Wednesday, April 6, 2016



By Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar

14 March 2016
Dewan Perdana, SME Corp, Platinum Sentral

Assalamualaikum WBT

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, let me express my thanks to SPAD Academy for inviting me here this morning to share my thoughts on Leadership and Building a High Performing Team. I must confess that when I received this invitation, I became slightly nostalgic. I started thinking how I had first experienced leadership being shown – my childhood home. Interestingly enough, many years later I read an article in the Harvard Business Review where the management icon Jack Welch stated, “My mother was the greatest leadership teacher I ever had”. So both Jack Welch and I learnt our leadership lessons the same way – in our respective childhood homes. I, however was luckier than Mr. Welch. While he had only one teacher; his mother, I had two; my mother and my father.

You know how most management books will tell you that the optimum span of control is 5? Well, my mother had to manage 12 children and 1 husband and she was amazing at it. Many a time, my father was away on his political work and my mother would single-handedly handle everything. She was an expert at delegating household tasks to us children all according to our capabilities. She was a financing wiz who knew how to manage finances and credit so that we children never wanted for the essentials. She was a resource optimizer who could prioritize her time and her resources. When I think back on it, I still don’t know how she managed it. But I learnt from her all these things.

From my father, I learnt that leadership and authority must be tempered with compassion and mercy. My father was a highly disciplined man. He expected the best from himself and the best from others. Yet, he also knew the need to be compassionate. He knew how difficult it was for my mother to manage all the household bills on our very limited resources and how much my mother sacrificed her own needs for the family. So when my father held higher positions, he made sure that he rewarded her within his limits. So I can safely say that I do not believe in the blowtorch management style that “Neutron Jack” as Jack Welch was also known, practiced.

Well there is one other difference between Jack Welch and me. Mr. Welch spent his entire career in one firm, GE. I would like to think that I was more adventurous. I managed to fit in careers in three different fields i.e. legal, banking and politics. In each of these fields I again managed to fit in very different roles. In the legal field, I served as Sessions Court President as well as a legal advisor to a bank, Bank Bumiputra. In the banking field I did commercial banking before becoming CEO of Bank Bumiputra Investment banking subsidiary and in politics, I was Cabinet Minister in four (4) different Ministries i.e. PM’s Department (in charge of Law), Defence, Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs.

I would say that the leadership challenges that I faced as Cabinet Minister were the most challenging and interesting. If you ever thought that politics is a bed of roses, let me remind you of what Winston Churchill said when he compared politics and war. Churchill, who knew a thing or two about both war and politics, said “In war you can be killed only once but in politics many times”. I must have done something right – I survived. 

My thoughts of leadership therefore have been shaped by my experiences over the course of more than 40 years of hands-on public service in these very different fields. Although they are different, nevertheless I find that the principles of outstanding leadership and building high performance teams remain the same.

The Concept of Leadership
Building a high-performance team is a function of leadership. So what is leadership? Is leadership different from management? Some think so. They use a cute phrase to make this distinction clear - leadership is about doing the right thing while management about doing things right. To these people, management is about ensuring effectiveness and efficiency through planning, organizing, budgeting resources, etc. while leadership is about thinking strategically and setting the direction, aligning stakeholders, inspiring people and guiding change.

I do not hold this view. In the real world things are not so sharply defined. I find it difficult to imagine how a manager can achieve results without setting a team’s direction or inspiring the team to move in that direction. Similarly, I believe people would find it extremely frustrating to work for a leader who creates an inspiring vision but is clueless, no direction and out of touch with the details involved in implementing this vision.

Of course the higher one’s position is in the organizational hierarchy, the greater the focus is on strategy. Similarly, junior staff would focus more on the mechanics of implementation. But all of you regardless of your job titles have the responsibility to both do things rightly and do the right thing. Leaders at all levels should have both; a long-term vision and a short-term plan, inspire change and promote stability, empower employees and hold them accountable, think creatively and focus on the bottom line, all at the same time. This is how you as leaders can add more value to your organization.

