The Reluctant Leader (Part 1)

Seven years ago, I joined a series of leadership seminars and a two-month life-coaching program that had a profound impact in my life. During one of the sessions, I was assessed as a reluctant leader — as someone who had the skills but not the willingness to bear the obligations.

I recalled a previous activity when the seminar facilitator had for a volunteer. I wanted to raise my hand, but I hesitated for a moment. When I saw out of the corner of my eye that someone else had raised his hand, I shot up my hand next, knowing full well that other person would be called first — but I had hoped to get noticed as someone who volunteered as well.

I then reflected that this was mostly how I had lived my life. I was never a leader in school — never been class president, vice-president, secretary or treasurer — not even prince charming. I just didn’t find those things appealing and was even slightly puzzled why some of my classmates campaigned actively for student council positions, or wanted desperately to be the leader of this or that organization.

I shied away from the spotlight of leadership, wanting more to be behind-the-scenes as the think-tank and the avid supporter, but I did not want to bear the responsibility and blame in case things went awry. I knew that ultimately it would be the leader, not me, who would bear the brunt of criticism.

So when I heard that assessment, it stung, but I knew it was true.

After that, there was another session with another opportunity for leadership, but this time the stakes were higher as the leadership role was not only for one activity but for the entire team of 88 people, for the next 60 days or so. The hesitation was palpable as this was a huge responsibility, and it would be on top of whatever else one was juggling at the moment — work, family, business, and so on.

A couple of people voiced out what the leader should be and what he or she should do, and how much time would be required, and so on — which I sensed was their way of indirectly saying why they can’t be the leader even if they wanted to — and it was at this moment when I realized I had the chance to redeem myself. I had my own struggles with time and finances just like most of everyone in that group — this was in Manila and my wife and I were running a fledgling business that only had two or three employees at a time so we were doing most of the work. Plus I had three small children and that also demanded a lot of my time as a father.

But I did not want be called a reluctant leader again — to know that I had been given another opportunity to step up but did not — so against all of my fears, and against all of my common sense, I volunteered. I said, “I’ll do it. I’ll be the team leader.”

I would soon find out, that I had no clue what I just got myself into.

At the start of that program, each of us participants had written down three specific goals that we would achieve by the end of 60 days. We were divided into small groups with trained life coaches to work with us to make sure our goals were not too easy nor too difficult. It was my burden as the leader to ensure that my team finished the program with 100% completion in all goals.

There were several important leadership lessons I learned and I will share most of them in next week’s article since I am out of space for this one.

I will, however, share the first lesson today, and that is that leadership opportunities are not rare occurrences. They pop up every now and then. There is always an opportunity to lead, to step up, to try something you’ve never done before, to take responsibility. The question is, are you willing to take the plunge?

Sometimes, all that is needed is for you to swallow your apprehensions and say, “Yes, I’ll do it.”


* The seminars mentioned are still being offered by OCCI Global. The program trilogy consists of 3 courses – FLEX, ALC and LEAP. You can read more at This is not a paid endorsement.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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There Is No Christianity

When I was a Christian, one of the things that bothered me immensely was figuring out what the “Christian response” would be to things happening around me and in society. For example, what is the Christian response to premarital sex, or capital punishment, or the political circus going on in the country?

There would always be different points of view coming from different Christian leaders even if they are all quoting from the same Bible. Sometimes, they would differ in minor points while other times there would be irreconcilable contradictions. Boxing legend and Philippine senator Manny Pacquiao recently tried to prove the rightfulness of the death penalty by using Biblical references.

The only thing he proved was that he should have stayed in the boxing ring instead of muddling things in the political arena.

But I digress.

The point is that it was very difficult to get a Christian response to anything that all Christians would be in agreement about. There would always be someone or some group somewhere with a dissenting opinion. Even when I got out of Christianity and got into arguments and discussions with Christians, I often found out that I had to explain what “flavor” of Christianity I grew up with, and why I believed in certain things. Other Christians grew up believing other things, I found out, and so my arguments with them didn’t quite hit the mark, because they didn’t believe the things I supposed they would believe in.

