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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.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Understanding Leaders Through Their Followers

Understanding Leaders Through Their  Followers
M. Bakri Musa
 
 
There are as many successful leadership styles as there are organizational entities. More important than the leadership style or type of leaders is the dynamics of the interactions between leaders and their followers.
 
     We can intuitively appreciate that the talent required to be a platoon commander is very different from that of a head of an academic department. Even for the same organization, you can have many successful personality types and leadership styles.
 
     Likewise, a leader who is excellent during a certain period of time would be downright dangerous in another. Winston Churchill was a great leader of wartime Britain. He inspired his people when they were being bombarded daily by the Germans. Come peacetime however, the British rejected him. Their rejection of him did not mean that they were not grateful for his brilliant and inspiring leadership during the war. The British felt that they needed a new kind of leader now that the country was at peace.  
 
     Had Churchill continued to lead Britain after World War II, the ensuing Cold War would not have remained cold for long. His uncompromising stand against communism, reflected in his haughty Iron Curtain speech, would have plunged the world into another great war very quickly.

     Leaders must have a free mind to adapt, grow and learn with the inevitable changes in their followers and society. This is particularly true in a plural society, or one rapidly changing as a consequence of urbanization and globalization. Malaysian society is all those.

     In my book Towards A Competitive Malaysia, I likened leaders to wings of a plane. Wings define the limits of performance of the plane, so too does a leader to her people. The earliest plane had double wings – the biplanes – to give the greatest lift at the low speed that their small engine could deliver. Later with powerful engines and consequent greater speed, that design exerted too much drag and soon yielded to single wings fitted with slats, slots and ailerons to adjust the shape of the wing to be more curved for maximal lift at low speed, and then retracted for less drag at cruising speed. With even more powerful jet engines and faster speed, this design again proved inadequate and gave way to backswept wings. Supersonic rockets need only winglets.

     Likewise with society, it requires different leaders depending on its stage of development and circumstance. It is the rare individual who could successfully transit from one pattern of leadership to another. The wisdom of the British during the immediate postwar period was their recognition of this insight. As for most leaders, even brilliant ones, they stay long after their leadership style has proven ineffective with the changed circumstances.
 
     Stated differently, really wise leaders know when their time is up.

     Tunku Abdul Rahman was the perfect leader immediately before and following independence. At that time what Malaysians needed most was stability and reassurance. Tunku’s personality and leadership style amply provided both. Malaysians had good reasons for being wary of ambitious and charismatic leaders; neighboring Indonesia’s Sukarno was a constant ugly and painful reminder.

     I discern at least three patterns of leadership. One is the pyramidal or military style, with one commanding general at the top, followed by a few subordinate generals, then many colonels followed by many more majors and lieutenants all the way down to the enlisted soldiers. This is strictly top-down, command-and-control organization.
 
     This leadership is best suited for an emerging society where its members are not sophisticated or well educated, or one long oppressed through colonialism. This was MacArthur’s leadership of Japan right after the humiliation of World War II; it was remarkably effective and efficient. This was also the leadership of Tun Razak following the May 1969 riots; it was also highly effective.

     In a developed society such leadership is needed during times of crisis, as in America in the aftermath of 9-11 terrorists’ attack. This should have been the leadership during the Katrina devastations of 2005. That it was not, contributed to the unnecessarily widespread and prolonged anarchy following that tragedy.

     The second style is the coaching model where the coach has absolute power over his players. He is not answerable to them rather to elements outside the team: the owners and fans. However, if the team does not perform, it is the coach who will get fired first.
 
     While the coach is the most powerful person in the team, he is not the most well known or even the highest paid. The players often get star billing and are paid many times more. The skill of a coach leader lies in his ability to merge the various talents in his team towards a common goal: beating the opposing team.
 
     Whereas the military model of leadership is pyramidal, the coaching style is more like a schoolhouse block, with a long block on either side of a central and only slightly higher administrative tower. It is remarkably flat and can be very efficient under the right circumstances.
     