My favourite analogy for a leader is the magnet. The stronger and better a magnet, the more iron filings that it attracts and the greater the distance that it can induce them to move. Similarly a strong and good leader will attract more people to follow him and will be able to take more people with him as he moves towards uncharted territory. So, how do we become stronger leaders, better magnets in our organization? Let me give my thoughts on some of the key factors.

The Context of Leadership – Malaysia’s Plural Society
Malaysia is blessed because we have a plural society. We are probably the most plural society in Asia. Why do I say that this is a blessing? Because it is this very diversity that has enabled us to build on subtly different experiences of the different groups in our society. It enables us to avoid the danger of group think. It provides us a latent potential to understand other countries and societies that we can convert to our advantage. As leaders, we should consider how we can leverage on this fact to improve our performance in all fields. However, to do that we need the requisite skills to build and to manage diverse teams.

Perhaps the best example of a leader who intuitively understood and practiced this is Allahyarham Tunku Abdul Rahman. He was the first person in the country to build what would now be called a diverse, inclusive team, but in that simpler era was simply called the Alliance. How did he do this so successfully? By balancing and managing the interests of each of the groups so that the whole is greater than the sum of the constituent parts. He set a powerful example that has been followed by all our Prime Ministers.

So we as leaders in our organization have a good role model to follow. As our environment changes, we, too should be open to new ideas and new influences. Being open to new ideas and influences, however, does not mean being swept away by them. In fact it is a fear of being swept away that causes many people, many leaders to close their minds behind what they feel are the old certainties. But society is never static and as the environment changes, we cannot always do things the way they were done before.  So paradoxically to be open to new influences, we have to have the self-confidence to know our own self-worth, our own values and our own strengths. Mahatma Gandhi expressed this best when he said “Let all my windows be open. Let all cultures blow in. But let not culture blow me off my feet”.
Some people discount the importance of diversity. Akio Morita, the founder of Sony once said that people are 95% the same and only 5% different. My take on this is simple - if you ignore the 5% difference, then you will only get 95% success. If you want 100% success, then you need to consider the 5% that is different.

Developing Professional Expertise
How do we develop self-confidence? By knowing that we are good at what we do. A leader regardless of his profession has to be an expert at something. What does it mean to be an expert? It means that someone who has achieved the highest level of performance in his field for his level. Note that I said highest level of performance, not highest level of knowledge. Knowledge is only useful if it is translated to performance. Leaders who have developed the requisite expertise are able to select and implement more appropriate strategies, respond faster, and adjust their actions more quickly when situation change.

How does someone become an expert in a particular field? It comes from concentrated effort and deliberate practice at sharpening your skills in your field. Some people say “in-born talent” is necessary. I however think that having “in-born talent” is vastly overrated and cannot produce outstanding performance without practice. Let me illustrate this by picking an example from the field of sport. Look at Datuk Nicol David who has consistently been ranked No. 1 female squash player in the world.

Many of you may know that she won her first World Junior title at the age of 16. Yet how many know that she started professional coaching at the age of 8 or that she trains for 2-4 hours every day? This is the level of commitment that is needed to be an expert, a leader. In her website, Datuk Nicol David states “We develop specific skills to take us to the next level, into being a better squash player”.

Similarly each of us has to develop specific skills to take us into the next level of becoming a better professional, a better leader. We have to engage in highly disciplined practice consistently over time to become an expert and thus a better leader. While most people stop practising once the practice becomes too difficult or is no longer enjoyable, true leaders continue at it because they are determined to succeed, not because it is easy or enjoyable.

Now, leaving the squash court aside and coming back to the workplace, how can we learn leadership expertise in the context of our everyday work? We can develop them through optimal levels of challenging assignments. If the work assignment is too easy, people do not get the challenge they need to develop new skills. If the assignment is too difficult, then people become overwhelmed by the challenge. They become anxious and uncertain about how to proceed and this detracts from them learning new skills. Here, supervisors play a key role. The first role is obvious - supervisors need to give assignments with the right level of complexity for their direct reports to learn new skills. The second is not obvious but equally important – supervisors need to give honest feedback to their direct reports so that ambiguity is reduced and they can identify what works and what does not.

