CHI Leaders With Empathy For Positive Impact

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If you read my blog post on 20 June 2020, were you expecting this post to be published on 20 July 2020? Instead, I worked on getting this post out on 22 July 2020 at 22:20.  Just for the fun of it.

Today, 22 July 2020, I read a Harvard Business Review article on LinkedIn, “How Great Coaches Ask, Listen, and Empathize” by Ed Batista, executive coach and lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business.  I noticed the article was dated “February 18, 2015” but the ideas still remain relevant and serve as good reminders today. 

In these VUCA (vulnerable, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) and Covid-19 times, we know that organisations and scenarios are far too complex for any leader to lead as the lone ranger visionary who is also the all-round subject matter expert.  Of course, leaders today are still required to have a firm grasp of their business, but it is, as Batista puts it, “unrealistic and ill-advised to expect them to have all the answers”.  While senior management works increasingly as a team with complementary skill sets and strengths, each leader can and should also shift and adopt the role of Coach. 

The three key things the leader-coach needs to do is think of ale: ask; listen; empathise.

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Ask

We should avoid presumptions.  Instead of closed questions, we should use open-ended questions as initial ice-breakers/rapport builders, and then for encouraging more elaborate or detailed responses. The idea is to create a safe space for team members to comfortably discuss pertinent issues and raise valid concerns. 

Stay alert to emotions and reactions expressed; motives revealed; as well as deliberations, considerations and actions taken.  As coaches, we can and should gently challenge whatever has been shared, by offering fresh perspectives, ideas and hypotheses, leading to even more creative and exciting solutions.

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Listen

Listening differs from hearing.  While hearing involves absorbing sound, interpreting it, and understanding it, listening involves a “whole-body process” between us and the team member, which actually makes the latter feel fully heard.

Active listening in a coaching context requires significant eye contact to convey genuine interest and engagement, while also taking note of facial expressions, gestures, tics and micro expressions.  Admittedly, this is more challenging in today’s context of virtual discussions via software platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex Meetings.  

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Effective listening requires focused attention, away from all other distractions, especially those caused by phones, tablets, laptops and other devices.  If we have to carry out a conversation over the phone, focused attention would enable us to pick up on subtle cues in someone’s speech, in the absence of visual data. 

Taking brief notes in a coaching conversation could also help us stay focused, although this should be kept to a minimum to ensure we engage in a distraction-free and productive conversation.

Empathise

Leaders who possess empathy will have an edge over others, as empathy is a rare and treasured ability to understand and relate to another person’s point of view.  It can help us establish an interpersonal connection that would in turn facilitate the coaching relationship and journey. 

According to research professor, speaker and author Brené Brown, empathy is “the antidote to shame”.  Feeling and expressing empathy helps defuse any shame or embarrassment felt by team members for seeking or requiring our help, and enables them to focus instead on creative thinking and problem solving. 

Yet if done insensitively, expressing empathy could undermine all efforts to relate to team members if we forget ourselves and compare and equate our own issues to theirs; try to sound overly positive; or disregard their feelings and struggles by minimising their difficulties and leapfrogging immediately to the problem solving stage. 

Last but not least, expressing empathy should still allow us to set boundaries, hold team members to high standards and ensure accountability.

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Ask.  Listen.  Empathise.  This is not rocket science.  It is simple, but not easy to do every day, throughout our busy and distracted lives.  Yet being consistent would ensure habit formation, making it second nature, and ultimately compounding the outcome to result in a total team and organisation culture transformation. 

Not a Zero Sum Game

A world leader exuding tonnes of empathy is the people’s sweetheart and media darling Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, who is often praised for her warm approach.  She has been quoted on what constitutes the heart of her leadership style: “Kindness, and not being afraid to be kind, or to focus on, or be really driven by empathy”.  She has also said: “I think one of the sad things that I’ve seen in political leadership is – because we’ve placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength – that we probably have assumed that it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy. And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that’s probably the quality we need the most.” In other words, leaders do not have to choose to be either strong or kind.  We can be both strong and kind.

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By extension, there should also be room for different perspectives and ideas, as well as checks and balances.   Speaking up or speaking truth to power takes courage, and often reflects much thought and a heart that cares enough for the ignored, voiceless, marginalised and forgotten.  In a zero sum game, only one person wins, and the rest lose.  But in a fair, just and inclusive society or organisation, there is the encouraging existence of different views, mutual respect and collaboration.  It is win-win for everyone.  Everybody wins.

Leaders with CHI

According to Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, many leaders around the world have swept to power because of their charisma and confidence, and sadly, their narcissism and vanity as well.  Unfortunately, a lot of them happen to be male.  Yet in these challenging times with a clear leadership deficit across the globe, we really should not be focusing on gender – we should just be looking for leaders with CHI – Competence, Humility and Integrity. 

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To most of us, many women leaders have done well during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and they also happen to have the CHI qualities mentioned by Dr Chamorro-Premuzic.  Besides Jacinda Ardern, others who come to mind include Angela Merkel, Tsai Ing-wen, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Sanna Marin, Erna Solberg, Melinda Gates and Michelle Obama, just to name a few.  But if we want to contribute to improving the competence level of all our leaders – both male and female – we first need to improve our own competence for judging and selecting leaders, based on better criteria such as the CHI qualities.

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Perfume, Fragrance or Impact

Some weeks ago, an elegant friend who coaches leaders and professionals in South Korea mentioned how people often leave us with either a positive or negative impression after an encounter.  She called it “perfume”, meaning a kind of scent or fragrance of personality that lingers long after a person has left the meeting or conversation.  Given that “perfume” is often associated with women (and I do adore fragrances too), I think we should be fair and use the more neutral term “positive impact” to make it more accessible so we can also include the macho men in our midst.  

So what are some statements we can leave behind for a lasting, positive impact?

“Thank you” is simple yet so important in expressing appreciation, affirmation and respect.  This is especially in situations where people and their contributions are taken for granted. A simple “thank you” goes a long way, when it is said with sincerity.  

Let me leave you with other impactful statements:

“I forgive you.  Let’s make it a constructive learning experience.” (It is not easy to forgive and let go.  But forgiving a costly mistake releases both the person as well as you, the leader.  Forgiveness can free and motivate a talented team member to do better.  A safe learning culture also builds trust and loyalty in the organisation.)

“I am sorry.  I was wrong.” (Many leaders find it hard to admit mistakes.  Yet instead of weakness, it reflects humility and strength of character. It also wins respect.)

“Let me clarify – what was that you said again?” (Clarify whenever you are in doubt.  Never assume or jump to conclusions, to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.  Do this especially if you are prone to selective listening or are hard of hearing!)

“What do you think?” (People love to be included.  The more views, perspectives and opinions, the more creative ideas! Some of the best contributions come from the most unlikely persons.  Being inclusive also strengthens the team and organisation culture.)

“Great job!” (Nothing warms, encourages and motivates the heart like a heartfelt compliment.)

“Have I missed anything?” (Again, never assume.  Check to see if anything has been left out.  This also gives the introspective and shy ones a final chance to clear their throats and speak up.)

“Who else needs to know or should be invited to this?” (You want to make sure nobody who needs to know is left out.)

