Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló before his resignation.

The downfall of Puerto Rico's governor provides five lessons in leadership

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

By Carmen L. Bonilla

As a Puerto Rican, I have been observing the developments of the last 15 days that resulted in the resignation of Puerto Rico‘s Governor Ricardo Rosselló on July 24, 2019. As a management professor and consultant, I want to share with you my analysis and five leadership lessons from this situation:

1. When you are a leader, you need to be willing to role model. In January 2017, the former Governor asked his agency secretaries to turn in a resignation letter that the governor would use if necessary to ask that cabinet member for his or her resignation at any time. This was meant to tell cabinet members, “If you don’t show total commitment, you will lose your job.” With the protests in July 2019, the people asked the governor for his resignation just like the governor had done of his cabinet members, reminding the governor that the buck always stops with the highest- ranking leader. For several days, the former governor refused to resign. Back to basics reminder: As a leader, we need to be willing to take ultimate responsibility for our team’s results and to do what we ask of others.

2. Build and monitor your team culture intentionally. At the time you start working as a team, agree on your values. According to independent journalism group Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, corruption practices extended throughout many government agencies under Rosselló’s administration. According to the Society for Human Resources Management: “An organization's culture defines the proper way to behave within the organization… culture consists of shared beliefs and values established by leaders and then communicated and reinforced through various methods, ultimately shaping employee perceptions, behaviors and understanding.” Whether you are in government, business, or nonprofit, as a leader, you are expected to know what's going on. By building your team culture intentionally, you set direction. On the day-to- day, keep your finger on the pulse of the organization and address issues promptly.

3. Your values and those of your most important stakeholders must align. The people of Puerto Rico rejected Rosselló’s administration for allegations of corruption by channeling government contracts to party supporters, for disrespect and demeaning commentary towards women, homosexuals, and the dead after Hurricane Maria. At the protests, the people expressed their values: honesty, equality, respect, equal opportunity and inclusion for all, appreciation for each other, for culture, and the arts; unity, and, ultimately, the belief that they could effect change through nonviolent expression. The people want to see these values in their leaders. As a leader, engage your people in conversation about shared values.

4. Engage your people in ways that appeal to them. The people’s movement was able to mobilize large numbers of participants to its protests in a very short time. An estimated 1 million people showed up for the general protest held July 23, only 10 days after the start of the movement. Talk about engagement! The people created an engaging environment in which all could express themselves and have fun at the same time: Acrobats shared their talent, drummers played local music, yogis practiced their poses, many brought out pots and spoons to make noise and join in the singing. As a leader, how do you engage your people?

5. Power distance is on its way out. Empowerment and inclusion continue to be on their way up. According to Wikipedia, power distance is “the extent to which the lower ranking individuals of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” In Puerto Rico, the people started gathering in response to general calls on social media, with no defined leadership. With social media, I believe we have seen all over the world a clear social preference towards more egalitarian social relationships. In live streams of the people’s celebration on July 25, I heard the people say “this struggle wouldn’t have been possible without…” and appreciation went out to women, to the poorest class, to the performing artists, to the Puerto Rican diaspora, in a clear show of inclusion and acknowledgment of all participants. Leaders are expected to provide inclusive structures, allowing all an opportunity to contribute, to be seen, to be heard.

Carmen L. Bonilla is an assistant professor of professional practice at Rutgers Business School where she teaches management skills and business policy and strategy. She also works as a management consultant to companies and leaders who want to create positive workplace cultures and leads workshops in team building and leadership development for new managers.

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