Having the Right Personal Motivation at Work
What are the things that motivate us when we work? I don’t mean fulfilling the organization’s goals but rather what we want to achieve as we go about this. Some people have a “looking good” motivation which means that they focus primarily on looking successful in the eyes of others. This is not all bad because such people do want to achieve a successful result. After all achieving success is the easiest way to look good in the eyes of others. However, in their efforts to always look good in the eyes of others, they often stick with the tried-and-true strategies, take fewer risks and avoid anything that might lead to negative feedback. Thus they often forego opportunities to take challenging assignments and forego opportunities to learn new skills. In their efforts to look good, they may also try to outperform rather help their colleagues which of course detracts from efforts to build a high performance team.

Others have a “learning opportunity” personal motivation. Here they are less pre-occupied with their self-image and more focused on learning new skills while doing their work assignments. Consequently this group are more open to take on challenging assignments and more willing to persist in the face of difficulty.

They are thus are more likely to achieve success not just now but also in the future, not just for themselves, but also for their organizations. I therefore believe that one of the key factors to build high performance teams is to inculcate the “learning opportunity” motivation within team members and not the “looking good” motivation.

Sense of Responsibility
Responsibility refers to the quality of being goal-oriented, dependable, self-disciplined and organized. Responsible leaders are committed to coming through for others and completing the job for which they are accountable. They are internally motivated to fulfil their responsibilities to the best of their abilities.

How many of you still remember the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008? Do you remember the Chinese team being led into the stadium by two people, basketball star Yao Ming and a small boy, a nine-year old boy named Lin Hao? Lin Hao was one of the survivors of the Sichuan earthquake. After he escaped his collapsed school building, he went back through the rubble and rescued some of his classmates from the collapsed building. He then led the group of small children in singing songs because he felt that it would keep their spirits up while waiting for help. When asked why he put himself in danger to save his classmates, Lin Hao explained that he did this because he was a school monitor and he believed that taking care of the other students was his personal responsibility. He might be nine (9) years old but he certainly has leadership qualities.

Social Skills and Emotional Intelligence
Wisma Putra has always emphasised the importance of having good social skills in our diplomatic corps as this is an essential skill for a good diplomat. I believe that this is an important skill for other organizations as well. Leaders in organizations need to understand that managing relationships at work is at least as important as managing the technical aspects of their work when you want to build high-performance teams. There is a need to pro-actively manage your relationship with your bosses, direct reports, peers and clients. In this way leaders can build the social capital needed to be successful. Social capital is as important as financial capital and human capital to ensure success in business. This is Social capital comes in very handy when you need to manage conflicts, influence others and motivate others to get things done. Good social skills help leaders accumulate more social capital.

Closely related to social skills is emotional intelligence. I must confess that I was surprised that management theorists only recognized the importance of emotional intelligence relatively lately, i.e. only in the 1980’s with the development of the theories of multiple intelligences. After all the ability to identify, understand, and empathise with others has always been the forte of successful diplomats since time immemorial.  The success of ASEAN is a testimony to the high degree of emotional intelligence displayed by ASEAN leaders and diplomats in forging consensus on difficult issues. Successful leaders in other fields would do well to learn their techniques.

One powerful technique is to develop positive emotions. People who experience and express positive emotions are more likely to bring out the best in themselves. Positive feelings such as joy, hope, love, compassion, generosity, optimism, etc. serve many purposes. When we feel positive emotions, we tend to think more broadly and creatively, seek out new experiences and information, behave more flexibly and have more confidence in our own abilities. Positive emotions therefore help us develop mutual respect and build trust more easily.

At the same time, with positive emotions, we can more easily see the situation from the other persons’ point of view and this will enable us to make more thoughtful decisions. So all of you as budding leaders, please do develop your skills in improving your emotional intelligence and building positive emotions. Not only will you be more successful in your work, but as an added bonus, you will enjoy better health as well.