“Is there anything I can do for you?” (This radical offer of help demonstrates your care and concern as a leader.)

“How are you, really?” (Go beyond the conventional greeting.  Start a real conversation. Take some time to check in and show genuine interest in your team members and what is going on in their lives.  You will be surprised. Or shocked.)

“I really appreciate all that you’re doing.” (This extension of “thank you” shows that despite your tight schedule, you have noticed all the efforts and contributions of your team members.)

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Thriving in Uncertain Times – Some Lessons

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Fun fact: It is 20th June 2020 today. Do look out for the time 20:20:20 hours (8.20pm and 20 seconds). Every month this year, we can have the thrill of being present on the 20th day of the month, in the year 2020, at the time of 20:20:20 hours. (If you miss it, there is always next month…20th July 2020, 20:20:20 hours.) How cool is that? What does all this mean? Who knows? Maybe just make a wish? Or simply breathe deeply for a split second? Inhale and exhale…

A couple of weeks ago, I received a text from an acquaintance who wanted to have a chat because she was bored.  My heart sank.  I did not have the time for random, aimless chatter.  Then a week later, a former colleague called me to moan about someone who had hurt her.  She took up a fair bit of my time but I knew she needed to vent.  Then just a couple of days ago, another friend got in touch with me to have a face-to-face conversation because she was suffering from “cabin fever”.  Despite my tight schedule that day, I also made time for her because despite the casual request, I could detect some despair in her tone of voice (in her text, which was later confirmed by our subsequent conversation on Zoom). 

It puzzles me why some can be so bored or depressed.  If we are intentional and purposeful, and busy ourselves with meaningful activities, we really won’t have time to be bored.

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Unlike those who have had to slow down tremendously during lockdown, some of the people I know have ironically been stressed out by a greater avalanche of work while working from home.  Personally, I have had so many individual and group text messages as well as Zoom meetings with Zoom time slots/links, email documents as well as comment threads and follow-up action steps that sometimes I feel a little cross-eyed and groggy.  There also seem to be more people reaching out to be counselled and/or coached.  But I must say I have enjoyed facilitating fruitful meetings and training sessions, as well as attending my fair share of online talks and training workshops. 

In some ways, lockdown has been a gift.  It has allowed me to pause and reflect in the midst of competing demands on my time.  I am forced to prioritise, say “no” to certain activities, and use my time wisely. 

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Weekends are sacred. It is often the time I take a breather and connect with loved ones across borders. I am so proud of the doctor relatives and friends who have been braving the hospital wards; the artist friend who has designed her own product which is now on sale on Amazon and a major airline’s online shop; the music teacher pal who taught music to children online during the lockdown in Europe; the senior executive friend who overcame a work crisis by choosing her response and continuing with her practice marathons in a major Asian city; the fitness instructor friend who has been gaining a loyal following through her online fitness classes (some gorgeous-looking participants even post regular videos on WhatsApp of themselves doing their “exercise homework” at home; needless to say, I am not one of them!).

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Now, with the easing of most, if not all, measures allowing most businesses to open around the world, people who have been cooped up at home for months are once again crowding the malls, restaurants, hair salons, nail salons and beaches.  I suppose those with “cabin fever” have been the first to be out of their cages.  Like horses bolting out of stalls. 

So we have to remain responsible and vigilant, and have to be prepared that there will be those who will not think twice about their health and safety, let alone ours or that of the elderly, frail and vulnerable.  This is the reality.

In the course of the past months, some of us have had several lessons reinforced.

Motivations

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In any project or training programme, there will be different levels of motivation among participants.  Our mistake is to assume everyone is motivated at the onset or throughout a programme.  We cannot use what motivates us to motivate others, without first understanding what motivates them.  We have to ask what motivates them: Purpose? Recognition? Relationships? Money? Mastery? Progress/Growth? Autonomy? Not everyone is motivated by the same thing or things. 

Assumptions

As much as we cannot assume everyone is as motivated as we are, we have to be careful about making assumptions about situations and people.  A leader who leads by assumptions and neglects listening to others by asking good questions is a lousy leader. 

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Recently, I was at a meeting and there was a gentleman who was critical of everyone but himself.  I was rolling my eyes (mentally!) and starting to lose my patience with him (mentally!) because he was just so very negative and complaining about everyone and everything.  Blah blah blah, he went on and on.  Nothing seemed to please him.  Then halfway through the conversation, perhaps out of exasperation, I decided to share candidly about my own bad experiences.  He was genuinely surprised that I also had my fair share of bad encounters (as if he had a monopoly on bad experiences).  I was not talking about him but some of the things I described must have pricked his conscience because he suddenly realised he had made many unfair assumptions, and was perhaps himself guilty of causing others offence – the very offence he was accusing others of inflicting on him and some of his friends.  It was an unexpected turning point, for from that moment on, he became very nice and accommodating.  I will see if it lasts.

Another case in point is the dangerous assumptions made at the start of the current Covid-19 pandemic.  Some assumptions included the belief that face masks were only meant for the sick and healthcare professionals; that the coronavirus was like the flu, would not kill young people, and would not become a pandemic; that Covid-19 would subside in summer; that Covid-19 would not be as devastating in countries outside China and other parts of East Asia.  Imagine how many lives, jobs, livelihoods and businesses could have been saved across the globe if world leaders and their respective teams had not been so quick to adopt and cling to a certain set of assumptions and jump to conclusions.  We need to stay open-minded and flexible, being willing to admit our mistakes and change course, if necessary.

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Empathy

We realise yet again how important it is to have empathy when relating to others.  I am not a parent but I began reading the book, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish and Kimberly Ann Coe (Illustrator), simply out of curiosity because it was highly recommended by Simon Sinek at a recent talk.  I realised some of the concepts can be applied to interactions between adults as well.  We need to talk less and listen more.  We need to suspend judgement or stop judging and dismissing or brushing off what others are telling us when they are trying to express their feelings.  We need to listen with 100% presence and attention, and stop planning our rebuttal or point of view.  People need to feel heard.  They need to feel understood. 

Dr. Stephen R. Covey is known for saying: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”.  Habit 5 of Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” says: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  Theodore Roosevelt is credited for saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.  Maya Angelou also has another gem: “I’ve learnt that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.   

Blind Spots

I wrote about blind spots some time back.  I am writing about this again because it is so relevant and can be exacerbated by the increase in online communication as we work and interact with people in these Covid-19 times. 

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At a recent training session, one of the trainers was behaving in a controlling fashion.  He is a nice guy but he does give the impression that he knows best in every situation, even when everyone knows organisation is not his strength.  Imagine how stifling, stressful and frustrating that can be for fellow teammates who need to plan ahead.  Finally, a courageous lady approached him separately to point out the issue in a sensitive manner.  She reminded him that his lack of advance planning was hindering the effectiveness of other team members, and that it also reflected a lack of concern for others.  This caused him to gain some self-awareness, and he swiftly changed his behaviour.  Everyone heaved a sigh of relief when he began to provide details in advance to enable all of us to carry out our responsibilities more effectively. 

