Manila, Philippines - 31 August 2016. Meet Aldrin Calderon, a cadet officer who led high-school students in citizen army training and then became a passionate designer of energy-efficient technologies. What can we learn from his leadership journey, and what are his 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in 1982 in Pasig City as the second of four siblings, Aldrin grew up in Metro Manila, the capital of the Philippines, with his parents and three sisters.
His father chose a career in marine engineering and was away from Aldrin’s home most of the time during his youth.
“I grew up without my father's supervision. Although he was away for long times, I did not lack father-son bonding, as we had constant communication since I was young. We wrote letters and we recorded voice messages on cassette tapes. These helped me to feel his presence. He would tell me that, as the only man in the family, I should stand tall and act as father and brother to my sisters whenever he was away. He taught me to be independent and responsible, and inspired me by giving all he had to help me become the best person I can be."
Aldrin described his mother as a housewife, and emphasized how she has played a major role in his life.
“My mother is the strongest person I know. She managed to make us forget that she was alone raising us most of the time. I felt so lucky and proud during the special occasions in my life when I should have been with my father. Somehow, she made me feel that I had both parents with me."
He sees his mother as a role model.
“Mom taught me how to be aware of what I am doing, and if it is right or wrong. She made me conscious about becoming a role model for my sisters. Her love for my father and for our family helped me develop my self-awareness to become an inspiration for others. Her self-reliance inspired me a great deal."
Looking for challenges
Starting in primary school, Aldrin’s passion was to take on challenges.
“I loved to learn and enjoy the feeling of success. Later on, in secondary school, I learned how to accept failures as well, and that excited me too. I wanted to challenge myself without knowing if I would succeed. Being challenged became my passion, and it still is today."
Aldrin explained how he constantly looked for opportunities to learn.
“During all my time in school, I liked joining extra-curricular activities. I joined every club or academic society I was eligible to enter. I also loved doing things that were not so popular, or had not been done before. In high school, after I became a cadet officer before the school year started, I decided to run for the student council. I loved the campaigning, and how students in other year levels would remember me better when I wore my cadet corps commander's uniform. I was the first cadet corps commander to win a student council seat."
He stepped forward to help other students in training.
“On Fridays, I was known as the 'officer in charge' during the citizens army training for the high school students. I liked the chance to give such training. I also loved to learn how to manage my own schedule and take charge of it."
After school, Aldrin enrolled in Mapúa Institute of Technology, the biggest engineering school in the Philippines, where he obtained a bachelors degree in 2003 and a masters in materials science and engineering in 2010. While in college, he invested heavily in preparing for examinations, and enjoyed the thrill of these continuous challenges.
“I loved to study and read. After doing that for long hours, I felt comfortable and at ease, and I stopped caring how I would perform in the examinations. My focus was on the preparations, which I loved. Of course, I liked it when I passed, and even more so when I achieved high grades. However, when I failed, I embraced that too, as it drove me to study harder and improve my strategy for the next time."
After university, Aldrin started working in Panasonic, and moved on to Schneider Electric to gain more experience. He then took up a job as a researcher at the Industrial Technology Development Institute of the Philippines Department of Science and Technology, working on energy.
“Given our energy problems today, I became more and more excited about developing clean and renewable energy, and that requires lots of research."
While working full time, he also enrolled in a PhD program in energy engineering, and took up teaching part-time lecturing as an adjunct professor in the School of Graduate Studies of Mapúa Institute of Technology.
Pioneering energy technology
As a dedicated researcher, he pioneered the use of nanotechnology to invent a low-cost membrane that can adsorb CO2 from low-grade biogas. Such gas is typically produced by backyard swine farms in rural communities that are still without electricity in this country of 7,000 islands.
"After reducing the CO2, the biogas will be more combustible to produce energy for poor rural households. And unlike many new technologies, this invention does not need energy to work."
During his research work, Aldrin decided to expand his learning and signed up for the post-graduate Leadership for Sustainability course at the United Nations University in Tokyo, where I met him in 2014 and got to know him as a dedicated student and passionate researcher.
“I went to the UNU to expand my leadership skills, and came away with a rich experience. Upon returning to my department in the Philippines, I was keen to give an ‘echo’ seminar to share my experience with my colleagues, which in turn led to a request to repeat that with other aspiring leaders in my field. It helped me to explore working with partners to move my invention through the successive phases of product development, demonstration and deployment in rural communities."
After four years as a government researcher and gaining his PhD in energy engineering from the University of the Philippines in 2015, Aldrin took on a new challenge.
