Leadership: Art or Science?


"Leadership is intangible. No weapon, no impersonal piece of machinery ever designed can take its place"—Gen Omar Bradley

As the world slowly edges out of global recession, we can’t avoid reflecting how it all started and how people in leadership positions played an ugly hand in directly starting it or indirectly allowing it into a downward spiral. Cyclical or prophetic, it sure has awaken all to call into question the role of leadership in shaping events and outcomes of not just businesses but livelihood as well. We have witnessed how leaders, in the name of free market capitalism and innovative services, have exploited their positions in creating tsunamis on financial institutions, GDP growth, equity markets, reserve funds, export trade and job security. Many people have been laid off and struggle to put food on the table for their families.

What does it take for a person to unleash greed, selfish acts and abuse of power? Was it the lack of regulatory measures that failed to ensure good corporate governance or the leadership behind its design and enforcement? Every day, you can find reminders of disintegration in leadership ethics and integrity at all levels, be it political, business, government, enforcement agencies, management, professionals, contractors and even decorated public figures. Therefore, it is timely and critical to take a close study at leadership and see how leaders, through their decisions and actions, impact people.

How can we best understand the role and function of leadership, in the most fundamental and simplistic form? How does leadership differ at the national, corporate, business, non-profit, military or even household level? What are the governing philosophies, principles, rules, traits, styles needed for one to become an effective leader? We are told a leader must earn the respect, trust and admiration of his or her followers. If so, how come there is lesser attention and significance given to the people who honor this? If the core focus of effective leadership is to motivate people for a common cause or goal, why do we see union disputes, political uprising, white collar crimes and employee victimization resulting from unilateralism, individualism, creative greed, economic disparity, social imbalance, ethnic clashes, religious conflicts, generation gaps and the like.

Let’s take the current situation of companies struggling to stay above water. Laying off workers is one of the most common and fastest cost cutting remedies. Some innovatively use redundancy to rid of poor performers and excess fat. The question that begs asking the leadership conscience is, "Are the rats abandoning the ship, or is the skipper throwing them overboard? A business leader has to dig deep in asking, "Which would it be, to lay off workers or take an across pay-cut or trade off all those ego boosting perks and luxury assets accruing depreciation?" How many would do what Herb Kelleher did at South West Airways? When the company ran into financial trouble in 1971, he was faced with a dilemma–either sell one of the four planes or lay off some employees. Kelleher made the unconventional choice—they sold the plane!

So, what is this hard to grasp, intangible and elusive thing called leadership? Leadership is the art of influencing people to get things done, willingly. This is the definition I learned way back in 1979, whilst serving as young military officer. Though initially I did not understand nor appreciate the essence of its calling, I began to realize the intrinsic value when the big question hit me, "How do I get soldiers to believe in following me into battles and to sacrifice their life for a cause?" Yes, they would do it for the patriotic love of the country, but would they follow me in doing so? It was a deep soul searching thought that raised doubts, yet challenged me to embark on a passionate journey into the realm of leadership. After 22 years of soldiering and navigating the corporate scene for the past nine years, I have come to declare that the art of leadership is the same, everywhere. I would say it is the only facet of management function that cuts across business, cultures, race, religion, gender, age, place and situation, including the current recession.

When does one become a leader? Whether you like it or not, the moment they place a person under your charge, you technically become a leader. It would mean that you are entrusted to motivate and guide the way for your people to accomplish a project, task or activity. Whether that "people" happens to be your child, employee, volunteer or nation’s citizen. This is where most bosses or managers miss the essence—the need to lead, not manage. Most executives and managers fail to recognize that they are wholly responsible and accountable, not just for the end results but also for the capability and capacity building of people. Leaders are responsible to provide meaning to the future direction—vision, mission and strategy. He needs to be a provider of resources, including training, development and inspiration for his people to perform to their best potential.

We often hear leaders champion, "people are our most valuable asset," yet sadly whenever a crisis develops there is little evidence by way of actions. Bottom-line financial results are crucial for survival but equally so critical is capacity building and performance improvement. All these require sharpening the tool of leadership—people factor—and tending to the development of worker competency, teambuilding and creating a healthy work culture. Instead, what we have is management shifting blame on workers, technology, HR department, system, culture and a host of other lame excuses other than their very own leadership style or approach.