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Another example is from an online book club meeting I attended a few weeks ago.  We were discussing “Portrait of a Turkish Family” by Irfan Orga.  Someone said she was glad the author’s mother – a once wealthy and serene beauty who married at thirteen and had her first child at fifteen – was exposed to the hardships of the two world wars.  She said that the hardships not only toughened Orga’s mother up, but they enabled her to discover her ability to cook and even sew to make ends meet, as well as win the respect of neighbours, in her new rundown home because of her wise counsel and acts of compassion.  She added that if it were not for the outcome of World War II, Orga would not have had the privilege of marrying someone outside his culture – a westerner in Great Britain.  There was silence for a moment.  I think I would have heard the sound of crickets if there was indeed the presence of crickets. Then a gentleman spoke up and reminded everyone that Orga’s mother was eventually institutionalised (spoiler alert!), as she gradually deteriorated and lost her mind when both the world wars took their toll on her – the loss of her husband, her beautiful home, all her wealth as well as other relatives and friends.  I chimed in and said I would have preferred to have Orga’s mother remain calm, loving, elegant and sane.  Someone else added that Orga had not even married an English wife who stayed faithful to him.   It is indeed interesting how different people see things so differently.

Self-Confidence

In the course of our interactions and work, we will encounter those who need a word of encouragement.  Sometimes the people who need it can surprise us.  What are some of the things we can recommend to boost self-confidence? Here are some ideas:

Positive Self-Talk

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Beware of the inner critic or the internal critical voice.  Beware of negative thoughts.  Practise positive self-talk instead.  Nobody will think we have lost our marbles if we speak to ourselves, especially while facing the mirror, in the privacy of our bathroom.  It is actually good practice to give ourselves a pep talk, preferably everyday!

Be Prepared

Nothing gives us greater confidence than to be prepared for a meeting or presentation.  When we do our homework and research ahead of time, we increase our chances of acing that meeting.

Help Those Who Cannot Help Themselves

When we help others who cannot help themselves, we are doing a beautiful thing.  We also boost our confidence when we help in “low lying fruit” situations which can bring visible, tangible and immediate results.  It will make both the person and ourselves happy!

Do the Right Thing

Doing the right thing even at great cost will strengthen us and boost our self-confidence.  It often wins us the respect of others as well.

Contribute and Add Value

When we speak up or make an effort to share helpful information with others, we gain self-confidence, even as others express their appreciation.

Avoid Comparing with Others

A lot of misery comes from comparisons. Yet comparisons are never accurate and can be a great demotivator and demoraliser. To move forward, focus on our own progress and growth. Focus on how we are no longer the person we were before because we have grown and are still growing, as a WIP (Work-in-Progress). It is also good to remind ourselves that everyone needs to start somewhere. It is therefore unfair to compare ourselves with those who have been in the race for a far longer time.

Customer Service Minus the Apologies

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I am sick and tired of inconsistent customer service that requires repeated apologies.  I do not care if the apologies are sincere or heartfelt.  I would rather not have to experience a repetition of similar mistakes.  When something happens once, twice and three times, maybe we can take a deep breath and let it go.  But if, despite repeated feedback, no effort has been made to change things, then when the mistake occurs yet again, I know I will feel like breathing fire out of my nostrils (and perhaps, my mouth, too).  Likewise, when we receive feedback from others, we should express our thanks, and then aim to address and eliminate the problem as soon as possible.  We need to work with the relevant parties to ensure that the pain is removed permanently.  This way, we win and retain customer or client loyalty.

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In these uncertain times, may we all thrive as we remain focused, intentional and purposeful!

Lessons from a Count and Abe Lincoln

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It has been slightly more than a month since my last blog post. Since then, I have experienced and participated in virtual activities that include the following:

  • Birthday celebrations
  • Fitness classes
  • Training workshops
  • Book club meetings
  • Concerts
  • Sunday school
  • Church services and meetings
  • Wake and funeral (not Covid-19-related)

These are strange times indeed, but the spirit of solidarity, resilience, creativity and resourcefulness around me has been amazing.

 

To Ease or Not to Ease 

Of course, it goes without saying that in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are all – realistically – not out of the woods yet. The number of cases and fatalities, both nationally and globally, continue to climb.  Many people in lockdown are however eager to get out of their homes. On the other hand, there are those who feel it is too soon for the easing of social distancing measures, and they much prefer staying put at home. Despite the differences of opinion, countries such as China, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Austria, New Zealand and Australia, as well as certain states in the USA such as Georgia and Florida, have begun to lift or ease their restrictions.  With the global economy in an unprecedented meltdown, many are taking a gamble with human lives to save jobs, livelihoods and businesses.

Outwitted and Outsmarted

The coronavirus has managed to outwit and outsmart world leaders and business leaders across the globe. Nobody can claim to know how to completely eliminate its threat, although the leaders of some countries and territories seem to have managed the pandemic well so far – South Korea (President Moon Jae-in), Taiwan (President Tsai Ing-wen), Hong Kong (Chief Executive Carrie Lam), Iceland (Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir), New Zealand (Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern), Norway (Prime Minister Erna Solberg), Finland (Prime Minister Sanna Marin), Denmark (Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen) and Germany (Chancellor Angela Merkel). Apart from President Moon, the rest are notably women leaders. One might also wonder why Germany with its almost 8,000 fatalities is included on the list. But taken in context, this figure is remarkably low when compared to its total known cases (174,975) and the death rates in the current epicentre, the United States (86,912), and other neighbouring European countries such as Italy (31,368), the UK (33,614), Spain (27,321), and France (27,425).

Despite a recent cluster linked to nightclubs in Seoul, South Korea has been recognised for its gold standard of dealing with the coronavirus precisely because it was the second country to experience a major outbreak in February 2020, right after China.  It was a time when so little was known about Covid-19. The South Koreans persisted with aggressive testing, contact tracing and other stringent measures, even in the face of sweeping travel bans against it, and at the expense of its international image, reputation and economy. Other countries that also merit mention include Australia, Greece and the Czech Republic.  Singapore has had a significantly lower number of fatalities in comparison to most countries, and was initially recognised for its successful management of the coronavirus outbreak.  However, the city state is currently dealing with a second wave, particularly among migrant workers living in crowded dormitories, with the total number of cases at 26,891 on 15 May 2020, up from 19,410 cases on 5 May 2020 and only 67 cases on 14 February 2020.

All the numbers will be surpassed by the time this post is published. Yet they are noteworthy simply because they have all soared exponentially in a matter of weeks.  On 14 February 2020, the number of cases worldwide was over 64,000.  By 30 March 2020, that number soared to 746,178.  On 5 May 2020, the number skyrocketed to 3,671,812, and today, 15 May 2020, the number is 4,543,390.  Moreover, on 14 February 2020, the number of deaths was 1,400; by 30 March 2020, it was 35,347.  On 5 May 2020, it was 253,241 in 212 countries and territories across the globe.  Today, 15 May 2020, the number of deaths around the world has soared to 303,711.

Please click here for the latest World Health Organisation/WHO statistics and here for up-to-date statistics from Worldometer.

