28 February 2013

Leadership Lessons from N.R. Narayana Murthy

N. R. Narayana Murthy, Indian businessman and co-founder of Infosys (third largest IT company in the world) delivered a talk at AIM last February 21. He impressed upon his audience some valuable lessons on being a successful entrepreneur and leader of industry. So what makes a great leader? Here is my personal integration on how N.R. Narayana Murthy counts the ways.

Character. Good leaders have a clear grasp of what they wish to achieve (their vision), who they are, and what they can offer. Murthy sums this up in a concept: a clear and concise differentiated value proposition, i.e, what an individual or organization can offer that sets it apart from the rest. Add to it a firm commitment to hard work and integrity, and a capacity to sacrifice personal interest for the good of the organization or society. When people see these traits in leaders, they tend to be more attracted to the vision they share, for they lead by example.

A properly-formed character is also the best safeguard against the debilitating effects of mindsets, which come from the data base of our experiences that coagulate into supposedly proven ways of doing things that lull us to complacency and encourage mediocrity. A good leader committed to change is able to recognize innovative ideas and liberate them from mindsets.

Courage. Murthy actually identifies courage as the most important attribute of a good leader. This means the courage to dream big, take moral decisions, implement strategy, go against conventional wisdom, and travel roads less travelled, or in some cases untraveled. If entrepreneurship is about transforming ideas into wealth, of making the implausibly impossible possible, then courage is indeed the defining trait of the entrepreneur. It is also about knowing that subscribing to a value system entails cost. Taking a risk because one’s value system demands it is the true test of courage.

Creativity. Murthy calls it the drive for innovation. A good leader should know how to dream, and be able to convince others that his dream is worth taking – but he should also be open to new ideas. The best way to generate new ideas is to work in improving competence, gaining crucial experience and knowledge in the process. 

For the entrepreneur, creativity may mean the constant search for that which will make his products or services better, faster, cheaper. This is also a good rule for development work. The conviction that there ought to be a better way of delivering services, recognizing rights, or empowering people is the starting point in the journey of transforming inequality to equity.
Care for Persons. Murthy jokingly talks about his transformation from a confused socialist to a compassionate capitalist (as some have described him), but he does walk his talk when it comes to his concern for people. He calls it generosity. At the outset, it makes good business sense to care of people – clients, partners, and employees alike. It ensures repeat business, investor confidence and employee loyalty. More than these however, values such as fairness and transparency, courtesy and humility, and generosity of heart (“praise in public, prescribe in private, take blame for failures”) builds people’s trust in the leader and self-esteem and confidence in themselves. 

At the crucial nexus between having the vision to effect change and other people’s willingness to follow or, better yet, take such vision as their own, lies the trust that they have on the one carrying the message. The truism “the medium is the message” may already be a cliché but still rings ever true today: people will accept and carry the message for as long its messenger proves himself genuinely trustworthy and his message empowering.

19 February 2013

Our Father

Tuesday, 1st Week of Lent
Gospel Reading: Mt 6, 7-15

Jesus said to his disciples: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This is how you are to pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

“If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”


Our short Gospel passage describes to us the nature of Christian prayer.

1. It is not about the multiplicity of words or length of time spent as about the authenticity of relationship we built.

Prayer is basically communication, and communication builds relationship. The special thing with prayer is that it is our relationship with God that it builds. Does it mean that we are better off without our rosaries and lengthy prayers? Not really. It's just that now we know these prayers spring from our relationship with, or to use the language of prayer, our devotion to, God.

2. It is about putting God first.

Even when we approach God bringing ourselves and our pressing concerns, still we begin our prayer by acknowledging God's reign over us, or as He would like us to know Him, His being our Father. Because God is our Father, He knows our needs and cares for us more than we can take care of ourselves. Thus, we pray primarily to worship God, to seek His Kingdom and His will. And because we have a loving Father, we can approach Him and beg for our daily bread and many other needs.

3.  It is about being transformed by our prayer.

When we pray we become closer to God, and the closer we are to Him, the more we hear His invitation to share His life with us. Meaning, the more we pray and build our relationship with God, the more we are transformed according to His image and likeness. In simple terms, we ask ourselves: are we becoming more loving as we pray? A basic expression of this love is our capacity to forgive. Why forgiveness? When we forgive, we bring the love of God to those who have sinned against us, to those who least deserve it, or to put it another way - we bring God's love to those who need it most.