Another key to having high emotional quotient, high EQ, is to have a sense of compassion and mercy. This does not mean condoning wrong-doing or shirking work. However it does mean recognizing that everyone wants to be treated with respect, with dignity and with understanding. Treating people with compassion and mercy is needed to ensure that justice is done to the person. Leaders have the special responsibility to remember this because we are in the position to exercise power. If leaders exercise power without the element of justice, then we don’t get high performance teams, we get oppression.

Intelligence Coupled With Common Sense
Many of us know people who did very well academically in school and yet did not achieve expected levels of success in their career. This is because school tests only one kind of intelligence, analytical intelligence. This is the ability to think critically, analyse information and solve problems, what many call “book smarts”. While analytical intelligence is important, however, it is not sufficient. There are at least two other types of intelligence necessary for success.

The first is creative intelligence which is the ability to generate ideas. People with good creative intelligence often have the same information that other people have, but they are more likely to tinker with that information. They are able to see beyond the obvious, and explore multiple options that enable them to use that information in unique and innovative ways.

The second is practical intelligence. People with practical intelligence have a knack for turning the knowledge that they gain into results that are relevant for a particular situation. Practical knowledge is based primarily on “tacit knowledge” which is a fancy way of saying “common sense”. It is most useful when solving real everyday problems that are not well-defined, have not been faced before and do not have an obvious right answer.

In fact, whenever I think of intellectualism and common sense, I remember a joke about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson going camping. It is night time, and both of them crawl into their tent. Suddenly in the middle of the night, Sherlock Holmes wakes Watson up and says:
“Watson, look up at the sky. What you see?”
Watson replies “I see millions of stars”
Holmes asks “What do you deduce from that?”
Watson replies, “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth out there. And if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life." Holmes is silent for a while and then he says “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”

An effective leader should have not just analytical intelligence but also creative intelligence and practical intelligence, not just “book smarts” but also “street smarts”. Of course being human, we may not always be equally gifted with high levels of all three kinds of intelligence. The solution then is to ensure that our teams consist of a diverse group of people, some who are good at analytical intelligence, others at creative intelligence and yet others at practical intelligence. Then we will have a high-performing team. It is important that leaders do not build teams which are replicas of themselves. It may be more comfortable for a leader to do so, to surround himself with people to think alike and approach problems in the same way, but the result would be a one-dimensional team, not a high-performing team. How can we avoid this trap of creating teams that replicate of ourselves? The answer is to have self-awareness.  

Developing Self Awareness
Developing self-awareness is not an easy or natural thing to do but we must consciously do so because it is an extremely important skill for leaders. Leaders who know their goals, values and styles, their strengths and weaknesses are more likely to thrive in their work. Leaders who understand their biases – and we all have them – are more likely to manage their biases by seeking out information from people with different perspectives. This is what I meant when I said that leaders with self-awareness can avoid the trap of building one-dimensional teams and instead build high-performance teams. Consequently they are more able to develop a broader perspective, and thus make better decisions.

Equally important, leaders with self-awareness also understand that context significantly affects their own and others behaviour. Most people attribute their own and others’ behaviour to innate personality characteristics. For example, we say that someone is a sociable person, an analytical person, or a compassionate person. However the reality is that many of our behaviours are significantly influenced by the contexts in which we find ourselves. Some contexts bring out the best in us, while others bring out the worst in us. Self-aware leaders are better equipped to generate the optimum contexts to bring out the best in their teams.

Finally leaders with good self-awareness are more aware of their limitations and their limits. Remember that at the beginning of my talk, I used the magnet analogy for a leader. What happens when a magnet moves too far from the iron filings or too fast? The iron filings no longer follow the magnet as they fall outside the magnetic field generated by the magnet. The same thing happens to leaders who are not aware of their limits and move too far from their level of competence. They can no longer get their teams to follow them and their effectiveness drops. Self-awareness of our strengths and limits can help us avoid this situation.

Well, ladies and gentlemen,
The world is changing very fast these days. Our responses must therefore be equally fast if we want to survive in this new highly competitive world. Yet, despite the changes, some things remain constant. Just as a magnet will always point north no matter where we are, similarly good leadership will always be the key to develop high-performance teams no matter what field or business that we are in. I wish you every success in your future careers.

Thank you. 

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