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The End of the Beginning

We know that Covid-19 is here to stay for a while, even as it continues to debut in more countries and returns later in waves in others.  It does not appear to be a coronavirus that will burn out soon, if it does at all, as in the case of the 2002 – 2004 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which ceased to exist outside of a lab in May 2004.  We will therefore have to buy time by wearing masks and continuing to practise safe physical distancing, while testing the efficacy of anti-viral drugs for treatment of severely ill patients, such as Remdesivir, until a safe and effective vaccine is ready for worldwide production and distribution. The soonest we can expect a vaccine to be ready for global distribution would be early to the middle of 2021 (i.e in 12 – 18 months’ time from the onset of vaccine research, which is by spring or summer in the northern hemisphere next year).  However, scientists and healthcare experts are already cautioning that this is highly unlikely.  A quote from Sir Winston Churchill may accurately describe the present global situation: “This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end, but it’s perhaps the end of the beginning.”

Excellence in Leadership and Prudence in Governance

The varied outcomes of countries that have already felt the brunt of Covid-19 are a reflection of the quality of leadership in the respective nations. This underscores the need for excellence in leadership and prudence in governance.  Whether one is a world leader in charge of big decisions impacting an entire nation and other parts of the world, a business leader of a multi-national corporation, a leader of a small company or a breadwinner in a family, there are principles we can stick to in order to stay the course in the new normal we live in.

Embracing and Leveraging the Pain
Nobody likes crises. Nobody likes hardship. Nobody likes pain. Yet when the crisis and the pain are inevitable, the only way is to embrace everything, and make the most of it.

One of the best novels I have read recently is “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles. It is about an elegant Russian count who is placed under house arrest in a luxury hotel (“hotel arrest’) for being an unrepentant aristocrat, right after the Bolshevik Revolution and the fall of the Tsar. Charming, erudite and witty, the sophisticated Count Alexander Rostov finds himself moved from his spacious suite to a cramped attic, and his privileges taken away from him bit by bit as the days go by. But he meets each increasingly difficult challenge with resilience, resourcefulness, creativity and good humour. Above all, we discover that Count Rostov is a man of purpose and incredible patience. There is a wonderful twist at the end of the novel, and its ending has inspired and warmed the heart of many a reader. In these times of quarantines, self-isolation and lockdowns, we can identify with Count Rostov in so many ways. We can learn to make the most of the situation we are in.

Another fine example of embracing and leveraging the pain is a far-from-fictional character. He is none other than the great American President Abraham Lincoln. When he was a child, he already displayed an exceptionally intelligent, clear and inquisitive mind. However, he was so poor (yet determined) that he once walked six miles (about 9.7 km) to obtain a copy of Kirkham’s English Grammar, because he had set his sights on becoming a public speaker. Abraham Lincoln learnt to educate himself and to make things happen. Yet not many know that despite his great sense of humour and characteristic guffaw, he suffered from several setbacks and severe depression, according to biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her book Leadership in Turbulent Times: Lessons from the Presidents.  Abraham Lincoln persevered through his personal journey of pain, and eventually grew in maturity to become one of the most admired presidents in the history of America.

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Identifying and Creating Opportunities
True leaders stay calm, and see crises and problems as hidden opportunities. Examples of those who have adapted to the new normal include businesses, institutions and entities that have turned to virtual meeting platforms; e-learning resources; home grocery, retail, shopping and food delivery platforms; movie-streaming services; virtual fitness classes; online legal services; remote medical services; online counselling and coaching services; cybersecurity services; online fundraising platforms; urban farming and hydroponics; eco-friendly technologies (e.g. housing and vehicles), as well as video games and gaming. As mentioned in the previous blog, others have also adapted themselves to meet the immediate demand for personal protective equipment, ventilators, hand sanitisers, soaps and quarantine accommodation.  Post-pandemic, many of these trends are likely to continue.

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Staying Focused
True leaders stay focused in the moment, in the present. They are well-prepared, but they are also fully present to do their best work each day. As leadership guru John Maxwell says, great leaders are focused on their people, clients and themselves. At the end of each day, they ask themselves:

  1. “Did I lead well today?”
  2. “Did I live well today?”

Great leaders build in the midst of a crisis, instead of getting buried by the crisis. They are not defined by the challenging circumstances but are instead refined by the crisis, in their character and their leadership.

Let us pause to ask ourselves:

  1. How are we open to refinement?
  2. How are we being refined by the current circumstances?

Staying Humble

Someone once described the humility of President Abraham Lincoln this way: “When he was ignorant on any subject, no matter how simple it might make him appear he was always willing to acknowledge it.”

In so many ways, Covid-19 has brought rich and powerful nations as well as established businesses to their knees.  For all the human brilliance, expertise, experience and rhetoric and fanfare, Covid-19 has humbled us.  We need to practise “self-forgetfulness” – not spending too much time being self-absorbed or self-centered – to learn to turn to others for help, and to learn to cooperate and collaborate, because we know we need to unite as a global community to vanquish this common invisible enemy.  For persons of faith, it is also an opportune time to acknowledge the frailty and limitations of man, and to humbly seek God for divine wisdom and divine help.

 

Ensuring Clear, Consistent and Open Communication

During a crisis, great leaders stay in touch with their people and communicate with them all the time.  So even with safe physical distancing measures in place, they reach out and stay social or sociable.  They harness social media, mass media and video conferencing to encourage and assure their people; to inform them of the situation and the next steps; to set boundaries and expectations; and to express their sincere appreciation for all their sacrifices and contributions.  In all this, the leaders are not defensive but remain transparent and open in their communication to build trust in the people.  This may seem simple but it is especially difficult in a crisis, as the human tendency is to get defensive and to divert negative attention by laying all the blame on another party.  Some may even be tempted to offer false hope or make promises they cannot keep just to deflect criticism and hard questions.  Yet such behavior is plain and visible for all to see.

As leaders, how are we clear, consistent, honest, transparent and open in our communication during this crisis? 

Walking the Talk

This period of trial is a time of testing.  In times of prosperity and growth, it is easy to inspire others with messages of hope and growth.  In times of crisis, we are forced to be truly honest with ourselves.  We ask:

  1. How much do I believe what I have been advocating all this time?
  2. How am I going to stay focused with a positive outlook right now, despite all that is happening, and despite the very grim news and forecasts everyday?
  3. How can I live my life in such a way that I continue to be a role model to the people I influence and lead, so that they too are able to face these challenges with courage and resilience? (While we should never make unnecessary assumptions, in this case, the realistic assumption is that nobody under the current circumstances can honestly say that they are completely without fear or anxiety about anything in the present or in the future.)

Remaining Thankful and Grateful

Admittedly, remaining thankful and grateful will be a challenge at this time.  However, being negative can only lead to more negative thoughts, and might lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, or the very outcome one has dreaded.  When the chips are down, we lift our heads up high and we recall every single blessing we can think of – from the big ones, to the very small ones that we have taken for granted.  Most of us can be thankful for a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes to wear, the love of family and friends, and good health.  However, right now, we know that there are many who are homeless, relying on food banks, ill, in quarantine, or grieving because they have lost a loved one to the pandemic.