This is how Jesus taught us to pray.

16 February 2013

The Nature of Temptations

1st Sunday of Lent (C) – 17 February 2013

Readings: Dt 26:4-10; Ps 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; Rom 10:8-13; Lk 4:1-13

The Gospel story on this First Sunday of Lent is the temptation of Jesus by Satan. After His baptism, Jesus went to the desert to fast and pray in order to prepare for pubic ministry. And there Satan tempted Him three times, and three times Satan was rebuffed.

The Temptations of Jesus. A short review of these temptations also reveals how Jesus intends to do His mission to the world.

1. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”

By rejecting this seemingly innocuous dare, Jesus tells Satan that man does not live merely to acquire material goods. And in Mt 4,4 the line is added: “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” He also sends the message that His mission is not to become a generous patron who offers instant gratification or overnight solutions to hunger, poverty, injustice, and all other problems of humanity.

2. “All these (kingdoms of the world) will be yours, if you worship me.”

By rejecting this more brazen offer, Jesus tells Satan that all the power and glory in the world is not worth it, especially when it means selling your soul to the devil. He also sends the message that He will not be an earthly power, no matter how benevolent, who demands the command of armies or the subjugation of peoples under his rule in order to bring about peace and prosperity.

3. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you, and: With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.

By rejecting this rather desperate challenge, Jesus puts Satan in his proper place and reminded him that he is talking to the Son of God Himself – and one “does not put the Lord God to the test”. He also sends the message that He does not intend to be a populist ruler who moves supporters and fans with showbiz eloquence and miracles.

Instead Jesus will model compassion, gentleness and humility. He will be a faithful prophet who will meet death like all true prophets before and after him. He will be a servant king who eats with sinners and washes His disciples’ feet. He will be a priest who turns Himself into the ultimate offering so His friends may live.

Heb 4,15 says: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” As Jesus was tempted in every way, so will it be with us His disciples. As He was strengthened and informed by His triumph over temptations, so will it be with us.

The Nature of Temptations. Temptations are basically deceptions. Satan – whose name means “the deceiver” – wishes to distract us from our mission, confuse our idea of true happiness or true love – thus, hinder us from finding it, stop us from discovering our real self, and draw us away from the source of life.

To be effective, a deception has to be clever. Think of the way scammers, say the Budol-Budol Gang, rob their victims blind. The devil does not ask us outright to do evil things – not many of us would be fooled that easily. Rather he persuades us to see a semblance of good in the things he tempt us with. It’s not about Adam and Eve disobeying God, it’s about their becoming like God. It’s not about Jesus getting distracted from His mission, it’s about Him doing an innocuously simple thing: turning stone to bread. After all he would be turning water into wine in a little while.

The problem with making “small” moral concessions “for a greater good” is that it makes the heart and mind comfortable with falling into little temptations, and paves the way for even bigger transgressions.

It’s the classic frog in a boiling water analogy. Drop a frog in boiling water and it will immediately react to save itself. Drop a frog in normal water, slowly heat it, and the frog won’t know it is being cooked till it is too helpless to save itself. This is how temptation works.

Let us identify some of the more common deceptions that we face today.

1. The temptation to choose the good over the better.

People faced with moral dilemmas most often don’t face a choice of good versus evil, but between or among a variety of goods. When we choose the lesser good we fall into the trap of choosing the easier way over the right way. It is so tempting to choose the easy way and fall for the fake sense of contentment brought by blissful mediocrity. Mediocrity in spirit is the one great obstacle to being formed according to the image of God.

2. The temptation not to risk loving again.

Everybody wants to love and be loved. Who are those who find it hard to love? Those who have loved and been hurt, those who have dreamed and failed. Because loving again opens them to the risk getting hurt again, and dreaming once more exposes them to failure and disappointment yet again, some people chose instead to simply stop loving. Apathy and simply living in the moment (forget about tomorrow!) seem to be the easier ways to go. Then again, there is no other path to happiness but to love truthfully. You cannot truly love unless you are willing to take the risk of getting hurt.

