Teaching Students to Overcome Adversity Amid Political Turmoil

In times of political conflict, conscientious leaders can help organizations prosper—and nations prevail.
Teaching Students to Overcome Adversity Amid Political Turmoil

ALL LEADERSHIP OCCURS in cultural contexts that cannot be ignored. That is especially true for today's Venezuela, where the environment is the very definition of the VUCA attributes of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. At the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración (IESA) in Caracas, we convey to our students that, while turbulent business environments present profound challenges, organizations can succeed with the right leadership.

We admit the challenges are daunting. The country is governed by an increasingly autocratic regime that demonstrates hostility toward business. Elected in 2013, President Nicolas Maduro faces growing opposition to his authoritarian policies. After opposition candidates won control of the National Assembly in 2015, the Supreme Court operating under Maduro cut the assembly's powers.

In August 2017, Maduro convened a Constitutional Assembly, in effect replacing the National Assembly, which sparked protests that were violently suppressed by armed forces.

The government's actions have affected operations of both foreign and domestic businesses. International companies such as McDonalds, Coca- Cola, Delta Airlines, and American Airlines have lost billions of dollars. In April 2017, the government seized the plant operated by GM, and it's slowly taking control of local companies.

As a result, Venezuelan citizens are struggling. Venezuela's inflation rate was estimated to be 1.7 million percent at the end of 2018-the highest in the world. Unofficial figures show that 87 percent of Venezuelans say they do not have enough money to buy food. In November 2018, the United Nations reported that 3 million Venezuelans had left the country—almost 10 percent of the population.

In early 2019, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, an elected representative and President of the National Assembly, assumed the interim presidency of the country and called for new elections. He did so under the authority of articles 233 and 333 of the nation's Constitution and with the support of the National Assembly. The U.S. quickly recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's president, followed by other democratically led nations such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and those in the European Union.

This is the environment in which IESA works to fulfill its mission "to prepare individuals capable of assuming leadership positions as professionals, managers, or entrepreneurs, in order to contribute to the success of private, public and nonprofit organizations." These individuals include approximately 500 students enrolled in our MBA, master in public management, master in finance, and master in marketing programs, and about 9,000 participants who attend our executive education courses.

As the country's situation deteriorates, the needs of IESA's students and partner organizations become increasingly distant from the interests of the region and the rest of the world. However, we maintain close corporate connections that have helped us maintain our programs and overcome the effects of political turmoil. The Venezuelan businesses have demonstrated their commitment to the school. Some have pre-purchased services; financial institutions Bancaribe and Banco Mercantil contributed to the Student Financial Assistance Program that we put into place in 2015 to help students afford their educations, given the difficulties of obtaining foreign currency to study abroad. However, we suspended the program in 2017 when hyperinflation forced IESA to review tuitions on a monthly basis.

We also expose students to ongoing, live pedagogical cases of Venezuelan companies, such as Ron Santa Teresa, a rum producer located in the state of Aragua. This region is one of the most complex in the country due to political polarization, as well as high rates of homicides and other crimes. Ron Santa Teresa has become a primary promoter of the social welfare for the community.

In these ways, we strive not only to teach students how to lead, but also to lead by example. First and foremost, we want students to learn to avoid clinging to a sense of certainty or resorting to old schemes that are no longer useful. Instead, we want them to view leadership through three primary lenses:

We teach students that the fundamental role of a leader is to ask difficult questions whose answers present difficult consequences.

Leadership as a collective act. We teach MBA students to view leadership as a group phenomenon, not a solitary activity-a process of mutual influence between leaders and followers. Our leadership programs are based on shared experiences, such as case study discussions. We invite experts to speak to students about Venezuela's culture, politics, and economy, paying special attention to how social psychology and anthropology can be applied to our country's current circumstances.

For example, the deputy director of a research center that specializes in the study of Venezuelan society spoke to students about the value of conviviality among our citizens, information that our students will be able to draw on to support their performance as leaders.

Leadership as an Investigative act. We teach students that the fundamental role of a leader is to ask difficult questions whose answers present difficult consequences. For instance, are traditionally useful managerial practices still valid? What responsibility, if any, do business leaders have for what has happened in Venezuela? Can we induce positive change through our example?

Our faculty explore these questions in greater depth at IESA's seminars and conferences, where they meet with leaders to share best practices, make policy recommendations, and explore the impact that events such as elections and new regulations could have on organizations. We also explore issues of national and regional interest in the school's magazine Debates IESA.

Faculty promote national debate through interviews, panel discussions, and publications in print and digital media to the extent that government restrictions on media allow. Government has closed nearly 75 percent of independent media outlets; this has led journalists to publish online, where their sites are often blocked. El Nacional is our only independent daily newspaper still in circulation.

Leadership as a hopeful act. We highlight to our students the sparks of resilience in our business community, and we seek out ways to support that resilience. For example, last November, Citi Venezuela and the Citi Foundation recognized 12 Venezuelan entrepreneurs with the Microentrepreneurs 2018 award for "their determination and perseverance to overcome the adversities that their businesses face on a daily basis," according to the foundation. The winners were chosen from among 158 ventures nominated by 29 micro finance institutions and public development groups. IESA professor Rosa Maria Rey delivered a workshop called "Financial Strategies to Survive in Inflation" to the winners, as a way to help them succeed in the local economy.

From the rule of Maduro and the rise of Guaidó, we believe our students can learn valuable lessons about leadership. First, Guaidó's approach demystifies the vision of the charismatic leader. Rather, he represents well the concept of contingent leadership, which holds that great leaders match their actions to the cultural context. In this case, Guaidó, a liberal politician and the son of a taxi driver, has stepped in to lead the Venezuelan people at a very troubled time. Second, both Guaidó and Maduro show our students that the greatest strength of leaders is also, paradoxically, their main weaknessthey are only as strong as the trust of their followers.

Our school is living through one of the most difficult periods in its 53-year history. During this time, it can be tempting to seek or invent saviors, so IESA's priority is to teach our students to fight against the deification of leaders. Rather, we want to encourage them to become leaders who are independent thinkers, ready to work with othersbecause, when needed, we all must be ready to participate in the reconstruction of the country.

Gustavo Roosen is president and Rosa Amelia González is a professor at IESA in Caracas, Venezuela.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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