Paying It Forward

With the outpouring of grief worldwide, we have also witnessed people rallying together and the outpouring of compassion across the globe.  Apart from relief efforts at the international and national levels, many companies have worked with food banks and sponsored food and groceries; numerous volunteers have been serving at collection points or delivering food items to the poor and needy, as well as the elderly who are home-bound and infirm.  People have also engaged in fundraising campaigns, and many more have responded generously to these causes.  In the Czech Republic, citizens joined forces on social media to sew masks at home to combat an initial nation-wide mask shortage.  In Thailand, scores of people innovatively created home-made face shields to donate to hospital personnel.  In the UK, at least one care home has recruited virtual volunteers for their “Adopt a Grandparent” initiative to tackle loneliness among the elderly.  In Singapore, volunteers have been delivering breakfast in the wee hours of the morning so that Muslim migrant workers on quarantine can break their fast during the month-long period of Ramadan which ends on 23 May 2020. There are also special counselling services, as well as the provision of medical assistance, medication and financial aid to meet the needs of the bereaved, the sick, those experiencing marital strife and domestic violence, and those who are lonely, depressed or suicidal.

 So we also ask ourselves:

  1. “How can I prioritise and help those in need in concrete, practical ways?”
  2. “Who are the people I can work with to make this happen?”
  3. “How can we ensure the effectiveness and fruitfulness of what we are doing?” 

Yet another very simple thing we can do out of compassion is to be responsible and take steps to prevent the spread of the virus – to protect not only ourselves and our loved ones but also other people around us.  This would include washing our hands regularly, wearing a mask, practising physical distancing and sensibly following other guidelines outlined by the authorities.

We learn to be better leaders by learning from the very best.  We also learn to be better leaders by pausing to reflect, and by proactively putting what we have learnt into practice.  Afterall, practice makes perfect.

This story has been updated with the latest figures and a title that reflects lessons that can be learnt from examples of resilience.  

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Welcome to Black Swan Olympics 2020

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What a difference a few weeks make.  In the rapid unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are new and alarming developments every day.  In my last blog post on 14 February 2020, I had written about the novel coronavirus that was descending upon a largely unsuspecting world.

When It All Comes True

Since then, I had deliberately refrained from writing for a while, simply because in so many ways, despite the daily churning out of media stories and relentless news cycles, the article continued to remain chillingly accurate, current and relevant throughout the ensuing weeks.  Did I need to write any further? Dared I write anymore? In fact, only a few hours after the piece was posted on 14 February 2020, stating what at that time seemed like sufficiently alarming numbers of over 64,000 infected cases and about 1,400 deaths worldwide, including three outside China – in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan – France recorded the very first COVID-19 death in the whole of Europe.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

At the time of writing – 30 March 2020 – the number of cases worldwide has already leapt from over 64,000 to 746,178, with deaths soaring from a mere 1,400 on 14 February 2020 to 35,347 lives lost.  This is what exponential growth means.

(For the latest global statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic, click here for the World Health Organisation/WHO COVID-19 Dashboard.  Alternatively, click here for up-to-date statistics from Worldometer.)

COVID-19 Tornado Sweeps Across Asia

It does seem as if COVID-19 has been wreaking havoc across the globe, in waves, moving in and changing directions like a capricious tornado with a frightening ferocity.  As most of us know, the coronavirus was first identified when it appeared mysteriously in China, specifically the city of Wuhan in Hubei province – some believe as early as 17 November 2019, before it was said to have been detected in early December 2019 – leading to the draconian lockdown on 23 January 2020.  Horrific accounts emerged from China of skyrocketing cases of infection and a terrifying body count, especially among the elderly, in overwhelmed hospitals with stressed out, exhausted healthcare professionals.

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Then the epicentre moved to South Korea, with at least half of the cases spread by a cult member in the city of Daegu.  Concurrently, on the British-registered Diamond Princess cruise ship with 3,700 passengers and crew docked off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, the number of infected cases began to escalate to about 700 passengers and 8 deaths.  (Note: At the time of writing, the numbers have since risen to 712 cases and 10 deaths.) The novel coronavirus received a little more global attention as passengers requiring evacuation included people from a variety of countries such as the US, UK, Canada, Australia and China/Hong Kong. However, even then, the general feeling was that the threat of COVID-19 had been contained.

(For the latest global statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic, click here for the World Health Organisation/WHO COVID-19 Dashboard. Alternatively, click here for up-to-date statistics from Worldometer.)

Different Levels of Preparedness

All the same, people in Asia – Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan in East Asia, and Southeast Asian countries Singapore and Thailand – both top destinations for Chinese tourists – were watching developments in China and South Korea very closely, even as they began to experience the swift onslaught of the novel coronavirus.  Their past experience with the frightening SARS outbreak in 2002 – 2003 gave them a slight advantage in terms of vigilance and preparedness.  South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore seem to have followed a certain formula of travel bans and restrictions; stringent screening of travellers at airports; aggressive testing; free testing and treatment; prompt isolation of infected cases; persistent contact tracing; strict quarantining of those potentially exposed to infected persons; regular updates to all citizens and residents; as well as a variety of hygiene and social distancing measures such as the availability of hand sanitisers and face masks; school closures; the suspension of social activities for the elderly; telecommuting; restricted meeting or dining group sizes to not more than 10 persons; or split work teams and staggered work/travel hours.

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Yet at the same time, there were some countries in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, which seemed to be relatively untouched and unscathed, causing some citizens to attribute their immunity to their healthy constitution, diet and lifestyle.  (Note: At the time of writing, the number of detected cases and deaths in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have since risen significantly, with Malaysia registering the highest number of cases at 2,626, and Indonesia the highest number of deaths at 122, in Southeast Asia.  Even so, the situation remains fluid and numbers will continue to climb at different rates, depending on the respective trajectories.)

(For the latest global statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic, click here for the World Health Organisation/WHO COVID-19 Dashboard. Alternatively, click here for up-to-date statistics from Worldometer.)

The same could be said of developed, first world countries in the West, such as those in Europe, the US, Australia and Canada.  In mid-February 2020, news coverage in the US focused almost entirely on the US presidential primaries and the tragic death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant that occurred in late January 2020; in the UK, the focus was on Brexit, Boris Johnson’s engagement, and the suicide of media personality Caroline Flack.  However, instances of racism and xenophobia towards Chinese and Asians did begin to surface in the UK, US, Canada and Europe, prompting “#JeNeSuisPasUnVirus” campaigns.  But the sense then was still that COVID-19 belonged to faraway countries in the East.  There were even people who joked about it, referring it to beer, or even playing nasty pranks on unsuspecting strangers in public places.  These resembled some of the cheeky jokes Chinese students told their English language teachers about the virus, only weeks before the shocking lockdown in China.

