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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #26

Chapter 6: Great Nation, Great Leaders (Cont’d)

Evolution and Patterns of Leadership

Leadership to an organization is like wings to a plane. Without wings planes cannot fly; likewise there cannot be an organization without a leader. Wings also define and limit the performance of the plane, likewise leaders to their organization.

Early biplanes had twin-deck wings that effectively doubled the lift. With stronger engines and planes flying faster, that design creates too much drag for the lift. It became the limiting factor, and the design gave way to the single pair of wings fitted with adjustable flaps at the leading and trailing edges so the curvature could be adjusted to effect maximal lift at low speed and then flattened out to reduce drag while cruising.

With more powerful jet engines and even faster speed that design too proved inadequate. Thus emerged the backswept wings, but still with adjustable flaps, as seen with modern jets. With supersonic planes, we have delta wings that could be retracted. With the extreme speed of rockets and missiles, only winglets are needed.

So it is with leadership. Just as the optimal wing design is related to the rest of the plane, the optimal leader must relate to his followers (people), culture, and geography. Enlightened followers choose enlightened leaders; bad followers choose and follow toxic leaders. “Leadership,” wrote Jean Lipman-Blumen in her book The Allure of Toxic Leaders, “is the interaction between leaders and their followers.”1

When a society is undeveloped and citizens unsophisticated (the societal equivalent of the early biplane), it needs a leader who is a strict disciplinarian and could command instant respect. Personal charisma is the major ingredient. This style of leadership is exemplified by the drill sergeant major who could whip out a bunch of rag-tag village bums into spic-and-span recruits after only a few months of boot camp. This was the style of dictators like Indonesia’s Sukarno and South Korea’s Pak. They brooked no questions from their followers; that would be viewed as insubordination or worse, sedition, and treated as such. Sukarno destroyed and imprisoned many Indonesian intellects and luminaries who dared disagree with him.

Once those recruits become officers, a different style of leadership is needed. The yelling drillmaster would definitely be out of place at the officers’ candidate school.

I discern at least three patterns of leadership: the military model, the coaching style, and that of an orchestra conductor. These models do not necessarily evolve in stepwise fashion from one to the other, or that one is superior to the other. A newly emerging nation may benefit most from a military style leader; this style is also best suited when the nation is faced with a sudden challenge or crisis, as in war or civil turmoil. India at the time of its independence would have benefited from a military leader instead of the symphony conductor style of Mahatma Gandhi. That would have spared the subcontinent its horrendous tragedy.

These three models attract varying personality traits; even within a model we have variations. To every imperious and charismatic general like Douglas Mac Arthur and George Patton, there are others more cerebral and equally winning. Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman, the man credited with the final and decisive push to rid remnants of the Malaysian communist insurgency in the late 1970s, posed a professorial profile.2 He could have been just as comfortable on a university campus leading graduate seminars as leading his troops in the jungle. Mahmud Sulaiman was a military leader simply because he was commanding soldiers, but his style and demeanor was more of the symphony conductor.

The two Third World leaders—Indonesia’s Sukarno and India’s Mahatma Gandhi—could not be more different, yet both successfully led their nations to independence using very different techniques. Sukarno, with his charisma and oratorical skills, mobilized his countrymen in armed insurrection against the Dutch. Gandhi, using the very opposite technique of non-violence, shamed the British for not living up to their ideals. The end results too were radically different. Sukarno successfully unified the polyglot islands of the East Indies; Gandhi was in charge when that subcontinent fractured violently along sectarian lines. Gandhi was successful because he was dealing with the British, with their fine and civilized sense of justice. Had he been dealing with Stalin, history would never have heard of Gandhi, again illustrating the importance of the dynamics of the relationships rather than individual personalities.

Warren Bennis in his studies on leadership found more diversities than commonalities among effective leaders: left-brain and right-brain thinkers, articulate as well as taciturn ones, immaculate dressers versus casual Dockers types, and the John Waynes as well as the Jimmy Stewarts.3

Bennis found that effective leaders demonstrate competencies in four key areas. One, they are able to draw others to their cause. President Kennedy demonstrated this best; he attracted the best and brightest from academia, business, and the professions to his administration. Such leaders effectively communicate the essence of their cause. Reagan was also in this class. He was rightly called the Great Communicator for his skills in bringing his ideas, goals and dreams to the people. They all wanted to follow him to the shining city on the hill; they believed him when he declared that it was “a new morning in America.” He used concrete examples and colorful metaphors when delivering his messages. Reagan was able to communicate effectively because he knew who he was, what he believed in, and where he wanted to go.

This is the leadership style of great prophets. The hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) are full of allegories, parables, and similes. They help concretize his message.

Doris Kearns in her book on Abraham Lincoln, A Team of Rivals, elucidated yet another unique characteristic of a great leader: the ability to co-opt the best talent to your team even if they were initially your rivals, as Lincoln did.4 This is the ultimate mark of self-confidence. Had Mahathir retained Tengku Razaleigh in his cabinet after their closely contested UMNO presidential elections of 1987, Mahathir would not only have gained a considerable talent but also spared fracturing UMNO. It would have also served as an important model for healthy competition. Because that crucial lesson was not learned then, there is still a problem today with contesting top positions in UMNO.

