Everyday Matters: Taking people with you

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“LOOKING back on my career at GE, one of the things I wish I could do over is to talk more about what kind of company I envisioned us to be … what our values were and what we really stood for.” — Jack Welch, legendary CEO of GE

By the time you read this, the general election in Singapore will be over. But what a show! The campaigning on the island state has been one of the fiercest I have ever seen. Many new faces were out stumping to persuade their constituents that they have the right mettle to lead the nation. And the people of this island state have chosen. I hope they have chosen well.

I teach leadership as a subject to a cohort of international MBA students and I enjoy the freewheeling exchanges I have with them in class. Diverse in terms of background, they have one question that they ask very often: How does one become a good leader? I then try to tap on current issues to answer that old chestnut.

Unfortunately, recent political developments in Malaysia have not been kind to me. The dearth of good, authentic, from-the-heart leadership in our nation today drives me almost to despair. I struggle for an answer.

As I see it, to be a good leader, one must have a swell of followers — people who believe in one’s vision of the future, multitudes who will go where one goes and do what needs to be done to achieve the agreed-upon objectives.

And I don’t see that on parade now. I do not see a national leader who can take us together with him where he wants to go. You need authentic, from-the-heart leadership for that. And that needs to come from within. Looking at our sorry state now, my plea to those who think they are leading is: can you just be yourself and practise what your parents have taught you, please?

I bet you have heard that advice many times before. I know I have. And I bet you have also been told that being yourself means being trustworthy and authentic AND if you don’t come off as those two things, then you have failed as a leader already, because no one is going to follow you very far.

The opposite of authentic in my lexicon is synthetic — a trumped-up, poorly imagined, sad version of leadership. While it may fool people for a while, synthetic leadership grates on you. There is always this worrying notion that you are being led away from what is probably the right path. And synthetic leadership will fail.

From experience, I know that folks know and follow the real deal when they see it: leaders who walk through life on their own terms, who stay true to their beliefs, and who do not back down when the chips are down.

We can all name people like this, and there is often a broad consensus that such diverse figures as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and even Oprah Winfrey, are (or were) the real deal, which goes to show that leadership authenticity can be demonstrated in many different styles. I call this having “extraordinary authenticity”, which means having the ability to be yourself even in the toughest of situations.

This unfortunately requires the leader to live with a paradox: to inspire as a leader — you need to know your stuff — but you also need to be able to admit when you don’t know your stuff. You need to be both confident and vulnerable at the same time. Not many of our present leaders have that strength and that is so sad. Why? Because as leaders, we have followers, and we have to be truthful with them to take them with us.

We can only go so far by going it alone. That is an altruism. If we want to start a new business, if we want a big promotion or if we want to govern a country well and move it in a new and better direction, we are going to need people to help us get there.

We will never accomplish anything big if we try to do it alone. We need a uniting vision, an inspiring one. Hollow platitudes will not do because they will never replace a unifying, electric vision.

So, the first job of a successful leader is to have an idea of where you want to lead your people. That is what I call “the big goal”. By this, I mean something more than just small improvements or modest growth.

It is not very bold to do just marginally better than the year before. It does not ignite the soul. We had an inspirational leader who led us that way — once upon a time. We need another like him — and soon.

If you see yourself as a leader, setting the right goal is the key to taking people with you towards the future. And leaders often fall short in this area by not aiming high enough. None of us want to fail, for a whole host of reasons (job preservation being one of the top ones), so we tend to be cautious about how high we set our sights.

But the truth of the matter is, shooting for just good enough rather than greatness will not inspire the people around us. It also means that we will never get a chance to find out what we, and the people we lead, are truly capable of. And that’s a loss and a shame, for the nation, for our people, and for ourselves.

It’s not just the leader who has to care about the vision for the nation; it has to appeal to everyone who is involved in making it happen. In order to do all this, the vision must have the ability to inspire. Everyone must want to be a part of something bigger.

People don’t want to go to work to just do their job. They are most motivated when they know that what they are doing counts and they are helping the team drive towards a powerful vision of the future. It is the leader’s job to give them that vision in a way that ignites their hearts and minds.

To get the vision out there and embraced, it needs to be simple and it needs to be straightforward. I believe one of the jobs of a leader is to simplify the complex. And I don’t mean simple from a concept standpoint. I mean simple from the standpoint of, “Hey, I can remember that!”

Once a leader has shared the present realities and his vision with the people, the next part is to gain alignment. Alignment is hugely important. A leader can have the best idea in the world, but it won’t matter if he can’t get people on board to help him make it happen. If he can’t get alignment, his grand idea is not an effective idea. And getting true alignment is key to ownership and accountability.

To gain alignment, a leader needs to share present reality (and not fudge it up), and help people understand the “why”. Do not let uncertainty and anxiety fester (as they do today). Don’t just tell people what you have done. Tell them what you want to do and explain why you want to do it. It’s the “why” that engages people the most.

No alignment equals no involvement and no commitment. Get the people involved, or they will never be truly committed to the goal. Think about when someone had asked you to do something but didn’t ask you what you thought. How committed were you, really? I can guarantee that the answer is “not very” or “not as much as I could have been”.

As I look around, seeking that topical answer to the perennial question of “how to become a good leader?”, I see many of my fellow citizens asking the same question. That is symptomatic of a nation in need of leadership — one that can unite us as a people and take us forward. I hope the present cohort of leaders will now step up to the plate and swing for the fences — and take us with them so that we can run that lap of victory together.


Zakie Shariff is CEO of a state-owned GLIC and co-founder of hCap Associates, a talent search company

This article first appeared in Opinion, digitaledge Weekly, on September 14 - 20, 2015.