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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, November 07, 2007

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #30

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

The Orchestra Conductor

The orchestra conductor model is seen beyond the symphony hall, more typically in academia and research institutes. In a roomful of accomplished individuals, you do not have to shout to be heard. You will be heard clearly even when you whisper if you have something important to say. People follow you because they want to, not because they have to. In an orchestra, all the musicians are talented and accomplished. They do not need a conductor to perform; they could do that on their own. Early in the last century, inspired by Marx’s ideals of the classless society, there was a movement towards a conductor-less orchestra. Even in those instances they still needed someone to at least keep the timing.

The conductor brings out the best of his or her musicians so together they could put on a superb performance. He or she serves more than just as a human metronome, rather to bring his (or her) unique interpretation to the composition. The conductor is “above all, … a leader of men,” as noted by Schonberg in his The Great Conductors. “His subjects look to him for guidance. He is at once a father image, the great provider, the fount of inspiration, the Teacher who knows all.”15 The relationship between musicians and conductor is based on mutual respect and understanding. A good conductor makes the orchestra perform beyond what it thinks it is capable. Equally important, an orchestra of able musicians could do better without a conductor than with a bad one.

This leadership is seen in modern hospitals and other complex organizations. My hospital went through a series of temporary CEOs, yet it ran smoothly as we were all professionals. To be effective and perform beyond the ordinary however, a hospital must have effective leadership.

This point in leadership was well understood by President Reagan. He appointed capable and seasoned individuals to his cabinet, and then let them have their way. This was in marked contrast to his immediate predecessor, Jimmy Carter. He too had an equally talented cabinet, but he felt the need to micromanage them. Reagan was reelected; Carter was a one-term president.

I would schematize this leadership model as a series of boxes (the followers) arranged circumferentially around a central hub (the leader), with a series of arrows going both ways between the center and the periphery, as well as between the elements in the periphery. If the military leadership were a pyramid and the coaching style a block with a gentle sloping roof, then a symphony model leadership would be a bicycle wheel.

The communications in an orchestra are intricate; the musicians and conductor depend on each other for feedback. Players in the wind section have to hear and be sensitive to as well as react to the brass section. The conductor serves as the overall guide.

The orchestra musicians are highly talented; they are proud of their skills. Yet there is remarkable absence of power struggle. The first violinist does not aspire or scheme to be the assistant, and later, conductor. She is not sitting by coyly in the wings plotting the downfall of the conductor so she could ascend to the podium. She is content and proud being the first violinist, thank you very much. She may occasionally indulge the conductor into letting her be the soloist. Yet with such seemingly informal structure, the orchestra performs complex operations flawlessly.

This model of leadership is rare in politics. The predictable drama is for the number two (or anyone else for that matter) challenging the leader. Unlike in an orchestra, it is rare in politics to have a team of highly talented individuals, each able to stand on his own. The typical pattern is for the leader to appoint only his supporters and cronies, and they in turn are beholden to the leader.

Nonetheless when we have an orchestra-like political team, the results can be phenomenal. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal team was one.16 In Canada, there was Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s cabinet in the 1960s. Roosevelt proved that government, properly harnessed, could be a force for the betterment of society. He gave hope to a society crushed by the Depression, and later under a very different set of challenges, led his nation to victory in World War II.

Up north, Pearson with his considerable skills as a former diplomat, successfully healed the deep fissure between Canada’s two founding nations—English and French—in time to celebrate its bicentennial in1967 in rousing unity. He convinced Canadians that they would be far better off remaining united instead of splitting. He did it not through military fiat or using the bully pulpit of his office, rather by coaxing and appealing to the best qualities of his people, just as a symphony conductor would of his musicians.17

Pearson’s Bilingual and Bicultural (B&B) Commission was also a rare demonstration on the effective use of committees and commissions. All too often such bodies are used more for avoiding decisions and ducking responsibilities, typically exemplified by Abdullah Badawi’s Royal Commission on the Police.

Leaders like Roosevelt and Pearson assembled a team of highly talented men and women, individuals of strong will and great accomplishments. They were not wallflowers; they spoke their mind freely. Consequently, their cabinets often resembled a team of wild cats, each going their separate ways. To the uninformed they may appear chaotic and disorganized, but the important key was that they accomplished great missions. That in the end is the hallmark of a great leader, and equally, his great team.

Next: The Holistic Leader

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