I read a couple of articles discussing this very phenomenon — the first is by anthropologist Dr. David Eller, who argues that Christianity is not just a religion, not just a set of arguments and beliefs, but an entire culture. It is a “worldview, a way of life, and a learned and shared and produced and reproduced regimen of experience.”

Eller asserts that “Christians are not easily argued out of their religion because, since it is culture, they are not ordinarily argued into it in the first place.”

He also says that there is “no such thing as Christian culture but rather Christian cultures; indeed no such thing as Christianity but rather Christianities.”

Neil Carter, author of the Godless in Dixie blog, seems to agree with this as he writes “There isn’t one single, monolithic thing called ‘Christianity.’  That’s an abstraction, and history bears witness to the fragmentation and differentiation of a thousand different subcultures over the centuries laying claim to that label, each one arguing that a number of the others aren’t even legitimate, and shouldn’t use that label to describe themselves at all…Christians have never spoken with one voice about social issues like slavery, racism, or any number of other complex political problems.”

The plethora of Christianities make it almost impossible to say what Christianity is really all about. In my four decades, I have had conversations with different types of Christians with dissenting opinions on almost any topic you can think of. I have met Christians who believe in reincarnation — there was this one woman vehemently claiming that the original Christians taught it but were suppressed. I have met Christians who believe in a literal heaven and hell (as described in the Bible), while others think those are merely symbolic or metaphorical places. There are even Christians who don’t believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus but rather say that it is (again) symbolic.

And don’t get me started on their other views — political, social, cultural — as the differences become more and more divergent.

So the next time you hear a Christian say, “Oh that’s not really what Christians believe” or “That’s not really what that verse means,” remember that whatever that person says isn’t necessarily what Christians really believe or interpret that bible verse to be. The possibilities are as numerous as the Christianities that spawned them, and most of them claim to be the one, true Christianity, but we won’t be able to tell anyway unless the heavens suddenly open and a divine finger points us to the right path.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Art and Soul

Three pieces from Victor Secuya’s Music Festival series

Shortly after entering the village, the concrete path ended and we were faced with a dirt road. A wooden sign read “Sanctuario” with an arrow pointing ahead. I checked my cellphone and re-read the directions to the place and thought, “Yep, this is it.”

A few meters after I was faced with a fork in the road. The one on the left looked dubious so I decided to stick to what I thought was the main road and turned right. And then I saw the gate with another “Sanctuario” sign beside it.

Since there didn’t seem to be anyone nearby, I took out my phone and made a call. “Vic, we’re here.”

That was the day I responded to an invitation from Davao-based artist, Victor “Vic” Secuya, who graciously welcomed my wife and I to his home in Maa. It was indeed a sanctuary in the middle of the city with huge grounds surrounded by tall trees. Vic would later inform us that it was also open for bookings for groups or individuals on retreats or trainings or other types of meetings.

Vic led us to a small building and showed us his latest works for his upcoming exhibit (now on show in SM Lanang until March 19 only). We then moved to a three-storey building where he lived on the top floor. He rented out the bottom rooms, he explained.

Although we had been Facebook “friends” for a while, this would be my first real interaction with him. The only other time I had an encounter with him was very briefly at an art exhibit where he recognized me from my photo in Sunstar and we shook hands. He had posted a short video featuring the paintings of Mark Rothko — to my untrained eyes, it looked very simple — a red rectangle on a black background. Orange rectangle on green background, and so on. I remarked that I couldn’t understand or appreciate works like these and that’s when Vic invited me for a chat.

What I thought would be just a short visit — probably an hour at most, I told my wife — turned out to be an entire afternoon’s worth of conversation over coffee, maruya, and Chedeng’s peanuts. Oh and we didn’t just talk about art although Vic gave us a short lecture on Rothko (who eventually ended up taking his own life) that me appreciate the works a bit better but not by that much. I think I need more lectures, coffee and peanuts.

