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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 31, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #29

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

The Coaching Model

Today’s workers, especially in the developed world, have far superior skills in language, science, and mathematics. Many, especially in high-tech and biotech, are college graduates. They are officer material, not raw recruits. The drill sergeants would have to give way to the officer candidate school’s instructors, with different sets of skills and means of motivation. Enter the coaching style of leadership.

Coaches decide which players to keep, and when or if they can play. Coaches bring the best out of their players and ensure that they fit well with the rest of the team. Coaches do not train players in the manner that head mechanics train novice technicians. They do not train but sharpen and develop the talent and ability of their players.

Coaches are themselves former players; however, the best players do not necessarily make the best coaches. The two require different sets of skills and talent. Coaches lead the team, yet in terms of pay and public recognition, they often play second fiddle to their star players. Even the most celebrated coaches are best remembered for their marquee players.

When the players shine, there is a sense of reflected glory on the part of their coaches. This after all is what they are trying to achieve, consequently they do not envy or resent their players’ achievements.

The coaching leadership style attracts many personality types, including authoritarian ones. This leadership style is not exclusive to sports but is seen in not-for-profit organizations, academic and research institutions, and in firms of professionals (lawyers and accountants). In the corporate world, CEOs are increasingly acting more as coaches rather than as military leaders.

Unlike the rigid pyramidal command-and-control structure of the military, with few generals and admirals, few more colonels and majors, and a whole lot of captains and lieutenants, the coaching model has a flattened hierarchy, basically only two or three layers—coaches, assistant coaches, and players; a block with a gentle-sloped roof rather than a pyramid.

Like platoon commanders, coaches exert their control on their followers directly. They are there on the sideline during practice and at games. The communications are direct, and so are the feedbacks.

Bill Walsh, the winning coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners professional football team, related that the most important part of his coaching job was to recruit new talent, and when he found one, to develop it. A crucial aspect to developing new talent was to ensure that he was not being overshadowed by existing players, the mighty oak stunting new saplings. Walsh had to let go many seasoned players well before their time because he felt that their presence inhibited the development of new talent.13 It would take an extremely confident coach to do this; it is counterintuitive. The usual tendency is to stick with your proven players rather than to try the new and untried.

Tun Razak increasingly assumed the coaching style of leadership after he settled the 1969 riot. He was unique in that he successfully made the smooth transition from being a military leader in the aftermath of the riot to the coach-like prime minister of a democracy. Many leaders cannot successfully make such transitions.

Tun Razak exhibited other unique qualities. He inherited a tired and less-than-talented cabinet from his predecessor, so he actively sought new talent. The political structure in UMNO then (like today) did not encourage the emergence of new talent, so he bypassed the system. He went outside of politics; from the civil service he recruited such seasoned leaders as Ghazali Shafie and Chong Hon Nam; from the private sector, Tengku Razaleigh. Under his tutelage, they scaled even greater heights. Abdullah Ahmad, Tun’s Special Assistant, went on to complete his studies at Cambridge and later became Mahathir’s Special Ambassador to the United Nations.

Tun Razak demonstrated his coaching style in other ways. When the tradition-bound civil service stymied his ambitious development plans, he did two things. First he hired an American management consultant (Milton Esman) to revamp the service.14 He could not possibly fire the entire civil service, so he decided to enhance its professionalism through extensive training. He sent young officers who had not quite yet acquired the bad habits of the civil service to graduate schools abroad. He initiated formal in-house training for fresh recruits instead of letting them loose to be trained haphazardly on the job. He realized that the civil service was incapable of executing his policies; yet needless criticism would simply undermine the organization.

His other bold strategy was to bypass completely the civil service. When bureaucrats stalled his policies, he created extra-governmental bodies to effectively bypass obscurantist civil servants. Thus was born the Government-linked companies (GLCs).

Like a good coach, Tun Razak first recruited fresh talent, and then groomed them to be developed fully and not be overshadowed by the old timers, the same strategy that Bill Walsh used so successfully a decade later with his San Francisco team.

Malaysians were ready for the Tun’s coaching style because they were becoming better educated and more confident. He was also sufficiently flexible to adapt to the changes he saw in his followers. In short, Tun Razak’s leadership style was flexible; it was equipped with the metaphorical adjustable flaps.

Next: The Orchestra Conductor

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