3. The temptation to eschew balance in our lives.

Sometimes success blinds us and makes us only see the good that we do, and not the things we need to avoid doing. History and literature is replete with lessons on how unbridled power corrupts the best of intentions. A modern management dictum says: “Systems of accountability are in place to keep honest people remain honest.”

Sometimes too our devotion to duty or dedication to a goal makes us so focused as to be insensitive to the plight of persons and values that get in the way. Remember the Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats: in the end, God will not judge us by how much we have achieved, but by how much we have loved.

4. The temptation to equate happiness with having lots of choices.

It is not so much the availability of choices that leads to true happiness, it is rather the freedom to make a commitment. Choosing from a selection of options is just the first step. Committing to something or someone is the real work, for by doing so we immerse ourselves in the full reality of freedom.

Yet there is something that makes many of us cringe at the mere thought of making a commitment: the fear of being limited. Perhaps this springs from our fixation with an idea of freedom as being able to do what we want when we want to. Many link their happiness to the achievement of this ideal, and resent any authority – government, religion, even God – who sets limits on what they can and cannot do. Sadly, they will only be disappointed. There is no absolute freedom in the first place. It is part of our nature to be limited, weak, and prone to overstep boundaries especially when there are no clear markers in sight. Ironically, there is a sense of liberation in accepting our limits. After all, it is our weak and limited nature that God assumed in order to save us.

5. The temptation to carve God in our own image.

Today the cult of the self has grown even stronger. Industries have been built to satisfy every imaginable vanity and desires of the flesh. The idea of God is accepted and tolerated for as long as it promotes the well-being of the self. There are those who think they can be simply “spiritual” or “saved” without belonging to the community of believers. There are those who think they can be moral while choosing only the precepts that are convenient to them. They carve an idol according to their own image and call him God.

6. The temptation to rely solely on our own strength.

This is the devil’s favorite. By perpetuating a culture that glorifies the self-made, self-sufficient person, we are lulled into assuming we can combat temptation by ourselves, or deal with our addictions our way, or change for the better by sheer willpower. It is when we think we are strong on our own accord that we are most vulnerable.

The whole season of Lent is a graced time to look inwards, examine our relationship with God, and review our lives in the light of the Gospel. As we reflect upon our inner demons may we also rediscover our graced self, the one redeemed by Christ, the one who longed to live in the life of God.

Heb 2,18 says: “Because Jesus himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

As we battle our temptations, we know that we are not alone. We have Christ with us. To the many trials that come his way, St. Paul defiantly cries out in Phil 4,13: “I have the strength for everything through Him who empowers me!”

10 February 2013

God has a Mission for You

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – 10 February 2013

Readings: Is 6:1-2a, 3-8; Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 7-8; 1 Cor 15:1-11; Lk 5:1-11

The Gospel this Sunday recounts the story of the call of Simon and his partners, the brothers James and John, after a miraculous fish catch. Jesus told Simon (Peter) the iconic words: “from now on you will be catching men” (Lk 5,10).

The same theme of being called by God is found in the other two readings: that of Isaiah in the First Reading and of St. Paul in the Second. In the Old Testament, there is a common pattern, a leitmotif, in the way prophets are called by God.
1. First, God reveals Himself in an extraordinary experience of grace.
2. This evokes feelings of awe, and also sinfulness and unworthiness, in the one called.
3. Then God gives His assurance and
4. ...the call to mission.
5. Finally, the one called accepts God’s invitation.

Sts. Peter and Paul may not be prophets in the Old Testament sense of the word but the same leitmotif emerges in the respective stories of their call. In a way, they are more than prophets for they already share in the three-fold mission of Christ: that of being prophet, priest and king.

And so it is with us. The readings this Sunday are reminders that every one of us is also called by God to mission.

What does it mean to be called? Imagine yourself being plucked out of your ordinary existence and presented by God Almighty Himself with an opportunity to work with Him closely, intimately, in the great task of building His Kingdom? Imagine the many life changes you have to go through if you would take the offer. Wouldn’t you feel honored and at the same time humbled – maybe even troubled by such an offer? Why me, you may even ask.

I know I would; I have gone through a similar experience myself. Same with most priests I know. There comes an inevitable point in seminary formation when we realize we are unworthy of the grace we are seeking. This, I believe, is what being “poor in spirit” means.