We also spent a few minutes discussing current events and politics. Vic’s politics were clearly emblazoned on his black shirt with the word “Duterte” printed on it. We also talked about Toastmasters, an organization both of us are part of, though we belong to different clubs.

But much to my surprise, the better part of the afternoon was spent discussing business and marketing, which I found an unusual topic to be discussing with an artist. Vic shared that a few years ago, he had been hired as a consultant by one of Davao’s prominent hardware retailers. This firsthand encounter with a seasoned businessman challenged him to read a lot of books on business and marketing, and given his background in sociology, he found the aspect of human behavior in business very interesting.

We swapped stories of business encounters, pitfalls and learnings, and found that we shared many common principles and realizations about what works and doesn’t work in business — that it’s always good to have open communication, standardized systems, and investment in IT and information analysis. We talked about this until it got dark and he had to go pick up his wife and we had to go somewhere too.

It was definitely not a typical afternoon one would expect when spent with an artist. But then again, Vic is not your typical artist either.


If you haven’t seen it yet, visit Vic Secuya’s 24th One Man Show at SM Lanang, Davao City, which will run until March 19 2017.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Why I Changed My Mind on the Death Penalty

Photo Credit: datahelg Flickr via Compfight cc

Up until a couple of years ago, I was for the death penalty, not because I had carefully studied the issue, but just because of some primal urge to see “justice” being done. I guess it is difficult to uproot my childhood programming of the biblical “an eye for an eye” sort of justice. Logically, I understood the anti-death penalty arguments but it was all in my head. It was more emotionally satisfying to think that a ruthless murderer or a serial rapist would finally “get what they deserved” and no longer walk the earth.

A second, more practical reason (at least to pro-death penalty advocates), is that putting the person to death saves the government and us taxpayers some money, versus keeping them alive and having to spend for their food and other basic needs.

A third reason for the death penalty is that it acts as a deterrent or a preventive measure, which means that a person about to commit a heinous act will be more likely to refrain from doing it because the penalty would be death instead of just imprisonment.

In a round-table discussion led by my friend, Keith Smith, a retired American educator living in Digos City, we explored these issues. Keith was the former Director of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at the State University of NY (SUNY) college of Arts and Sciences. He also had a part-time assignment at a maximum security prison called the New York State Correctional Facility at Dannemora (also called the “Clinton Correctional Facility” or simply “Clinton”). He taught pre-college math and science to hardened criminals convicted of some very serious crimes. It was an interesting discussion as his actual experience and contact with them provided some valuable insight on the topic.

The first issue we addressed was death penalty as a deterrent to crime. The answer to this, which is backed by many studies, is no. For the sake of brevity, I am not going to quote these studies as they are too numerous. Just google “death penalty studies” and you can read all the studies to your heart’s content.

The criminal mind is not so much concerned about “What punishment am I going to receive?” as it is about “Am I going to get caught?” If the criminal thinks he or she can get away with the crime, the actual punishment does not really matter. The real deterrent then, would be stronger police presence, faster response times to crime, and more criminals being caught than getting away.

The next issue of costs came and I was surprised to find out that contrary to the common notion that it would be much cheaper for the state to just kill the criminal than to keep him imprisoned for life, actual data from numerous sources actually show that it is more expensive for the state (around twice to four times as much) to try death penalty cases than life imprisonment cases.

One study in Indiana found that the average cost of a death-penalty case was around $789,000 versus a life-imprisonment case without parole which cost around $185,000. Since death is irreversible, it would actually cost the state a lot of money to provide proof of guilt — that meant hiring more experts, conducting expensive laboratory tests, and so on.

Even with such high costs though, there are still one too many wrong convictions that were discovered too late. In 2014, Scientific American published an article on research done by a team of lawyers and statisticians who examined data on more than 7,000 death penalty cases between 1973 and 2004. The conclusion of that research was that a significant number of death row convictions were wrong.

