WE have just witnessed the passing of the leadership baton from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Most writers and the common citizen alike seem to think that the two individuals are of different make-up. They may not be far from the truth. Some have, in my reckoning, unnecessarily gone to the extent of worrying what will happen to, and bemoaning the fate of, the country without Dr Mahathir at the helm.
My answer is that Malaysia will go on – she certainly will get on.
Leaders come in different moulds. History, be it of countries, companies or communities, tells us that leaders are very much people of their times; that their particular type of leadership worked well at the time they were leaders. They almost always had a vision and a passion to fulfil. They had a way of galvanising people.
Dr Mahathir was very much a “telling” leader, bordering the authoritarian type. Leaders of this category are normally said to produce results.
Good examples of this type are Margaret Thatcher, Lee Kuan Yew, Indira Gandhi and Deng Xiao Peng. Their counterparts in the business world could be Harold Geneen and Jack Welch of GE, Henry Ford, and Israel Sieff of Marks and Spencer.
Although seen to be strict disciplinarians, they always worked towards set goals.
In the religious sphere, Prophet Muhammad is an interesting case in point. A friend of mine says that the prophet practised altruistic leadership. He was firm, focused, forceful and fair.
Citing him as the most influential person in history, Michael H. Hart goes on to say “He was supremely successful on both religious and secular levels.” Preaching monotheism, he united a diverse populace that spread Islam to different parts of the world. Today, there are about 1.3 billion Muslims around the world.
On a leadership scale way above this come the fearsome leaders of the past: Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great, amongst others. They too produced results. Genghis and his grandsons established an empire stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Mediterranean. Only the British Empire of the 19th century exceeded this in size. By skilful issue of rewards and martial skills, Genghis brought together the different warring tribes.
Alexander, too, by sheer use of force and leadership by example conquered, by the age of 33, lands from his home in Macedonia till the north of India. His soldiers on horseback defeated the troops of the Indian Raja on the backs of elephants.
Modern-day rulers like Pol Pot, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein have all been known to be cruel to their own people. Somebody knocks at your house door at night, that’s the end of you. Unfortunately, the above did not do anything that can be said to be a plus factor. Almost all they did was for self-gain and to prolong their rule.
In the business sphere, we have people like Al “Chainsaw” Dunlop of Scott paper. He downsized his company, leaving hundreds jobless (70% of senior managers and 30% of workers). He took measures that were unfriendly only to sell the company to its archrival – Kimberly Clark. He did all this in the name of increasing shareholder value.
Robert Maxwell was another who often engaged in abusive behaviour to his staff, often tyrannising them. The people at Enron, like Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay, indulged in such grotesque con games that took everybody down.
We see greed, avarice, and total lack of consideration for others.
In the continuum of leadership, the exact opposite of this would be what is often called servant leadership or soul leadership.
Today, we have many institutions in the US that are running courses to develop leaders of this nature. To some extent, Matsushita tried to do this through his Matsushita School of Management and Government in Japan.
Classical examples of this category would be Jesus Christ, who together with St Paul established a following of over two billion people spread across the globe. Jesus personified non-violence (Gandhi thought he was the prime example of this), and lived a frugal and exemplary life.
In recent times, Mahatma Gandhi practised this sort of leadership. Said to have averted many inter-religious clashes in India, Gandhi was a symbol of simplicity, frugality and the “mastering of self”.
Mother Theresa, who was recently made a Saint by the Pope, is also a good example. Mother Theresa worked with the poorest of the poor. This Nobel Peace Prize winner had established more than 570 missions –Missionaries of Charity – by the time she died in 1997.
We see passion, sacrifice and selflessness.
In the business world, it is difficult to draw a parallel. Some who have come close would be Stan Shih of Acer, Horst Rechelbacer of Aveda Corporation, Anita Roddick of Body Shop, etc.
Stan Shih, as we know, had given a good part of his company’s shares to his people. The co-owners certainly produced good results for him.
Horst Rechelbacer is a firm believer in looking after the environment. His shampoo and cosmetics are made from plants and flowers, 90% of which had been grown organically. His company only uses recycled paper and soy ink.
Anita Roddick is value driven and believes that business is about human relationship. She is also a human rights activist.
Where does this bring us in relation to Abdullah?
So far, we have in a very general manner been trying to illustrate that leadership is not of only one kind and that one can be just as effective using a different type of leadership. Of course, dysfunctional leadership does nobody any good.
From my readings, discussions and observation, Abdullah seems to be simple, friendly, easy to get along with, and yet is focused and determined in his own way. Some people have said that he is “soft” when compared to Dr Mahathir.
“Softness” has its pluses. Like speaking one’s mind, “softness” has its strength and place too. A number of great movers in history have been relatively quiet people. One should give the man an opportunity to show his mettle before jumping to conclusions.
To illustrate how diametrically opposite and independent a former deputy’s policy decision can be from that of his boss, I am reminded of a situation during the times of our past Prime Ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak.
In the later part of Tunku’s premiership, communist China invaded India, taking the Ladakh Valley in the north. A firm believer in democracy, Tunku initiated a Save Democracy Fund among Malaysians to collect money to assist India to fight China. Razak was his deputy at that time.
Not very long after this episode, Razak stepped into Tunku’s shoes. One of the first things he did was to visit China, not only recognising her but also getting an agreement from China not to interfere in the internal affairs of Malaysia (this must been seen in the context of the communists and Chin Peng at that time).
One could never have guessed the turn of events when Tunku was raising money to fight the communists. Therefore, allowing the leader of the day to make decisions appropriate to the times is the right thing to do.
In leadership there’s such a thing as “reality-testing”. Many leaders often fail the test when they fall for colour, pomposity and glorification.
Successful ones who didn’t include Nelson Mandela, Konosuke Matsushita, John Harvey Jones, and our own Raja Tun Mohar. They did not let power, praise and position get into their head.
Mandela did not forget his background and the duty to his people. Not vindictive, he handed over the leadership long before the need to do so.
Handing over the helm of his company almost 25 years before he died, Matsushita said in his memoirs that he was afraid he might be becoming a stumbling block to the progress of his company.
Jones recollects that he has always been ruthlessly self-critical with himself. This former chairman of ICI did not let prestige and position change his person.
Raja Tun Mohar, former President of MIM, was always his distinguished yet simple self.
These people have always had a moral compass. Practising a number of techniques like continuous self-appraisal, getting feedback from spouse or loved ones, meditating and reflecting, possessing a strong belief in God, etc, they kept themselves to the ground.
The early Romans had a simple method of taking care of this. When a victorious general entered Rome in his chariot (to the rousing cheers of thousands), behind him on the same chariot was a slave whose duty it was to whisper, “YOU’RE HUMAN, CAESAR. YOU’RE HUMAN?.”
People around leaders will always try to influence and change them – wanting to fulfil their own fantasies, pushing the leaders, if they could, to embark on projects that do no good to them or those they lead. Most often, the courtier’s pet projects can end up as a white elephant. A good leader would be fully aware of this all the time, constantly doing his reality check.
o For more information on MIM programmes, please call MIM Customer Service at 03-21654611, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.mim.edu.