Borrowing the punch-line from Spider-man, "With great powers come great responsibilities," what sort of powers do leaders possess or wield in their role? Is the source derived from position of authority or some supernatural powers out of this world? Is it an art or science or both? For me, it has always been an art because it is learnable. Anyone can become a good leader, so long as you are humble to learn and recognize the potential ability in people. A leader has to master the people skills and profile through character development. As I vividly recall, leadership is nothing more than the application of three fundamental characteristics. You can further explore, expand and refine it. However, in the context of work experience, I have simplified it into:

1. Knowledge. Knowledge is that all information and wisdom needed to successfully plan and execute a mission, job or task. It covers a wide spectrum of areas such as technical, managerial, leadership, psychological, problem solving, strategy, creativity, communication, etc. This is important to demonstrate, convince and influence your people that you know exactly what you want them to do or need to be done. A leader should never hold back in sharing knowledge or be shy of lacking it. There is no room for ego status when it comes to learning from team members and best people on the job. What is most important is a leader’s sincerity, honesty and willingness to learn from, irrespective of rank or status. How often have we, in our own backyard of experience, come across leaders who hide or contradict invaluable information and discredit themselves in the process. Whether it is on the hardened battlefield, customer counter or greasy shop-floor, leaders should always recognize the experience of those who have walked the corridors before them. Being street smart in learning from the old timers may be far more important and useful than what the books could help. All these requires the virtue of humility and integrity, crucial traits that has far reaching impact in building confidence and trust in people. Knowledge is the intellectual dimension that allows a leader to build positive power of influence. When you have it, people will listen and follow you because of wisdom, not because of fear that they have to if they wish to stay on the job!

2. Courage. Courage can be measured in terms of physical and moral perspective. Whilst physical courage has its significance in the military, it is moral courage that separates the professionals from amateurs. A leader without moral courage is someone without a backbone, and one who would not stick up for his people in times of trouble or desperate need. Moral courage is the foundation for integrity because it gives you the strength of character within to never fear anyone or anything in leading your people. This is the elusive "trigger" that inspires people to do things willingly, sometimes beyond logical and rationale comprehension, such as the world had witnessed in Nazi Germany during WWII and the recent suicide terrorists. In a corporate context, this would mean upholding at all cost the values espoused by the business, defending righteousness, standing by your people in bad times, fighting against injustice and mistreatment, rewarding people fairly and punishing them for misconduct, including termination. Do you agree with the transfer of problematic employees from one department to another, as a solution? A leader must, when the situation demands, choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, even if it could cost him unpopularity. Another feature that is seriously lacking in leaders nowadays is in owning up to failures and making amends to redeem their mistake, instead of waiting for the law to catch up, if they could using the tax payers money. Courage should not be misconstrued as driving fear into people until it breakdowns communication, creativity and feedback.

3. Compassion. This is the emotional dimension that underscores the caring nature of a leader towards his fellow workers, particularly when the chips are down and the going gets tough. It is a reflection of the degree of willingness to listen with your mind and heart. Compassion is not about treating people with sympathy and "welfare" outlook, but rather treating people with all the common right, decency and care they deserve as human beings. If an employee has weaknesses or fails to perform his job up to expectations, then it is incumbent upon leadership to jointly help the employee overcome effectively and efficiently. I learned this painfully from my own staff when I became blind to the obsession in producing results. A leader who is willing to listen, analyze, identify and offer win-win solutions will earn the respect, sacrifice and even care of their people. Leaders must have the moral conscience to realize that they shoulder the burden of not only employees but also the extended dependents. Making hasty or rash decisions without due consideration of its consequential impact on their dependents is not only inhumane but reflects bad leadership. I once had the displeasure of seeing a manager sacked for failing to appear at meeting, because he was on emergency leave tending to his dying father. It will take many incidents like these to unveil the true color of leadership and pave the way to the ultimate test of all leadership—winning the heart and soul of your followers willingly.

That, in a nutshell, is what leadership is all about, be you from any organization, place or walk of life. According to Jim Collins of Good to Great, the common thread among elite companies that he and his team studied was a leader with a simple duality—modest and willful, humble and fearless. The basic equation is Humility + Will = (great, effective) leadership. Therefore, wherever you are or go, as long as you are thrust into the position of leadership you shall be judged and measured by these characteristics. Some of the great leaders who left a positive print on us are Lincoln, Tunku Abd Rahman, Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Lady Diana, Nelson Mandela, Hendry Ford, Matsushita and others. On the flip side, we have seen such infamous leaders such as Hitler, Jeffrey Skilling, Pol Pot, Ramalinga Raju and Bernard Madoff.

In concluding, leadership is not about management numbers, positional authority, wondrous charm, and armchair tactics, driving fear, manipulating politics or dangling money as carrots. It concerns with inspiring and influencing people to do things, willingly. This is what makes successful companies led by great leaders. The people are highly motivated, connected and engaged at work. They draw purpose, meaning and inspiration from those who lead them. Have you ever conducted an evaluation of how your people feel towards your leadership? If managers really want to turnaround the business performance during rough times, take a serious review and focus on your leadership. As Jack Welch exhorts, "Lead more, manage less."