Before the sun gets warmer energizing the earth, a throng of field workers in bicycles or motorcycles is already in the wide experimental farms of DA-PhilRice at 7 a.m. In the late afternoon, while the king of day scatters the amber, many researchers are still in the offices at 5 p.m., stretching the day a bit, not leaving unfinished work for tomorrow. 

This is not an embracing of time that creates an unbalanced life. Rather it’s a show of commitment to fulfilling the oath of a Filipino public servant: that is, to provide extra service in performing a duty. 

How was the DA-PhilRice culture of giving the extra mile in serving the farmers and the nation formed even before the “Panunumpa ng Kawani ng Gobyerno” was released in 1995? Dr. Santiago R. Obien, now 87, the Institute’s forerunner from December 1986 to July 2000, provides us with some narratives: 

What was the DA-PhilRice culture you established then? Is that culture still visible after 36 years? 

We were then in a formative year, so I let the staff perfectly deliver 70% of the output and have the 30% fail. We think while we work, and we are not correct at all times. In the third year of being with me, however, the staff must already be good and deliver the best output. That’s why I also sent many of the staffers to graduate school. 

Aside from being productive, the staff must, above all, be competent and honest. I discard competent but dishonest staffers. If researchers manufacture their data or admin workers give poor estimates, how can I make the right management decisions? 

Competency and honesty emanate from leadership that does not collect. People change, their attitudes change, because of leadership. This work culture, I can proudly say, was embodied in everyone. And I am happy that I have witnessed in my lifetime the product of this culture. DA-PhilRice up to now receives awards recognizing the competency and honesty of the staff. 

(In the book “SRO: Dare to Build”, Nestor Martin, former DA-PhilRice accountant, attested that SRO is not corrupt. He refused all the commissions offered by contractors).

In one seminar-workshop in Laguna, you intoned: 

“I am asking for your sacrifice as we build this institution… We are, in fact, making history. I guess the better part of the challenge is to look forward. We have to win a struggle that has always been there – to eradicate hunger and poverty. 

What sacrifice were you exactly asking for? 

During my time as director, salary was meager and facilities were scarce. There were more staffers than chairs. You had to wait for someone to go to the comfort room then steal your colleague’s chair! Staff worked beyond the hours and used second-hand vehicles. Yet, excellence was demanded – and I asked them to live with it. 

The people I worked with may view and interpret how we did things differently but I can now say that I have never been so blessed to have worked with people who are so dedicated, innovative, creative, intelligent, and selfless: from the deputy directors, researchers, down to the security guards, drivers, janitors, and the canteen staff who easily adapted to our ways and our work ethics. They may not have approved all of how I wanted things done but in the end, everybody cooperated and it was like one great wave and smaller ones joining in unison, lapping up research and institution-building history. 

At work’s end that usually was never earlier than 10 p.m., I reviewed what transpired during the day. Often, I asked myself whether I had been too hard on some people and the only answer I got was, nobody complained. 

They say that you were strict and staff were antagonistic to you for being so. Despite this, you were able to build a dedicated, high-performing team, as shown by staff loyalty and awards received by the agency. What did it take to build this culture? 

Sometimes, I scolded staff, not because I hated them, but because they did something wrong. They can’t be around hating me. I say sorry. On many occasions, I have apologized publicly, teary-eyed. If there’s something I need to redo, I should have been more gentle in saying things. But they stayed with me, and I’m grateful. Being a director is a lonely position, especially then that we’re building an institution. I was in a hurry. 

In my circle of temper, I held the dynamics of life – courting. I gave pasalubong, joined the staff in their activities, including Sunday gatherings. I joined the Bukas Loob sa Diyos, read the Bible even while on travel, which helped me manage my temper and cope with pressures. Gradually, staff started to disclose to me their personal problems. They did not hesitate to show me their feelings. They can cry in front of me and share with me their challenges. 

All this shaped the culture of the organization. We shaped each other. 

Other than mentoring managers and keeping staff on their toes, you were known for checking comfort rooms and demonstrating how to clean these areas. Why did you have to do this? 

If the staff don’t know, it’s the leader who must teach them. I was the head; I should show, I should know. I showed them the standard. Cleanliness is important. Don’t you know that an Olympics was delayed because toilets in the venue were not clean? The cleanliness of the comfort rooms can mirror the character of an institute; and the staff performing this has the most important job. I know this job because I was a janitor at the UP Los Baños during my college years. 

(In the book “SRO: Dare to Build”, one of his senior colleagues noted him visiting the experimental fields at 6:30 a.m. He was asked if he does not trust his project leaders. He said, “I trust them. But they may also like it this way, for me to visit their experiments. At least they are assured that they are in the right direction and that they are doing things right. We do things right together and we check on each other’s work). 

After three decades, what among Obien’s methods should the leaders and the staff still follow? 

A leader endures. A leader is not perfect, but we continue to improve in the process. A leader must listen to the staff; work together with them. 

Leadership must also find ways to improve human resources. How can we enjoy pinakbet without rice? We can only enjoy this if the human resource is competent and honest in generating technologies and delivering extra-mile services to the rice farmers. We look at DA-PhilRice and the farmers as one entity. When we think of rice growers, we think of DA-PhilRice. Their productivity is also our productivity. 

Above all, a leader must have character and honor to sustain an organizational culture that values the time for the rice farmers and regard their success as a reward equal to gold.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) is a government corporate entity attached to the Department of Agriculture created through Executive Order 1061 on 5 November 1985 (as amended) to help develop high-yielding and cost-reducing technologies so farmers can produce enough rice for all Filipinos.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute