with regard to the truth is from one of the texts we were studying in corporate policy under Fr. Luis Candelaria.  Now this was in the 80’s, and many of the “in” books at that time were the words of Peter Drucker, titles such as In Search of Excellence, and biographies such as that of Chrysler’s Lee Iaccoca.  

But the text I keep recalling in relation to the need to be founded and motivated by truth during this pandemic is the very short book One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard.  Many of you are familiar with this and the three simple rules it gives.  The first is make one minute plans.  The second is give one minute praisings.  And third, when needed, give one minute reprimands.  The book has been sold in the millions and translated in so many languages, and is seen by many as a seminal influence in effective management, and would also inspire the discipline of situational leadership.  And why does it strike such a resonant cord, I believe it is based on the truth.  It is based on the truth that perhaps, especially in times of crisis, we can only make short term or one minute plans, often just to survive.  It is based on the truth that even in the most difficult of circumstances, there are small victories to be celebrated and praised.  It is based on the truth that when we see something wrong, we immediately have to correct it lest we fall deeper into trouble during what is already a terrible crisis.

This reliance, this motivation of truth is something we have had to wrestle with during the pandemic.  Because of the prolonged Luzon lockdown, like many other schools, we struggled with collections as many went unemployed.  The problem got further exacerbated with the three typhoons that hit us late last year.  We looked at the truth of our financial bottom line and said in order to save the ship of our school, we have to make it lighter.  In grim terms that meant having to reduce work hours for personnel, and put others on furlough or forced leave.  To navigate this difficult stretch, we could only rely on the truth.  It meant being transparent to the whole community early on in the crisis that we cannot go about business as usual, that we have to adopt the one minute plan of making a leaner organization.  It meant that when we finally reduced personnel, we did not abandon those affected.  We offered one minute praisings in the form of small but sustained help through a solidarity fund we established for them.  It also meant reprimanding those among our employees who waste resources in this time of need.

The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.  We certainly experienced  it here in the Ateneo, but I believe it has also made operational viability and survival possible, and our work, meaningful.  

Second, character.  What should mark our character during this time of the pandemic?  The defining mark of our character during crisis is sacrifice.  That entails all the character traits that make sacrifice possible:  courage, fortitude, resilience.  If we are ready to sacrifice, then we are steeled to go through this pandemic meaningfully, for the long haul.  And the more I reflect on the need to program sacrifice in our work, the more I realize it is also another elemental foundation of sound management practice.

Although my undergraduate degree is in management, as a Jesuit priest I eventually did my graduate studies in the field of Sociology.  For many years before coming here to Bicol, I taught at the Socio-Anthro department of the Ateneo de Naga.  One of the texts I assign to our students is from a sociologically inspired author familiar to many of you.  Maurice Gladwell, and his classic work The Tipping Point.  Gladwell’s thesis is the idea that there certain factors that lead situations to go to the tipping point, the threshold between failure and success.  One of these factors it what he calls the “10,000 hour rule.”  For Gladwell, the key to success is nothing else but sacrifice.  He successful people and claims that all of them went through 10,000 hours of meaningful training and experience in order to be good at what they were doing.  Bill Gates had to go through long hours of tinkering with computers and software, even dropping out of Harvard to do it.  Concert pianists go through endless hours of practice.  The Beatles had to go through many years of playing in small clubs in England and Germany before becoming the most successful rock band in history.  10,000 hours, for Gladwell, is the magic number of success.  And it is rooted in sacrifice.

Last year as the pandemic wore on, there was a call from militant students in many of our schools that there should be an academic freeze, a halt to all classes and mass promotion until such time that the pandemic would ease.  My immediate answer to this call was no, even as we were still struggling to transition to online education, we had to slog through the difficulties because it is not only the key to continuing education during the pandemic, it is also the future of education in the post-pandemic period.  In my replies to the students’ statements, I had to tell them that this was the sacrifice their generation was being called to make, to continue studying despite the difficulties of lockdown.  And as you can imagine, it was not a popular reply among the students.  At some point many of the student, and even a number of our faculty, were calling for my resignation.  Hashtag #oustRivera was trending in our Ateneo de Naga social media sites. But now, one year after the onset of the pandemic, and with no end to the crisis in sight, I would like to believe many of these same students are grateful for what we have done.  And steeped in sacrifice, I can only wish that our students find meaning and hope in the sacrifice they bear.

I can never forget the words of my dissertation adviser when I went I arrived at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana for my doctoral studies.  He told me: “Welcome to South Bend, were our spring are gorgeous, where summer is lovely, where autumn is beautiful, and where winter helps build character.”  We can only hope this pandemic builds character, rooted in sacrifice, in all of us if we are to triumph over it.

Third and finally, wellbeing.  How do we endure wellbeing during this time of the pandemic?  All through this pandemic we have heard of wellbeing defined along the lines of self-care, whether of our physical or psychological health.  All these are important and indispensable.  But for me the key to institutional wellbeing is a sense of purpose, a sense of mission.  If our purpose and mission is clear, then we can remain steadfast and single minded, whatever the pandemic brings us.  Again, I believe this is essential to sound management practice.

Despite my training in management and sociology, I am first and foremost a priest.  And in theology one of the most important ideas is summarized in Greek word eskaton, or in the subject of eschatology, the end times.  In faith, as Christians, we believe that we live not for the present, but for the end which is beyond this world.  To phrase this in a more familiar way, we all have heard of Dr. Stephen Covey and his 7 habits of highly effective people.  The most important habit is “begin with the end in mind.”  For Covey this is so important he would even say, make your own personal mission statement to guide you each day.

During these times of the pandemic, many of our long term corporate plans have become invalid and negated.  In fact some would say that in this VUCA world:  volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous—long term planning is almost impossible, that short term, two to three year plans may be more practical.  But the planning literature is also clear, that even when making short term or transitional plans in a rapidly changing world, one should focus on what does not change, what is stable or immutable in our work.  And often these immutables are summarized in our mission statements.

Here in Ateneo de Naga we made it a point to undergo, despite the trials and demands of the pandemic, an institutional retreat.  Our University is a Jesuit institution, and so it is guided by four unshakeable “apostolic preferences” that we try to imbibe.  First, the Ateneo must show the way to God for all in its community.  Second, we must journey with the youth.  Third, we must accompany the poor.  Fourth, we must care for our common home, the earth, the environment.  All these are unchanging aspects of our mission, no matter what happens to Ateneo de Naga in this pandemic.

We recall the words of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”  Our mission giving meaning to our everyday lives is the way out of this pandemic. 

Let me end not with an example from management, but from psychology.  The psychologist Viktor Frankl is the father of logotherapy, the idea that a focus on meaning makes for a balanced life.  Many of his experiences derive from his experience as a Holocaust survivor.  Imprisoned in Auschwitz.  Like so many other couples, he had been separated from his wife, and he was not even sure if she was still alive (in fact, she had already died in another concentration camp).  In the depths of his discouragement, a consoling realization came upon Frankl, lifting him out of despair.  He writes:

“I did not know whether my wife was still alive, and I had no means of finding out . . . but at that moment it ceased to matter.  There was no need for me to know;  nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved.  Had I known then that my wife was dead, I think that I would still  have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image . . . ‘Set me like a seal upon [your] heart, love is as strong as death.’”

Motivation, character, well-being.  Truth, sacrifice, purpose.  Viktor Frankl found it in his life in the most terrible of times.  I pray we will do so as well.  Thank you for your attention.  Good morning.