This brings us to the issue of justice or of the criminal getting what he or she deserves. There were a number of us who still had this sentiment — even Keith himself said there were people he thought didn’t deserve to live after what they did. The thing is, how sure can we be that the person was not wrongfully convicted? Data from first world countries with bigger budgets and better technology than ours show that even their justice system gets it wrong many times. How much better can we fare here, knowing the kind of justice system that we have?

So it now becomes a question of statistics. What margin of error would I be willing to accept for a death penalty convict? 5%? 3%? Or even 1%? If I knew that one out of every 100 would be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, that is still one life too many. My answer is zero, and thus I cannot fully support the death penalty.

Besides, as another friend, Gamahiel Tutor expressed, death is too easy an escape for these offenders. Keeping them imprisoned for life is better so that their suffering is longer.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Photo Credit: dedrawolff Flickr via Compfight cc

When I first began exploring atheism and agnosticism, I joined some online groups and forums to learn more. I read books and articles and I listened to some prominent speakers on the topic. I became increasingly interested in debates and arguments. I would participate in existing ones and even start a few of my own.

There was a time when I would be very agitated over an argument. “How can he think that? Is he that blind or stupid?” Even though I tried hard to focus on the ideas being debated on, my remarks would get more sarcastic and personal and downright insulting. The more heated I became, the more heated my opponents’ replies turned out also.

There were instances when I was almost frothing at the mouth as I typed out my arguments, sure that this would stump the other side and finally make them see some sense as I saw it.

It never happened.

The more I dug in and became stubborn in my position, the more the other side dug in also. It was then that I realized that there had to be another way.

A few years ago, I was at a seminar and one of the modules in that seminar made the participants reflect on their childhood and their relationship with their families. In the sharing that ensued, it became evident that a lot of the issues people were presently having had roots in their childhood, especially their relationship with their parents.

The speaker then had the participants imagine a child coming up to them and sitting on their lap. Then he told us that child was our mother or father (whoever hurt us most), and to understand that they too were once children, also with their own hurts, pains and insecurities, trying to figure out life’s meaning while struggling to raise their kids, perform well at their jobs and juggling their finances, just as we were. They didn’t have everything figured out, and were perhaps a hair’s breadth away from breaking down or giving it all up, just like us.

In the end, we were told to forgive that child, to tell them that everything was all right, and that we understood. Then we let the child go as a symbolic way of letting go of all hurt and disappointment we had with them. The speaker then brought us back to the present, and told us to reflect on our present relationship with our parents, at least to those who still had them.

We would still have arguments with them, he said, because parents always have a need to be right, especially with their children. “Well let them be right,” he said. “Your job is just to love and understand them.”

These days, I rarely get myself into prolonged or heated arguments. The more heated you become, the more heated the other side becomes also. I have had to exercise a fair amount of self-control to keep myself from making sarcastic replies to some people who just want to provoke me. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. But at this stage of my life, I have decided to be more understanding and accepting. I don’t need the extra stress nor the agitation.

Besides, I have learned through experience that anger and sarcasm rarely results in any change from the other side. All that happens is that you get cheered on by people who were already on your side of the fence to begin with, while the other side becomes more entrenched on their side and less inclined to listen to whatever you want to say, even if you are right.

I was amused to find out that as I was reflecting on this topic, my friend Rev. Arnel Tan also chose to write on the same theme in his column for this week, The Nationalist Meets the Gracist, in which he says, “people who are so right and yet so rude, are so wrong.”

Remember, you reap what you sow. If you sow anger, then you reap anger in return. If you sow insults, you reap insults and resentment. But if you show kindness, you can cut through the veils of bitterness and hate, and start forging the foundations of mutual understanding.

Some time ago, I heard this quote from Wayne Dyer and every now and then, it pops into my head whenever I get into an argument. “When you have the choice whether to be right or to be kind, choose to be kind.”


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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