Connect, collaborate, and contribute

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By Raju Mandhyan

The quality of our intentions influences the quantity and quality of our leadership endeavors. Our ability to influence is made up of three elements: connecting, collaborating, and contributing toward a better world.

Beyond the eastern periphery of Metro Manila in the Philippines are a bunch of hills known as the Sierra Madre mountain range. Along the streams, the rivers and the waterfall of these mountains flourish an ancient tribe of Filipinos known as the Dumagats. Dumagat meaning people who live by the water, off the water, and for the water. Though they are not more than 50 kilometers away from a bustling metropolis, they shy away from participating in what we all call development (which we may also call the exploitation of the ecosystem and the balance of life).

In 2010, a bunch of college students decided to do a thesis on the Dumagats even though they were warned that the Dumagats do not like intrusions. They do not like to talk and they do not give a rat’s ass about what the rest of the world labels as growth and development.

The students were adamant and they had good intentions. They bought a bunch of cheap film cameras, which, in 2010, were still available albeit slowly being replaced by smartphones. The students took these six cameras to a tribal village and taught the Dumagats to take their pictures. After showing them how to use the cameras, they left them there and went back a Sunday later and swapped the used rolls of film for new ones. The following Sunday they went back with the developed pictures and again swapped new film for the used ones. They continued to do this until Dumagats got used to the ritual and began to eagerly wait for these students every Sunday.

And every Sunday, after a meal cooked over open fires by the river, they began to talk. They began to tell stories every time they looked at their own pictures. Their stories were about their beliefs, their dreams, their heritage and how they considered the flowing waters to be an extension of themselves. They also expressed hopes for a future where man wouldn’t rape Mother Earth in the name of progress. The students, over a matter of weeks and months, gathered not just large quantity of data but a beautiful quality of knowledge and ancient wisdom from the people who lived by the rivers, off the rivers, and for rivers.

With the consent of their subjects, this maverick bunch submitted their thesis and it was chosen as the best in class in that university. A year later, the maverick bunch was invited to Singapore and their thesis was chosen as the second best in all of Southeast Asia. Parts of that research by the students have, over the years, made an impact on how organizations offer care and support to the tribes.

Connecting with people requires that we meet them in the place they are at. It requires that we respect their status and align with what they value and what they aspire toward. When the recipients of our care recognize this and they are convinced that we mean well, then they gently and assuredly turn toward us and offer their trust. Productive work can begin.

The question then arises as to why, in the first place, one human being should care and give a helping hand to another. This question did come up one day at a development conference held at the Ateneo de Manila University, which espouses and lives out the philosophy of “Man for Others.”

A young social entrepreneur stood up and announced that when we contribute and have to make a choice about when, how, and how much then we should look at an orchestra. In an orchestra, she claimed, there are scores of musical instruments that play fantastic music by themselves but when put together in an orchestra, they dance in and out and the right time while offering their best and create heavenly symphonies. That is the way to contribute, she commented.

Very recently I was coaching a very senior expatriate executive of a large milk products company and he shared a lovely story.

A year or so ago, one of their production batches of condensed milk did not meet the quality approval standards and was not fit to be sent to market. The batch in question was worth three million dollars. In a meeting about the situation with his production, quality assurance and the research department, after long harrowing sessions, all agreed that if the batch was sent back and run through production one more time then the company would end up saving two out of the three million dollars at stake. The expatriate executive asked for assurance and the other three gentlemen nodded in agreement. Yes, it was possible to salvage the situation. They talked about it for hours, maybe days and then agreed to sleep over the decision for one more night.

The next morning, the expatriate executive announced that even though all the players agreed and were sure that two out of the three million dollars at stake could be saved, he had made up his mind to dump the whole batch and not risk staining their brand. They would not send out to market anything with the remotest chance of being harmful to their consumers. The others walked away from the room relieved but bearing the burden of having been instrumental to such a huge loss.

Months went by. One of the three technical managers from production came up to the expatriate general manager and complimented him on the powerful decision he had taken and how, in the bargain, he boosted not just their company brand but also boosted their morale and their faith in goodness for its own sake. They had walked away from a situation much better men and much better leaders because of that experience.

Most people assign contribution to charity, to giving and building tangible stuff but the truth is that contribution is most powerful when it raises the spirits and the hopes and the value systems of others.

That is the way to contribute and that is the way to dance the dance of co-creation and co-valuation of life.

Where does collaboration fit in you ask?

Collaboration is the journey between connection and contribution.

You know what they say?

Work for your own good and you will become successful, do things for humanity and you become immortal.


Raju Mandhyan is an author, coach and speaker.