It is precisely this spiritual poverty that makes our eyes more open to, our hearts more accepting of, the reality of God’s love happening in many ways in our lives. In turn, this spiritual openness makes us more responsive to God’s call.

This experience is not the exclusive domain of priests and religious today, or prophets of old. There was a wedding I officiated where I remember the groom earnestly declaring to his bride: “I don’t know what I have done to deserve a blessing like you.”

The realization of the gratuitousness of love makes us want to participate more in the experience, and share with others the joy we find in it. This, I believe, is what a “calling” means.

And though we may not have the grand mystical religious experience that prophets and apostles have, God nevertheless calls everyone, each to his or her own mission in life. His call is always to participate in His life of grace ever more fully.

Like the leitmotif of the call of the Old Testament prophets, God’s call to us also follows a pattern.

First, the awareness of mission begins with the realization that God is indeed love (no matter how trite the words nowadays may sound). He has loved us more than what we deserve, more than we can ever know. In short, our being called to mission springs from the joy of being loved, and flows into wanting to share the same joy with others.

Second, our call happens where we are right now. We have become so used to the term “fishers of men”, and thought at the same time that the term refers only to priests or religious, which is not entirely true. Every Christian is a fisher of men. By calling Simon and company that way, Jesus transforms their mindsets – used to seeing mostly the daily grind of their lives and occupation – and opens them to the infinitely greater reality of the Kingdom of God, and their place in it.

Thus, they are no longer just people who merely go about their daily lives – they are transformed. They still go through the same drudgeries of life, but now they are men on a mission. The same applies as well to us.

Fishers of men could then be very well translated to carpenters of homes, builders of communities, teachers of the Truth, students of Christ’s life, call center agents of God, engineers of the Kingdom, planters of faith in persons’ hearts, doctors for the masses, couples for Christ, and so on. Our mission begins where we are right now.

Third, our first mission is personal transformation. As we come to terms with the enormity of the mission and our own inadequacies, we learn that before we can change others, we have to change ourselves first. And if we go by the lessons of Peter, Paul, and the prophets, we learn that transformation is a life-long process. Even with the gift of prophecy, the prophets have their constant struggles with depression and doubt; Paul has his “thorn in the flesh” which “kept him from getting proud”; and we know very well the frailties of Peter.

Fourth, we are working for God. Let us be clear: the transformation that we seek – in ourselves and in the world – is accomplished not so much by virtue of our heroic efforts alone but by our cooperation in the work of God. Our problems may be big, our mission bigger, and ourselves inadequate – but we have a big God, and He will enable and complete us. St. Paul sums it in 1 Cor 15,10 (from the Second Reading): "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me."

As practical application of our reflection upon this Sunday’s readings, I would like to point out that this week, there are two important dates we need to keep in mind – aside from February 14, Valentine’s Day.

February 13 this year is a more important date: it is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. By the imposition of ash on our foreheads, we commit ourselves to the call to conversion and transformation, which is what Lent is about.

February 12 is another important date: it is the official start of the campaign period for candidates for senators and party lists.

As candidates campaign for our votes, the most recent pastoral letter from our bishops teaches us “to be mindful of our right and duty to promote the common good by using our vote”. It is not about building a “Catholic vote” as about voting according to our conscience. And the bishops also remind us that “conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator” (CCC, no. 1783). Thus, even our right to vote becomes an expression of the mission.

Fifth, have you accepted already God’s particular mission for you? Tell God your answer in prayer. But before you do, I would like to share a funny cautionary parable that has circulated in emails some time ago…

While walking down the street one day a Philippine politician is tragically hit by a truck and dies. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

"Welcome to heaven," says St. Peter. "Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we're not sure what to do with you."

"No problem, just let me in," says the politician.

"Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity."

"Really, I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven," says the politician.

"I'm sorry, but we have our rules." And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.

Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having such a good time that before the senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises...

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, "Now it's time to visit heaven."

So, 24 hours pass with the politician joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns. "Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity."

The senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: "Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell."

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell. Now the doors of the elevator open and he's in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.

"I don't understand", stammers the politician. "Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?"

The devil smiles at him and says, "Yesterday we were campaigning… Today, you voted."