“I had learned a lot in academic research and I thought it was time to move on to keep growing. After finishing my PhD, I decided to join the energy industry. I am now excited to apply my research knowledge into engineering projects in renewable energy management. My challenge is now how to transform scientific research outcomes into tangible projects. It’s a huge challenge I found, and I am determined to face it."
While working in the private sector, Aldrin also became a professor at Mapúa Institute of Technology, allowing him to continue supporting students in their learning.
Evolving into a leader
Aldrin described how his leadership developed since the time he took on responsibilities as cadet officer in school.
“After I trained for the cadet officers candidate course in my third year of high school, I was selected to become the corps commander. I was put in charge of a whole brigade composed of two battalions of cadets and cadettes in our school. During that time, I was lucky to experience how to be a leader who helps others. I learned to humble myself after making mistakes, and how to be tactful in making it right."
He then explained how these experiences helped to set him up for further development as a leader.
“I was fortunate to learn some key lessons early on, and these spurred my growth as a leader. Becoming a more mature leader became a spontaneous process after that."
Taking the leadership course at UNU opened his eyes to organizing his strengths and continuing to turn challenges into opportunities to grow.
"Leadership carries a responsibility to help others to bring out the best in them," he said. "While that may sound idealistic, adopting this view will lead to an exponential growth of leaders in the future. I believe that leaders should have regular engagement in complex environments for their further development. And they should continually position themselves in projects with significant development impact.”
So what is Aldrin’s preferred style of leadership?
“I see my leadership style as helping others, serving them. When I serve them well, they can develop into leaders too. I love to see my successor become a better leader than me. That is how we can build a more sustainable world. It requires me to embrace responsibility and ownership. I sometimes call it righteous leadership."
He emphasized that leaders should work to be the best in their time and place.
“Leaders are not eternal. Helping others is a privilege, and you have to make best use of the opportunities to do the right thing and to do it right. When we work in a company or organization, often the vision and mission is already crafted before we take on a leadership role. What we need to do is to help our colleagues how to achieve the corporate objectives. To do so, we need to help them expand their horizons and let their best come out."
Guiding others goes beyond management, Aldrin explained.
“When we can show others how to do the right things, and do them right, they can do their work with minimal management. However, we need to have faith in their ability to do what is needed, and to be patient as they grow and learn. By serving them and enabling their leadership, we can achieve the objectives of the company or organization."
Innovating team results
He shared a story how he chose a non-traditional way to improve teamwork.
“In my previous job, I was asked to lead a team of colleagues in highly technical work. Our organization’s objectives and milestones were already established. Instead of focusing on achieving the targets, the main performance indicator I created was about developing the capacity of my team members. Initially, we failed to deliver our targets, but what we achieved was far more fulfilling. With my teaching and training, everyone in the team was able to develop their interest and skills in what they are doing, and to become effective at it. Soon after, our team hit every milestone and exceeded every target by doing things right. They became so good at their work that they no longer needed me to guide them."
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia
So what are Aldrin’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, break your own barriers.
“Get to know your limitations, and plan how to overcome them, one at a time. In your planning, use various kinds of thinking and be logical about that. Sometimes we need to encourage ourselves with new ideas, and sometimes we need to put on a black thinking hat to know where to cut through with a quick fix."
Second, learn to conquer yourself without hesitation.
“As you act on your plan, prepare to accept whatever the outcome of your actions is. Success or failure, it does not matter. What matters is your action, your execution of your plan, and what you learn. Most of the learning comes from implementing your plan. We conquer obstacles through continuous learning."
Third, prosper through challenges.
“As we grow through our challenges, results and learning, we can prosper and flourish. The growing itself is our quest. Regardless of good or bad results, do not be afraid to share the experience, as it may help others in their plan and journey. Sharing your story makes you grow right now, and makes others grow soon after."
As we wrapped up our exchange, Aldrin again showed a single-minded focus on his current challenge.
“I don’t really know yet what’s next. I am so excited now to be a developer of renewable energy. Our country needs much more of that kind of work. Right now, I am using new solar technology for my project. That’s my sole focus now, and I am better equipped after my years of research."
How about his challenge to return to the private sector after working in government?
"I am learning a lot, and I can apply my knowledge and passion in the company I joined, and see how clean and renewable energy can be developed with a business interest. Later on, I might join an NGO and manage renewable energy projects for those who need them, especially in rural areas."
Aldrin’s eyes were shining brightly as he talked about his new challenge to develop clean and renewable energy commercially.
“I am looking forward to completing my first business project for sustainable energy, and I am excited about the difference that we will make for the people in my country with the first megawatt we generate."
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