Stepback: The Lost Art of Filipino Leadership


More than 2,000 years ago, our Filipino ancestors built the rice terraces out of the Cordillera Mountains in northern Philippines using a unique leadership philosophy and management system.

Comparing this stunning man-made structure with what we know today as the other Wonders of the Ancient World, many of which were built by either salaried workers or slaves on orders by individual reigning rulers, the hand-made rice terraces stand out for three intriguing reasons: One, they were constructed by freemen. Two, no single leader was ever identified to have taken credit for building them. Three, they stood the test of time.

This book illustrates an inspiring picture on how the so-called barbaric, naive, and uneducated ancient Filipino society has constructed and maintained a millennia-old magnificent edifice of elaborate beauty, which on the contrary speaks volumes of our great identity, unique leadership philosophy, and sustainable management ingenuity. It can help you rediscover our authentic culture that may just solve the modern challenges in leading and managing people even in our own time.

I was wrong.

For decades, I’ve been taught that leadership is about one single person on top, and in order for me to be there, I will have to beat every person in my way, whatever it took.

Because that’s what I knew, I competed and fought my way to the top. Sometimes, I would win. Many times, I would lose. Either way, the result didn’t make me happy. After all, knowing that I have beaten someone is as equally as heartbreaking as knowing I’ve been beaten by someone.

Nobody wins in a competition. However, the concept of leadership that has been around for a long time encourages people to compete on different levels, at different times, in different styles. If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to be on top, in front, and in control. Beat everybody else and rise from the ranks. It goes on and on. Not only that, the same competitor’s mindset cascades down to the very last man in the organization.

It wears down everyone eventually.

No wonder many leaders today say it’s lonely at the top. You have to defend your position constantly from whoever is trying to steal it from you. As it happens, the people under you will never stop challenging you and your rivals will never stop jockeying for power. You’ll keep hanging on until you’re exhausted or it’s simply time to let go and admit defeat. Beating everyone during the quest for leadership won’t make you happy. The same goes for the people you work with. But maybe it’s the system that puts you there. Regardless, you’re trapped.

In the end, nobody gets out of it unhurt. Yet, we are made to believe that competition is good for an organization because it brings out the best in all of us. In reality, it does not always work that way. In fact, many times it breaks the leader, then the people, and in the long run—the entire organization. While competition drives progress and gives the leader the focus and energy to great heights of accomplishment, it can overwhelm the leader.

Admittedly, winning can bring satisfaction to leaders. It also leads to recognition, which leaders need every once in a while.

However, winning over our fellow human beings for the sake of recognition, if that’s the only thing that defines our leadership, can also lead to self-destruction. That is when the winning mindset leads to extreme stress, unfair judgment, or unethical practices and misbehavior.

In the long run, we can’t sustain an organization fueled by greed, self-centeredness, and rivalry.

Chances are, our type of leadership today creates a culture of self-centeredness, individualism, doubt, and competition—a perfect recipe for an inevitable disaster where everyone becomes a casualty. 

But in the grand scheme of things, this is not even the original Filipino leadership philosophy. It was imposed on us and we embraced it. And because we have gotten used to it, we’ve forgotten our own art of leadership.

Prior to the European invasion of the Philippines in the 1500s and Americans in the late 1800s, we already had our own unique leadership structure. In fact, it built one of the world’s most advanced mega-structures in ancient times.

Learning about it can shed light on our leadership challenges today. It explains what brought us in this chaotic leadership situation and why you can’t get away from it.


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