The most serious error made in many countries outside China was having the false belief that COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019), the disease of the virus, SARS CoV2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2), was “just like the flu”.  Many were unaware of the fact that compared to the flu, the new virus has much higher estimated infection and case fatality rates (CFR), and the R0  (“R naught” or reproductive number) is said to be around 3; it can also be spread by people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Although those who fall seriously ill or die tend to be the elderly and/or those with co-morbidities or underlying health conditions, the young, healthy and fit can also present severe symptoms – requiring oxygen therapy or even mechanical ventilators in intensive care wards as well.  In fact, in China, the youngest victim was a 14-year-old boy; in Belgium and the UK, the youngest patients who died were aged 12 years and 13 years, respectively.  And in the US, a six-week-old infant and a one-year-old baby have both lost their lives to the disease.  Scores of healthcare professionals have also been infected in hospitals around the world, and Italy alone has lost more than 60 doctors.  More importantly, COVID-19 has only debuted outside China for two to three months, and unlike the flu, has no vaccine to provide immunity to it.  A safe and effective vaccine would take 12 – 18 months, or longer, to develop, as it involves various phases of extensive animal testing and human trials, before it can be ready for mass production and distribution.  Some people even think they have found a quick cure for COVID-19 in the anti-Malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), which is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.  However, the safety and efficacy of HCQ to treat COVID-19 has not been proven yet, and side effects could include nausea, vomiting, headaches, vision problems, muscle weakness, allergic reactions and heart problems.  Deaths from an overdose of HCQ have also been reported.

Unfortunately, with widespread belief in the West that COVID-19 was no more than the flu, life continued.  Borders remained open.  Millions of tourists continued to travel across most of the globe to visit popular attractions, and to mingle with locals and attend crowd magnets such as fairs, festivals and concerts.  People were out in the streets, and dining in restaurants, bars and cafes.  They were also in crowded malls, theatres, cinemas, museums and exhibitions.

COVID-19 Officially Declared a Pandemic

Meantime, after South Korea, Iran became the next epicentre, with many dying and at least 23 of its lawmakers contracting the disease.  As in the case of China, there are some who seriously question the official number of infections and deaths released by Tehran.  Soon after, Europe became the new epicentre, especially in Italy and Spain.  It was the European version of the outbreak in Wuhan, and it was by all accounts, heartbreaking.

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic only on 11 March 2020 – the delay presumably due to the need to see more community spread across more countries and continents.  With cases and deaths in Italy and Spain still skyrocketing, the United States is presently on the verge of becoming the next epicentre, with the United Kingdom close behind.  Most of these countries are experiencing a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as surgical masks/respirators, gloves, goggles, face shields and gowns, as well as mechanical ventilators and intensive care unit (ICU) beds.  Under already stressful conditions, many healthcare professionals, including those in the UK and US, have been requested to re-use their surgical or N95 masks, while others have been making their own.  In Italy, some doctors have resorted to using snorkelling masks; in Spain, healthcare professionals have been making their own protective gowns out of hastily acquired garbage bags or bin liners.

Hospitals and healthcare professionals in the current and upcoming epicentres in Europe, the US and UK, as well as the rest of the world, are now increasingly encountering a sudden surge followed by a relentless influx of COVID-19 patients requiring immediate medical attention all at the same time.  Everyone knows that the key is to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, and medical supplies from running out.

As everything remains fluid and evolving, at the time of writing, the global numbers have leapt to 746,178 cases, and 35,347 deaths.  While official numbers cannot be absolutely accurate, given the varied approaches to testing and to how deaths are recorded, the United States has already risen through the ranks to become the country with the highest number of cases at 145,131, while the official death tolls in both Italy and Spain have surpassed China’s own official number of 3,304, at 10,779 and 7,340, respectively.  Most numbers are believed to be under-reported.

(For the latest global statistics on the COVID-19 pandemic, click here for the World Health Organisation/WHO COVID-19 Dashboard. Alternatively, click here for up-to-date statistics from Worldometer.)

Déjà vu

What is incomprehensible is that each epicentre so far – apart from South Korea – has revealed almost the exact same level of nonchalance and unpreparedness amongst the leaders and the general population, with many still in denial despite all the signs of clear and present danger.  For weeks, I felt like the protagonist in a disaster movie, urgently imploring local and expat contacts, and especially those in the western world to take the outbreak seriously.  Exasperatingly, my concern was brushed off with the most common comments being: “it’s just like the flu which kills thousands every year”, “it will get better when summer comes”, “it’s just something hyped up by the media” and “it is possibly a hoax”.  These are educated people mostly from first world nations, and it troubled me that they remained unconcerned and unperturbed, thinking it was something that was happening far away, and therefore harmless.

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How could this be though? Did they not also follow the horrific developments in China, especially Wuhan? Did they not realise that China’s unprecedented lockdown of all the cities in Hubei province on 23 January 2020, and subsequent restrictions on others around China, signalled an outbreak with pandemic potential? Did they not think it was time to get prepared for a similar onslaught while on borrowed time?

Alas, it has been the same familiar story, played out all over again like a broken record – politicians downplaying the gravity of the situation; basic public health messages of 20-second hand washing and social distancing; limited testing due to widespread shortages of test kits; a small number of cases spotted, followed by a few clusters, and then a sudden, simultaneous explosion of uncontrollable numbers of feverish and breathless patients flooding hospitals; overwhelmed hospitals with a shortage of ICU beds, ventilators and PPE; stressed and inadequately protected healthcare professionals fighting an invisible enemy in surreal war zone conditions.  Meantime, the number of infected cases soars exponentially, as does the number of deaths, with morgues and crematoriums exceeding capacity, requiring alternative venues such as churches, ice rinks and freezer or refrigerator trucks.

Predictably, always seemingly overnight, government leaders swing from initial calm and overconfident assurances that “everything is under control”, to stern declarations of urgent and stringent restrictive quarantine or lockdown measures to “flatten the curve”, save and protect lives, and prevent healthcare systems from getting overwhelmed.  Panic buying at supermarkets ensues, as anxiety and fear suddenly grip the people, even as many more weep and mourn the sudden, cruel and lonely passing of loved ones in isolation.

And They All Lock Down

Like dominoes falling, once bustling global cities – Rome, Milan, Madrid, Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco – have been reduced to ghost towns.  Suddenly, at least a third of the world’s population are experiencing something akin to house arrest – they are trapped in their homes, telecommuting, and home schooling their children, often for the first time.  Others resort to exercising in tight spaces, or singing, shouting patriotically, and emotionally applauding their healthcare and frontline professionals from their balconies.  The few who are interviewed by news outlets predictably express how unexpected and unprecedented everything has been.

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Many have also complained about how they have not had the chance to get tested, while some of the hospitalised have recorded and shared videos warning and urging everyone, especially the young and healthy, to take the novel coronavirus seriously.

Well-known personalities who have tested positive for the coronavirus include Monaco’s Prince Albert II; heir apparent to the British throne, Prince Charles; Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau; Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez’s wife, Begona Gomez; Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson; Idris Elba; Kevin Durant; US senator Rand Paul, British PM Boris Johnson, and many others.  To date, the 86-year-old Spanish Princess Maria Teresa is the first royal to succumb to the coronavirus.  The 37-year-old British diplomat, Steven Dick, has also died from the disease in Budapest, Hungary.  Somehow the mention of a dignitary or  celebrity validates the seriousness of the COVID-19.

Yet we want to pause for a moment to remember the thousands of ordinary people around the world who are in the ICU fighting for their lives.  We especially want to honour all those who have lost their lives to this disease in the past few months – healthcare professionals, front line workers as well as much loved grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, offspring, friends and colleagues.

