In search of barefoot leaders

ALVIN Ung (pic) bills himself as a writer, facilitator and coach who embraces his calling to grow leaders with depth and purpose in their lives.

A former correspondent with the Associated Press, Ung ventured into the corporate world where he rose to Head of Content at Maxis and then took a break to study theology in Canada. Upon his return, he joined Khazanah as vice-president in charge of leadership development and subsequently became a Fellow.

The research and publication of Barefoot Leadership came from a fellowship grant provided by Khazanah Nasional. The hardcover version of the book was launched at the Khazanah Megatrends Forum at the end of September.

When StarBizWeek caught up with Ung, he was bustling with excitement that the book has reached the general market, and eager to explain what barefoot leadership is all about.

“We usually think of leaders as CEOs, business tycoons or politicians. They wear business suits and leather shoes as they work on the highest floor of the tallest building in town. They have lots of connections to powerful people. They can buy and sell companies in the time it takes us to eat a packet of nasi lemak. Such leaders achieve a lot because of their position, possessions and power connections,” says Ung.

“I wanted to look for ordinary people who inspire others to go that extra mile with them in order to achieve greater good. I call such individuals barefoot leaders.”

But the seeds were planted much earlier when Ung was a vice-president at Khazanah in charge of leadership development.

“My team designed a path-breaking programme that brought together senior managers from a dozen companies. The programme provided the senior managers the opportunity to stretch themselves out of their comfort zone in different job functions in different companies.

“For example, a head of internal audit in a power company might be moved to head up a strategy unit in an airline. Obviously, the men and women who qualified into the program had the best job ratings. They were being groomed for the CEO's office.

“Along the way I noticed two responses from the participants. One group was playing not to lose. Although they had signed up for this challenging programme, they were afraid to fail. They were focused on the salary, the perks, like whether they would be given a BMW to drive.

“Another group played to win. They wanted to know their job scope and responsibilities the bigger, the better. They asked about who would coach them, who would help them with their learning, how they could make a difference. They looked nervous, sure. But they were focused on the possibility of stretching themselves.”

According to Ung, what was fascinating was that outwardly, the senior managers looked the same.

“They were very accomplished. They wore leather shoes, smart clothes, smart phones. They have pretty amazing resumes, fantastic job ratings, and a promising career ahead of them. But inwardly, they were different. Their mindset was different. The first group was focused on glory, the second group was focused on growth.

“The first group wanted to stay in the comfort zone (which is strange because this programme was designed to stretch them perhaps they liked the idea of career advancement, but not to pain). The second group was more focused on making a difference. They were willing to go barefoot, so to speak, and walk that extra mile.”

When Ung embarked on writing the book, he started by first identifying the individuals who would qualify as barefoot leaders, though not in the literal sense of the word.

“I was looking for ordinary people who inspire others,” he says.

“I wanted leaders who come from ordinary backgrounds because most Malaysians are ordinary. You and I don't have lots of inherited money, power and networks. I wrote this book for Malaysians who want to make a difference but don't know how.

“All the leaders in my book are ordinary. Some even came from very humble backgrounds, like a rubber estate in rural Selangor or the most remote village in Sarawak. Yet they grew up to make an extraordinary difference in the lives of thousands and millions of people. The message is simple: If they can, so can we.”

Ung, a Penangite who has settled down in Kuala Lumpur, clocked more than one thousand hours of interviews and close observation of these leaders in the thick of action on the field, in their office, with family and loved ones, and even when they are all by themselves.

Among those who shared their stories were Datuk Seri Idris Jala, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department and CEO of Pemandu; Tan Sri Dr Jemilah Mahmood, founder of Mercy Malaysia; Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, Member of Parliament of Sungai Siput; Mark Chang, CEO of JobStreet; Irene Fernandez, director of Tenaganita; Phua Seng Tiong, former principal of SMK Jinjang and recipient of Pengetua Cemerlang 2005 and Tokoh Guru Kebangsaan 2009; Paul Sinnappan, founding member of Koperasi Kredit Rakyat; and Albert Teo, MD of Borneo Ecotours.

“In my book, I share lots of stories and also provide simple-but-powerful strategies and tips on how we can do the same as well.

“The overarching concept of my book is in the subtitle: the art and heart of going that extra mile. You need art and heart to make a difference. Art is about how you get things done. Heart is about who you are. You need both how and who.

“There are some people who have got PhDs but don't want to make a difference they have great methods but they lack the mindset. There are other people who want to make a difference but don't know how. So you need methodology and mindset.

“Truly great leaders are able to focus on art and heart... at the same time.”

Ung has a gift for story-telling but Barefoot Leadership also comes complete with principles and exercises that are common in most leadership books that you, as an individual, can use and apply.

On how he felt after completing the book, Ung compared it with his previous book Taking Your Soul to Work.

“I love my first book, Taking Your Soul to Work. The best thing about it is that I co-wrote the book with my mentor-professor. We tapped on his knowledge and wisdom, and leveraged on my writing skills. Together we pushed motivated one another to write, or more accurately he motivated me.

“With Barefoot Leadership, I had to do 90% of the hard rowing by myself. It requires huge, huge discipline to lock myself up in a room and write. I had to relearn new habits of thinking and writing. I purposely used a laptop that had no access or password to Wifi so I wouldn't waste time surfing. Every morning, I had to tell myself to write about the most difficult section for the first 90 minutes.

“It was almost all perspiration, not much inspiration. I believe there's no such thing as writing... only re-writing. I revised the book six times. Not minor tweaking, but complete rewrites. My fifth version was really long; my wife read it, my project manager read it, and they said it was too long and boring.

“And so I tore up the whole thing and started from scratch for the sixth version the book that you are reading.”

The paperback version for the public has just been released. The books can be purchased for RM44.90 in all major bookstores. For purchase inquiries or to contact the author, please go to

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