This ability to attract the talented to your cause is most crucial. Leadership is never a one-man show. Islam successfully spread beyond Arabia after the prophet’s death because he was able to recruit able lieutenants in the persons of the Rightly Guided Companions, later to be Caliphs.

Business leaders are acutely aware of this. The Chief Executive could suddenly die, and unless he or she has a capable team in place, the business could be jeopardized. If nothing else, the ensuing power struggle could be distracting. The same applies to political leadership; unless there is a clear system of selecting the second in command ready to take over, the resulting uncertainty could be destabilizing. This is the fate of many Third World countries where leaders overstay their welcome.

On his regular visits to the company’s various units, Jack Welch, GE’s longtime CEO, insisted on seeing the three or four promising “direct report” executives under the divisional heads. He wanted those divisional heads to sharpen their talent searching skills, and also to see whether he agreed with their assessments.

Welch would inquire what they were doing to nurture the promising talent under them. To encourage this culture of recognizing and nurturing talent, Welch made sure that whenever a promising executive was promoted or “fast tracked,” his or her immediate superior was also duly recognized and rewarded.5 That would prevent the all too prevalent practice in the Malaysian civil service where superiors would banish their promising subordinates to obscure postings to eliminate potential rivals.

Major-General Mahmud Sulaiman used to agonize when evaluating his subordinate officers. He was fully aware that the lives of his troops depended on the officers leading them, thus he considered the evaluation exercises (which many treated perfunctorily or considered a nuisance) his most important duty.2

Great leaders are confident of their abilities and more importantly, limitations. They do not hesitate co-opting others more capable. Kennedy invited his formidable competitor, Lyndon Johnson, to be his Vice-Presidential nominee. Kennedy knew he did not command wide respect in Congress and the South, so he tapped Johnson who excelled in both areas.

The last quality is trust, and with that, reliability. These leaders are, to use the colloquial, straight shooters. They do not deliver different messages to different groups. The Machiavellian scheming may have worked in Medieval Europe, but in the modern world, such intrigues would be exposed eventually.

This is the unnerving trait of Anwar Ibrahim, hitherto Mahathir’s anointed successor. His speeches delivered to young Muslims in Malaysia were very different from those he gave at Western universities. One cannot be quite sure who was the real Anwar. The one constant with Mahathir is that his comments are similar whether delivered in Washington, DC, or his home state of Kedah. You know exactly where he stands.

Thus far as Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi is reduced to mouthing slogans and pithy phrases: “Work with me, not for me!” He has yet to communicate his vision of Malaysia; he is simply managing, not leading.

There is a world of difference between the two. Quoting Bennis, “Leaders conquer the context—the volatile, turbulent, ambiguous surroundings that sometimes seem to conspire against us and will surely suffocate us if we let them—while managers surrender to it.” Managers administer, leaders innovate; managers accept the status quo, leaders challenge it; managers eye the bottom line, leaders the horizon. Most importantly, a manager “does things right, a leader does the right thing.”

I do not mean to suggest that managers are unimportant. No organization would succeed if not for the cadre of competent managers to execute its mission. The failure of many potentially great leaders is their lack of execution.6 They may have great ideas and great people around them, but they fail miserably in the execution because of poor follow through and staff work. Mahathir had great visions of leading Malays into the world of science and technology, but he failed miserably in the execution; he neglected to train the necessary teachers and build the required laboratories. He cajoled Malays to be brave and entrepreneurial, but rewarded those closest to him and who sang his praises, in short, those least enterprising. He encouraged the very opposite behaviors, and then wondered why he did not achieve his goals.

Nor was Mahathir astute in picking talent. He was not prudent in selecting his successor, Abdullah Badawi. He unnecessarily restricted his choice only to sitting UMNO Vice-Presidents, in deference to party tradition. This from a leader who endlessly exhorted Malays to break free from our hide-bound customs! When he finally picked Abdullah, the announcement was greeted with an eerie absence of rousing endorsements.

Barely three years later, Mahathir could hardly contain his contempt for his successor, accusing him, among other misdeeds, of selling out the nation’s sovereignty. That particular hostile outburst came about after Abdullah cancelled the half bridge project over the causeway, one dear to Mahathir.

It is instructive that when Mahathir announced Abdullah to be Deputy Prime Minister, the latter considered that merely as a “promotion,” just another rung up the civil service ladder. This more than anything reflects Abdullah’s perception of the top job. He viewed it not as a rare and privileged opportunity to chart the nation’s future but as a personal advancement.

There is no foolproof way of picking winners among leaders. In the business and academic world, leaders have to prove their way to the top, and then be selected by their board or peers. National leaders get elected in a democracy; elsewhere they may simply grab power as in a military coup. These methods produce their share of winners and losers.

The bulk of the literature on leadership deals with the business world. They certainly have relevance for the political arena, but there are crucial differences. In business, the bottom line is well defined; not so with politics. In business, a non-profitable or poorly performing unit could be sold off or liquidated. When a segment of the population is marginalized or not contributing, they cannot be simply lopped off. The rest of society will have to carry the burden. Worse, those marginalized could easily turn against the state with devastating destructiveness, as seen with the Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Business leaders are answerable to their board of directors, employees and other stakeholders; political leaders are answerable to and derive their authority from the people.

These differences aside, there are still valuable insights to be gained by studying leadership in the business world. The rest of this chapter will trace the evolution of the three patterns of leadership, and will end by looking at the Malaysian political leadership.

Next: The Military Model

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