Scientists and experts are notably split in their opinions over scenarios of low versus high endemic prevalence, and the appropriate measures or solutions.  Some still believe there has been mass hysteria over something that is not as deadly as it has been made out to be (80% will experience only mild symptoms), while others insist that draconian measures should have been implemented at least a few weeks ago, given the potential of the disease to kill or cause significant illness and lung or other organ damage.  Only time – and subsequent death tolls – will tell who is right.

Economic Turmoil

With the unprecedented travel bans and lockdowns across the globe, even with China trying to reboot its economy, came the inevitable – the further disruption of integrated supply chains and the merciless closure or tanking of businesses in key sectors such as travel & tourism, aviation, retail, food & beverage, land transport, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and wholesale trade, leading to the historic crash of the financial, and oil & gas markets.  Not only did lives need saving – jobs and livelihoods needed saving too.

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Amid palpable fears of a global recession or even depression, governments around the world have scrambled and swung into action, rolling out unrivalled economic stimulus packages to save jobs, businesses and the economy.  The largest has been the USD$2 trillion stimulus package, essentially a historic rescue plan promising direct payments to individuals; student loan suspensions; as well as unparalleled unemployment benefits; provisions for gig economy workers; protections against foreclosures and evictions; loans to businesses already concerned about cash flow, cost and credit; generous funds for overburdened hospitals; and grants for the decimated airline industry.

A Different Kind of Olympics

Originally scheduled to take place on 24 July – 9 August 2020, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo has been postponed to 23 July 2021 because of COVID-19.  However, observing and studying the variety of ways world leaders and captains of industry are employing to both fight the coronavirus as well as keep businesses and the economy afloat makes it akin to watching a different kind of Olympics – the Black Swan Olympics 2020.  Let us hope it does not descend into some kind of Hunger Games.

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Many world leaders have taken ownership and the initiative to introduce a host of measures: states of emergency and lockdowns for the ring-fencing and containment of high-risk areas and cities; the establishment of drive-through or phone booth-style testing centres; the deployment of the armed forces for logistical, construction and security enforcement needs; the employment of drones and robots for curfew policing; the mobilisation of manufacturers to build much-needed ventilators; the utilisation of hotels, dormitories and cruise ships as quarantine centres and accommodation for healthcare professionals; the setting up of temporary hospitals and morgues in alternative venues; the transportation by air or high-speed trains of any overflow of patients to other regions or countries with capacity; the housing of the homeless in specially assigned shelters; the release of political prisoners; the mobilisation of retired healthcare workers, final year medical students, cabin crew and other volunteers – all of this in addition to the rolling out of unprecedented economic stimulus and rescue packages.

Business leaders and entrepreneurs have also stepped forward.  Besides donating generous sums and care hampers to the needy, many have also mobilised resources and even switched their lines of business as perfume makers, distilleries, luxury apparel houses and design companies to manufacture much needed hand sanitisers, face masks and protective gowns, as well as 3-D printed masks, face shields, ventilators and ventilator components.

It is “all hands on deck” – an extraordinary celebration of courage, solidarity, creativity, resilience in adversity and the human spirit in desperate times.

Black Swan Leader – Where Art Thou?

With all of these astonishing developments serving as a backdrop, and given the once-in-a-hundred-years nature of the current global peace time crisis, the pandemic  has indeed taken its toll on leaders everywhere.  Business owners have crumpled with grief as they deliberate over the retrenchment of cherished long-serving employees.  The Dutch minister for medical care has resigned after collapsing in parliament due to exhaustion, and a German state finance minister recently committed suicide over coronavirus-related economic fears.  In fact, much earlier in February 2020, Taiwan’s health minister broke down in tears when he announced the 11th case of the coronavirus.  On 25 March 2020, Singapore’s minister for national development paid an emotional tribute in parliament to all healthcare workers and Singaporeans who have contributed to the ongoing fight against COVID-19.

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Black Swan leaders are urgently needed in every nation, industry and sector.  They are however understandably in short supply.

Who are Black Swan Leaders?

Black Swan leaders are capable men and women who do not cling to long-held assumptions, who thrive in complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty, even as they galvanise talent and resources to steer their respective nations and corporations to stay ahead of the curve, especially in the most turbulent of environments.

The long list of qualities mentioned in my previous blog post of a Black Swan Leader remains the same:

  • Wise
  • Competent
  • Humble
  • Clear-minded
  • Focused
  • Unbiased, good listeners
  • Effective communicators
  • Empathic
  • Transparent
  • Decisive
  • Forward-thinking
  • Courageous
  • Adaptable
  • Resilient
  • Compassionate
  • Inspiring
  • Lifelong learners
  • Generous, abundance-minded
  • Walk-the-talkers
  • Conductors of orchestras
  • Connectors/mentors

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However, while it is already implied, it is perhaps time to add just one more quality: Proactivity.  In these challenging times when everyone around the world is thrown a curve ball – including the wealthiest and most powerful nations – who then are the ones who can skilfully assess the situation, take the initiative and act decisively? We have seen many leadership teams momentarily stumped by the magnitude and complexity of the pandemic crisis.  However, we have also seen others rise to the occasion with often creative solutions borne out of urgency.

The Top Three Black Swan Leadership Qualities

Despite the ongoing devastation in Europe and the United States, it is unfortunately still early days.  Events are still evolving and unfolding around the world, with the onset, peak and slowing down of the COVID-19 onslaught varying in different cities and countries across continents.  It has become increasingly clear that wise, capable and consistent leadership is crucial for the survival of every nation – rich or poor, developed or developing, in the East or West.

With everything expected to be found in Black Swan leaders, the top three leadership qualities are the most crucial for a variety of reasons.

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Wisdom

Leaders need to be wise.  This is different from merely being intelligent or clever.  Wise leaders use a combination of insight, experience and skills from the collective wisdom of a team of capable leaders with complementary expertise.  They listen attentively and leverage the strengths of others.   Given that the stakes have never been higher, there is no room for the ego.  There is no room for political rivalry either.

One way to detect wisdom is to watch the way a leader responds to potentially tricky questions posed during media interviews and press conferences.  Wise leaders would pause to think before speaking, remain objective, and avoid unnecessary speculation or controversy.  They would be experienced enough not to take the bait of basking in the glory of any flattery or casual mention of past and recent achievements put forth by the interviewer or journalist.  They would also refrain from seizing the opportunity to show any rival or fellow world leader in a bad light.

Wisdom would enable leaders to listen attentively to consider different views, approaches and solutions, thereby working with focus and unity to implement policies for the good of the people they serve and lead.

Influential leaders reporting to those higher up the chain of command also need wisdom and courage to speak truth to power, should the occasion warrant it.  They need the wisdom to present information and facts in a way that would enable their superiors to understand the magnitude of the crisis, its implications, the possible scenarios and the recommended courses of action and contingency plans.  However, there needs to be a high level of trust for genuine concerns to be aired and frank opinions to be shared.

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Humility

It is also important that leaders are genuinely humble.  Only humility would prevent them from mocking, disparaging, finger pointing, blaming, shaming and unfairly penalising others.  Only humility would allow them to listen carefully and solicit the counsel and views of all relevant parties, without prejudice or partiality.  Only humility would allow them to seek the help and cooperation of corporations and countries across the globe.  Only humility would cause them to be transparent, admitting to mistakes, and acknowledging that they too are on a never-ending learning journey.

