Leading with vision and passion


  • Business
  • Sunday, 13 Jul 2003

By Dr NELLIE S.L. TAN-WONG

AS much as industries are told to brace for new global rules and regulations, there is a new criterion for business leaders. Leadership is about focussing people towards a common and shared destination – a vision that requires boldness, and demands a high degree of passion. 

To some, a vision may appear as a well articulated statement. To many, they are more motherhood statements with generic statements about wanting to be the best or be a market leader in the industry. 

What then differentiates a powerful vision from a lesser one? It’s passion. Vision, advocated with passion, is the essence. 

The true test of any organisation is not whether it can win today, but whether it can continue winning. Therefore, the ultimate test of a leader is not whether he or she makes the right decisions today, but whether he or she can teach others to be leaders and build an organisation that can sustain success. 

Corporate governance dictates a new assessment criterion for business leaders, which could exclude a person from a top management position if such a person does not possess personal attributes such as adaptability and humility or are found to be excessively greedy. 

Leaders who are greedy and egoistic can be just as bad for an organisation as those who lack the skills and experience to run the business. Recent failures of CEOs in high profile companies demonstrated that what the fallen leaders lacked was not skills but integrity. 

The flawed characteristics of some now dethroned leaders showed that they were not authentic, did not bring out the best in people and were not receptive to feedback. 

Some “big name” CEOs have been recruited at a huge price tag, but it was soon realised that they lacked a cultural fit with the company and did not share the same values as most other employees in the company. 

The initial PR bang of the hire is followed by an echo of disillusionment. The big ego leaders are driven by greed rather than the legacy of the company, which is reinforced with high salaries and inflated compensation packages. Greed and ego have been destructive combinations for many companies recently. 

The right culture that sustains success projects a leader, maybe with a strong ego – not a big ego – demonstrated by a confidence to make decisions and possessing the passion for results that will benefit the company, not their individual selves. 

They share credit and centre stage with their colleagues. When things go wrong, they look at themselves first, learn from their mistakes and are brave enough to admit their shortcomings. 

A successful corporate leader was once interviewed and asked about his secret of success. 

Q: Sir, what is the secret of your success? 

A: Making the right decisions. 

Q: How did you make the right decisions? 

A: Through experience. 

Q: How did you get that experience? 

A: By making the wrong decisions. 

Charisma is not enough to explain the visionary leadership, nor are qualifications. These only create transient success stories, the proverbial “flash in the pan” kind. To create enduring institutions, leadership has to go beyond spewing platitudes and delivering inspiring speeches. 

Leadership development is not just about one person at the helm driving the company forward. More importantly, it is about creating the right systems in place that allow leaders to develop at different levels in the company. These leaders then become the vehicle of change and harbingers of positive business results; this creates sustainable success. 

Ensuring sustainable excellent performance requires developing the leadership skills and talents of others within the company. 

Fortunately, many in the corporate world are moving into that paradigm – by having support structures in place to get this going and to carry concepts of empowerment and decentralissation to their next logical step. However, it needs leaders to jump start the process. 

Three critical characteristics of leadership: 

n Leadership with a focus 

Disciplined focus is what distinguishes those who make things happen from those who watch things happen. All leaders must have the ability to focus intensely. They know exactly what they want to do and go after it. 

A leader’s moment of strength is when he or she has the greatest amount of singleness of purpose. Leaders focus on their goals but they also keep a watchful eye on the world around them. This peripheral vision is what keeps them going. 

They have the direction of a thoroughbred but they do not wear blinkers. Focus must not be achieved at the expense of awareness. Once a vision is conceived, and followed up with action and experience, it must be kept aglow through constant focus. 

 

n Leadership that creates trust 

Managing people and spirit is more important than managing organisations, things and numbers. It functions not on paper, but by flesh and blood. A leader may be a fountain of ideas –some of them great, some fair, some not worth worrying about – but he or she needs people to listen to them. 

More importantly, leaders need to listen to people. A good leader must cultivate and earn the trust of the people and keep building and retaining that trust. 

When a leader feels that he or she is valued by the people, when it is all right to make an occasional mistake and that work is not the sum total of our lives, the leader is more likely to give more of his or her creativity and commitment. 

Such feelings and actions may not make a leader’s position secure, but the humanness and caring strength of the culture makes the leader stick through tough times. 

“In order to be good for the people around you, you first have to feel that you have a sense of self-worth. You have to be happy with what you are doing and who you are. If you are not, you are not going to be any good to the people around you.” – John Hughes 

 

n Leadership that offers hope 

Successful leaders are fortified with hope for the future and therefore willing to take calculated risks. They will move with courage and care, from the known world of the present to the unknown world of the future. 

Success for the next generation will mean cool-headedness. This world will need more entrepreneurs, and gutsy business and political leaders to make things happen. 

We can acquire skills, knowledge and experience to enable us to assess our risks in preparing for our future –and make those critical decisions. Then we need the courage and hope to leap into the void if we are to reap the rewards. 

To do so may be contrary to our basic human nature and nurturing, but our very survival may depend on it. Those who prepare their wings now will fly later. 

All of this inspires us to a very clear but propelling conclusion: that personal success and happiness is largely a matter of what we do in our minds. 

The mind, and what we choose to put in it, determines greatness. We can be happier and more successful. We can achieve our dreams. The power is within our control. 

Great people are the products of what is in their heads and hearts. 

 

o Datuk Dr Nellie S.L. Tan-Wong is co-founder and deputy chairperson of the Women’s Institute of Management 

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