     The third model is that of a symphony conductor. Like the sports team, here too we are dealing with a group of accomplished individuals. In such circumstances, a leader does not need to shout in order to be heard; the followers will respond more to her actions than words.
 
     While an orchestra can perform without a conductor, it needs a skillful one in order to shine. The leadership pattern is akin to a bicycle wheel, with the conductor in the center connected by spokes to the musicians in the periphery. They in turn are connected to each other via the rim. Those musicians have to communicate not only with the conductor in the center but also with each other peripherally.
 
     When the load on the rim is not balanced, the spin will not be smooth and the consequent vibrations could break the machine. In an orchestra, too loud a bass would drown out the string section. A creative conductor would carefully choose his repertoire so as to highlight his orchestra’s strength.
 
     This orchestra-style leadership is seen in think tanks, academic departments, and research laboratories. All the participants (followers) are like the musicians – talented and skillful in their own right. They could perform on their own without a leader. In the orchestra model, the total is more than just the sum of the individual parts.
 
     There is something else remarkable about the orchestra model. That is the lack of leadership struggle among the followers. The first violinist does not conspire to take over the podium; she is satisfied with being the best violinist. 

     Malays have long emerged from our feudal ways although we are still trapped by their many elements, such as our excessive deference to authority figures. We are also now far better educated and well informed. We are definitely more open to the world and actively engaged in foreign trade and travels. The authoritarian military style of leadership would certainly push us back.

     It is questionable whether we are ready for the symphony or coaching model. We are in a transition mode; we need to be pushed away from the top-down command-and-control military leadership towards a flatter coaching or symphony model. My preference is for the orchestra model. For that we have to ensure that our citizens are more critical and fully informed.
 
     I would accept an authoritarian coach model provided the leader acknowledges and respects our individuality and utilizes as well as channels our talents towards an agreed-upon goal. My acceptance of an authoritarian streak in a leader carries a major – a very major – caveat. That is, if she fails us in our common mission, then she ought to be fired right away, as with the coach. Therein lies the difficulty.

     A leader is not a zookeeper, content with keeping his animals healthy, well fed and able to procreate. That was Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew brand of leadership; he was an excellent zookeeper. This style however, is appealing only when you are hungry and desperate. Once you pass that stage (an achievement not to be belittled) you yearn for something more enlightened. After all, a lion penned and has to be fed is no lion no matter how loud its roar is; a pampered overgrown cat, maybe.

     Each of us is a leader and follower at the same time. I am the leader of my family and of my surgical team, while at the same time I am a follower in my mosque and in the greater scheme of things. Today’s students are mostly followers except for the few who are already leaders of their students’ organizations. Even the others who are not, they are still leaders in some capacity, to their younger siblings, cousins and nephews, for example. With Allah’s blessings, some will be parents and thus leaders of their respective families. A few might go beyond and even lead their enterprises or even society.

     Leaders should encourage their followers to be critical and unafraid to challenge their leaders’ views. They should go beyond merely tolerating to actively encouraging and embracing criticisms. Leaders should never equate questioning and criticism with impudence and disloyalty. Likewise, followers should never hesitate to question their leaders and not seek refuge behind some misguided notion of loyalty, politeness, or patriotism.
 
     A large segment of the Malaysian community is sufficiently advanced and sophisticated to resent the authoritarian model of leadership as represented by UMNO's Najib. Another segment, almost exclusively Malay, is still stuck in its feudal ways and for whom Najib represents its ideal leader.
 
     Malaysian society being such, until that second segment becomes a minority, or with more Malays being represented in the first segment, the nation is stuck with a feudal authoritarian leadership of Najib where blind loyalty trumps everything and excuses a whole lot of sins. That UMNO's leadership is far from being the orchestral model is demonstrated by the fact that it is continuously plagued by leadership struggles among the next echelon of leaders.
 
     Adapted from the author’s latest book, Liberating The Malay Mind, ZI Publications Sdn Bhd, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia , 2013.
 

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