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How leaders are made

Today, November 30, is National Heroes Day. To paraphrase a study on leaders and heroes: Heroes solve problems now; good leaders create lasting change. Heroes accomplish great things; good leaders mobilize organizations to achieve much bigger things than anyone could ever accomplish alone. Heroes overcome obstacles; good leaders teach others to find opportunities in adversity.

Virginia Blasa, 69, is a community leader of the Tabang Bikol Movement and president of the People’s Organization of Disaster Survivors (PODiS), organized in 2017 in the aftermath of Typhoon Niña. She will go up the center stage at the NEDA regional office convention hall on December 1 as a representative of TBM, the 2023 Outstanding Volunteer Organization awardee of the Philippine National Volunteer Service Coordinating Agency (PNVSCA) in the non-profit category in Region V. With her booming voice and sturdy posture, Nay Virgie, a poor farmer’s wife, will make TBM proud. She can blurt out a long speech extemporaneously, in flawless Bicol or Tagalog anytime, with her opening statement consistently imploring the high heavens to bless everyone. I was fascinated when I first saw her speak before a thousand disaster survivors in 2017. She easily won the hearts and minds of the hundred men and women at a mass gathering that TBM volunteers organized in 2017. At 63, she was elected president. She is a good speaker and quite charismatic.

But leading an organization is another matter. Leading an organization requires more than being a good speaker. To this day, Nay Virgie continues to learn from experience and practice. She knew she had to develop a flexible mindset, be inclusive, and be open to others’ ideas and idiosyncracies to become a good leader. Virgie can be quick-tempered when agitated. She knew she needed patience and perseverance to help inspire and empower the members to become powerful voices in the community.

Consistent practice and dedicated coaching from TBM volunteer organizers and experts taught her the value of joining seminars, training, collaboration, partnerships, and immersion in the community’s life. Participating in all learning events was a game changer. She gained invaluable lessons and first-time experiences, including traveling by plane and staying in a hotel to attend an international conference!

She learned to solve organizational, community, and personal problems through practice, develop emotional maturity to understand, manage, and handle emotions in meetings, and resolve conflicts. The Pandemic sped up her learning for resilience. As a proud senior citizen, she keeps up with education by reading and listening more to meaningful lectures - about electoral politics, transparent and accountable governance, development plans, and budgeting. She has learned technology, phone messaging, and joining Zoom meetings. She brags she always read my column and the entire pages of Bicol Mail.

She realized that focusing more on solving problems and responding fast is the most important job of a leader. At one critical point, she and the other leaders realized that allowing the so-called “Marites culture” of loose talks that cause misunderstandings and inner conflict among members can ruin unity and the organization. No investigation, no right to speak, she would admonish. Nay Virgie has passed the test of time as a leader in a community of women and men who belong to the lowest rungs of society, faced with day-to-day problems of survival and struggle. She is doing exceedingly well.

Leaders are made, not born.

Leaders like Virgie, who rose from a life of poverty of simple and obscure backgrounds, amaze me. They can command a big following, inspire people to think and act to solve problems and share prophetic and thought-provoking life lessons. They exude an air of confidence and articulateness of certainty despite coming from the lowest rung of society. What makes them distinct is they did not earn any college degree, nor did they have the privilege of acquiring power from a silver platter because of inheritance or patronage. They listen and articulate the needs of the community. True leaders are made of sterner stuff, a product of society, practice, and experience.

When I think of leaders who share a common trait of a humble background, some great men and women around the world come to mind. They rose from the bottom to the apogee height of their sector and profession. Odds favor children exposed to a life of struggle and a vision of greatness. Nelson Mandela grew up in poverty and studied, led the African apartheid movement, was imprisoned for 27 years, and became the most outstanding African of the 20th century. Abraham Lincoln grew up in abject poverty but became America’s greatest president for his leadership during the Civil War and led the abolition of slavery. Jose Mujica (2010-2014) was the world’s ‘poorest’ and humblest president. He continued to live on his farm during his term, served well, donated half his pay, and became Uruguay’s greatest president.

So today, November 30, we remember Andres Bonifacio on his 160th birthday. He was a laborer who rose to become the Supremo leader of the Katipunan and “Father of the Philippine Revolution” against Spanish colonization in 1892. He was not only a leader. He is a national hero, along with Jose Rizal, Juan Luna, Gabriela Silang, Apolinario Mabini, and Gregorio del Pilar. To them, we give a high salute!


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