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Adapt to Lead Into the Future

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Adapt to Lead Into the Future

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by Ng Beng Lean

edited by Lee Chiou Yih & Ida Fazila

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It has been more than three months since I joined the informative and enlightening three-day ‘Leading Change for Organizational Renewal’ program, which was organized by the Center for Asia Leadership. During the program, Professor Dean Williams, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School, imparted his knowledge of “adaptive work”, “adaptive challenge”, and “leadership moments” to more than 40 working professionals.

Although it has been a while, Professor Williams’ words remain fresh in my mind. I am constantly reminded of his lessons in my daily work as I am able to identify and connect scenarios and situations with what he has shared with us.

Professor Williams started the program by asking participants to share their definition of leadership. Many enthusiastic participants very confidently proclaimed textbook definitions of leadership which they have encountered or embraced. However, Professor Williams swiftly and easily countered each answer with, “That is traditional leadership.” He stressed that in today’s modern, rapidly evolving world, so fractured by numerous problems, a new and equally dynamic type of leadership must arise to meet these daunting challenges. I completely agree with Professor Williams on this point, as it is undeniable that the world must now deal with a whole host of problems never before faced by any previous generations. These problems include antibiotic resistant diseases, the ever-worsening pollution issues, climate change, anxiety about privacy risks posed by the ubiquity of technology, and so forth.

Besides the issues themselves, their knock-on effects within the realms of politics and the economy are just as pernicious and difficult to contain. Recently, I attended a class on ‘Leadership in Crisis Management’ conducted by Professor Herman B. (“Dutch”) Leonard of the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School. He too shared the view that globalization and increased interdependence have given rise to new elements which render previous approaches to crisis management ineffectual. Professor Williams elaborated this view with vivid, graphic description of the ‘butterfly effect’ — how a tiny, seemingly innocuous butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico may have the powerful potential to cause a destructive hurricane in China. The point being, small changes in one part of the world may have large, far-reaching consequences elsewhere. Thus, the recent election results in the US will not only determine the fate of the country, but also undoubtedly affect every nation in the world.

Today, leadership is no longer a function of how many followers you have or how powerful you are. Given the interconnectedness of the world, Professor Williams argues that true leadership must now be defined by activities and efforts toward improving the world as a whole. Real leadership is getting people to do “adaptive work” by modifying the way they think and the values they hold. A true leader must be proactive in creating what is needed in order to succeed, make progress, and improve the human condition. In short, leadership is about making a difference for the betterment of an organization, the community, and society at large. Thus, a good leader must look beyond economic interests and strive toward driving sustainable development in other areas that benefit the world and mankind. Such aspirations are larger than life — they grow organically and have the potential to amplify and perpetuate.

Following Professor Williams’ program, I immediately made the connection between his altruistic definition of leadership and the Founding Chairman of Sunway Group, Tan Sri Dr. Jeffrey Cheah’s hard work and dedication toward helping the society through the establishment of the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development, and many other such ambitious endeavors. On December 9, 2016, the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network Association (UNSDSN) announced a strategic collaboration on sustainable development as the United Nations enters the first year of the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The partnership perfectly demonstrates Tan Sri Cheah’s commitment toward addressing developmental challenges within the 17 goals framework. Tan Sri Cheah has displayed astounding foresight and courage in taking bold steps toward achieving this goal by donating US$10 million in support of the work on sustainable development. What inspires me the most is he is unperturbed by how long it takes for his aspiration to come to fruition as he strongly believes that the initiative will benefit mankind in the long run. Tan Sri Cheah stepped up to some of the most urgent challenges of the modern world, in the hopes of ensuring we leave a better planet for future generations. As mentioned by Professor Williams, there are many who are ready to rid themselves of accountability, foisting the responsibility of action onto others. Contrastingly, Tan Sri Cheah enthusiastically rose to meet these challenges. He understood the adaptive work required and took full responsibility of it, thus donning the mantle of a true leader.

Another aspect of the program which greatly resonated with me was when Professor Williams highlighted that real leadership is an activity or process of getting people to face reality and deal with real problems. There is a profound truth in this as many of us are guilty of being trapped in a web of ignorance, which leads to complacency and attachment to wrong views or ideas that are not beneficial to ourselves, or our organization. As a result of our ignorance, we become blind to our faults and weaknesses, creating blind spots which taint and poison our perceptions. Thus, a good leader must work with people in confronting the realities they are avoiding. Such realities are often painful and difficult to manage, but a good leader must do the adaptive work and courageously meet these challenges head on. A case in point is Abraham Lincoln who stood up for civil rights which unfortunately, led to his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. Another example is Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India who stopped the circulation of large denominations of 1,000 and 500 rupees in order to bring corruption through undeclared cash transactions to the surface. Corruption is a pervasive reality in the everyday transactions of India. Prime Minister Modi managed to get his people to face reality, and applied adaptive work to improve moral values, and thus, the lives of the people of India.

In an organization, leaders who are unable to face the realities of life are all too common. Their inability to realize and accept the fact that there will always be others who are more superior in their capacities causes them great insecurity whenever they are surrounded by people who are far more intelligent or capable. These insecurities would manifest in many different forms including failing to hire capable staff to make themselves feel better or purposely excluding talented staff from projects. These leaders lack the wisdom to come to terms with the realities of life, and thus, tragically miss out on opportunities to do adaptive work, and to execute leadership moments such as embracing inclusiveness and diversity. More often than not, this results in acute cronyism and creates an entourage of yes-men. When an authority resides in an echo chamber with the same perspectives without any constructive disruptions, this “equilibrium” will undoubtedly produce the same lacklustre results. By insisting to do the same thing over and over again, and yet expecting different results, Albert Einstein would call this insanity at work.

Professor Williams repeatedly emphasized the need to “push boundaries”. I was personally struck by his teaching on this particular aspect. I reflected on it and saw that one of the intrinsic qualities of a good leader is the ability to attune themselves to the dynamics of the situation or matter, and push the boundaries at the right moment and place. In short, they are able to recognize leadership moments and push the necessary boundaries to realize them. Thus, it is imperative for such leaders to never rest on their laurels, nor be complacent with the status quo. With Peter Wegner’s highly pertinent art, “Monument to Change as it Changes” in mind, I believe that good leaders must continue to look for the right moments and make them meaningful.

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