Everyday Matters: In search of great leadership

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 13, 2018 - August 19, 2018.
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Look at it this way — if winning wasn’t so hard, it wouldn’t feel so good. — Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Richter

For generations, forward-thinking Malaysians (and others around the world) have been on a quest for a formula for not just good but great leadership. This has been a holy grail of mine since the 1980s and after speaking to experts in our local universities and beyond, I believe I have found some elements that make up great leadership. To be great, leaders must first master the important skills of listening, learning, helping and leading. These are not optional skills but the bedrock of leadership.

I have found that the best leaders recognise that listening inspires much more than telling. Then they learn. Active listening elicits understanding, which leads to learning. This has got to be the ultimate axiom. The late American educator and businessman Steven Covey said it best: “Understand before being understood.”

Then, they set an example of responsible leadership by helping. People are much more willing to sacrifice and follow when they see their leaders right there in the trenches with them. This earns the leaders the trust and confidence of their people; then, they are ready to lead.

I wanted to test these findings and like any good researcher, I started with a literature review of the subject. Based on my research, poring over books, articles and case studies, I discovered that people who do great things focused on the above and just get it done again and again.

In his 2001 best-selling book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, American professor Jim Collins and his team set out to answer a similar question: How does a good company become a great one?

And how do good people become great leaders? While Collins researched good companies and not personalities, I believe his findings provided an insight into my own.

He started with a list of 1,435 companies and narrowed them down to 11 of the very best. And what did he discover? He concluded that there was no “magic moment” that took a company from good to great. Rather it was an ongoing commitment of the company and its leaders to set clearly defined priorities and focus on what really mattered.

Collins’ conclusions seem largely right to me. People who do great things focus on what matters most and get it done well over and over, better and better.

But to me, that is not enough. Great leadership is so much more. Great leadership is about getting to the top and making things — great things, unprecedented things — happen. It is about inventing something superior that stands apart. It is about transforming and completely revolutionising products, processes and people. It is about making an impact that endures long after you are gone. It goes beyond just being the best!

This quest for great leadership here in Malaysia is important to us now more than ever. Well, for one, we are on the verge of making history. We can do this by telegraphing to the rest of the world that after a peaceful transfer of power, we are ready to take Malaysia to greater heights in all aspects of nation building. We can provide an example for the rest to follow. After all, have we not shown the world that 93-year-old Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad can have a second act?

Our elected leaders, drawing on the strength of the hand they were dealt with, can lead this nation into a future where no Malaysian will be without an opportunity to prosper, his present standing in life notwithstanding. Having already earned the right to define our collective destiny as a nation, great leadership is what we need to prosper on this journey.

Great leadership means having the political will to chart a new course, set a formidable agenda and convince everyone else to follow. Otherwise, we will be squandering the election victory and goodwill that came with it.

We have witnessed our leaders in action in the hallowed halls of parliament and we find them wanting — on both sides of the political divide. We see an assault on accepted decorum — we see juvenile sniping and name-calling, raucous noise-making to drown debates, and we say, “Enough!”

That is not the quality of leadership we, the people, deserve.

We need our political leaders to step up to the plate and do at least five things:

1. See the big picture. Governing is NOT about political parties or personalities. It is about the nation and its people. It is about the future we plan to leave to our descendants. Debate and decide well.

2. See what does not exist yet and bring that to life. Only then can this paucity of extraordinariness we face be put to pasture.

3. Grasp the human dimension of every situation. Debate if you must but know what question to ask and when to ask it in a civil fashion.

4. Distinguish the essential from the important and strive to do more and do it better. Move forward when the whole world seems to be stalling and slipping backwards. We have had the global spotlight on us since that fateful May night. Let us prove that this little nation can and is not afraid to lead.

5. There will be challenges as you might expect but we will overcome them. We must be willing to fail and have the fortitude to get back up and try again.

Lou Holtz, the coach of Notre Dame’s famous American football team, once said, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it. Show me someone who has done something worthwhile and I will show you someone who has overcome adversity.”

He was on to something there. As I patiently wait for our 61st Independence Day celebration to commence soon, I am reminded that the Almighty God did not put us on this earth to be ordinary. Far from it. HE would want us to shepherd HIS creations to great heights. Let us prove HIM right.


Zakie Shariff is a member of the board of directors at Universiti Malaysia Pahang. He is also a director of FA Securities, a boutique stockbroking firm in Kuala Lumpur.

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