Humble leaders are self-assured and do not think less of themselves.  However, they are always thinking about themselves less, and thinking very much more about others.  They are often not the subject matter expert, but they stay informed and current, and are humble and savvy enough to ask the right questions, and to gather and leverage the very best talents to work out the most effective and impactful solutions.

Leaders of countries that have managed the current crisis comparatively better would do well to remain focused to stay the course.  No country is out of the woods yet.  Everybody is on a steep learning curve, and careless mistakes can be costly.  Judging from what seems to be the current discernible pattern, the COVID-19 virus tends to strike at an epicentre, and despite all the necessary measures, will remain for at least a couple of months before reaching its peak, and then eventually moving on to the next epicentre.  The pandemic is therefore likely to circulate the planet in periodic waves, especially given the varied rates of infection and acceleration; the still relatively dormant state of many of the poorer, highly populated countries with weaker healthcare systems in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America; as well as the recurring import and export of cases across porous international borders.  Countries to watch include Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa, Somalia, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Mexico.  It would also be interesting to watch additional countries with leaders who have chosen a more relaxed approach to managing the pandemic, such as Sweden and Belarus.

World leaders are already talking about lockdowns lasting several months, while others are predicting the duration of the pandemic to last at least a year.  The time frame also coincides with the time it will take to have a safe and effective vaccine ready for mass production and global distribution.  Realistically, economic recovery at both the national and global level will take a lot longer.

As more world leaders see the potential dangers of globalisation, they may be tempted to become more insular, and to increasingly embrace “glocalisation” while also valuing the wisdom of strengthening local capabilities for self-reliance and preparedness in times of unexpected national and global crises.  Yet we all live in an interconnected, symbiotic world. Leaders need to grasp the new reality and yet continue working humbly together to deal with the pandemic, and to reboot and strengthen their respective national economies as well as the global economy.

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Compassion

The third key quality is compassion.  As scientific and mathematical models – “artificial intelligence” or AI – are employed for better decision-making and problem solving, it is crucial that leaders have a heart of compassion as well.  While there is value in adopting a scientific or evidence-based approach, it is dangerous for leaders to depend solely on such objectivity while forgetting their bounden duty to serve and protect the people they govern.

It is also important that while they rely heavily on critical healthcare professionals and frontline personnel to achieve national objectives, the onus is on the leaders to ensure that this precious human resource is adequately protected, equipped, trained and supported every step of the way.  This would entail years of resource planning, recruitment, preparation, training, contingency planning and stockpiling.  The same should apply to all providers of other essential services.

When leaders demonstrate a genuine concern for their people, they will gain the trust and social capital of the nation.  Conversely, when leaders are perceived to view the people they govern as mere statistics or bodies that are expendable, they will lose the trust and respect of the entire nation.  In fact, there is a common quip: “When leaders say, ‘Don’t panic’, that’s when you should panic!” We can tell how much leaders are believed and trusted simply by observing what their people do right after an important announcement or declaration.  For instance, it is very telling when people rush out to supermarkets to panic buy, right after repeated assurances from leaders that there is no need for panic and more than sufficient food supplies for everyone.  Another example is when people disregard government appeals to stay home by defiantly carrying on with their lives, holding secret parties, breaking quarantines as well as hanging out at parks and beaches.

On the other hand, it is encouraging to see leaders visiting hot zones or hot spots.  It is uplifting to see them taking pay cuts even as they work out rescue packages to save and protect jobs.  It is also inspiring to see business leaders and entrepreneurs using their resources to contribute to relief efforts and to help the marginalised.  It is also comforting – and certainly a relief to leaders – when the majority of citizens act responsibly by heeding government advisories in these strange times.

Moreover, when leaders get emotional over the current crisis, it may be far from a sign of weakness.  It could instead be a healthy indication that the respective nations or businesses are safe in the capable hands of authentic leaders with a heart – leaders who are doing their best. Conversely, when leaders blur their messaging, engage in the blame game, are flippant about heeding their own official advisories or measures, and continue to implement decisions that harm their people, the latter will know collectively, with sinking hearts, that they are left on their own.  We weep and pray for these countries, corporations and institutions.

We also know that poorly conceived policies executed in one country can also have serious repercussions on others.  A country’s lack of vigilance and preparedness in containing or mitigating against the coronavirus within its own population would not only cause much harm to its citizens but would unfortunately lead to exported cases to other countries, weakening concerted worldwide efforts, and aggravating the global crisis.  It is therefore in the interest of developing countries with weaker infrastructure and resources to solicit help, and for developed countries with better resources to offer aid and assistance.  Afterall, we are a global village, an international community.

Staying the Course

Above all, leaders need to stay focused during these challenging times.  There will be critics, detractors and naysayers.  There will likely be viable alternative solutions not chosen and, with hindsight, possibly even better routes not taken.  There will be fear in the eyes of patients and healthcare professionals alike, and not just amongst the dying.  There will be deep sorrow, or white hot rage in the eyes of many others.  And there will be the continued exponential increase of infected cases, with body bags being filled far too quickly.  There will be heartbreaking casualties.  Many will lose someone they love or know.  And as roller coaster financial markets continue to plunge and fluctuate, unemployment numbers will soar, and even established businesses will go belly up, never to make a comeback again.  Suicides are likely to rise and so could social instability and civil unrest.  These are times not for the faint-hearted.

Black Swan Leaders need to stay focused and prepared at all times, leveraging insights, competencies and resources they have garnered, and wisely, humbly, compassionately and calmly stay the course.

We wish them well, even as we, too, rise to do our part.

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Wanted: Black Swan Leaders

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It is said that until the end of the 17th century, Europeans were convinced that all swans were white.  When a black swan in Australia was discovered in 1697, it completely undermined the notion that all swans were white.  What then is a Black Swan event? A black swan in markets is defined as an event that has not occurred in the past, thus rendering useless risk management models based on historic data.  Such a risk model would assume that all swans were white.  According to the author who coined the term “black swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it is about truly catastrophic and unpredictable effects when they occur, and how risk managers should concentrate on guarding against them.

Personally, I see a black swan leader as one who is a bit of a dark horse, who is able to see past common or long-held assumptions, adapt, and then lead through brand new or strange and unexpected crises with skill and a steady hand.

When Things Turn Spine-Chlling

Prescient: (adjective) UK /ˈpres.i.ənt/ US /ˈpres.i.ənt/ – knowing or suggesting correctly what will happen in the future.  (Cambridge Dictionary)

Let us digress a little.  Have you ever said something, only to have it happen later? I have had this experience a number of times and it never fails to catch my attention.  Last year, on Christmas Day, no less, I somehow felt it in my heart the need to write a blog post about how some people might not be in the mood for celebration during the festive season.  I wanted them to be encouraged, and to wish them peace. At that time, little did I know that something was already brewing in a faraway city of 11 million people, and that in a matter of weeks, a total of 60 million people would be experiencing untold anxiety and despair due to what some at that time thought were draconian measures to lockdown a thriving city and its entire province, especially during the busy Lunar New Year period, right after Christmas and the ringing in of the New Year 2020 and the New Decade.

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Perhaps we can simply put it all down to some strange coincidence, much like the uncannily timely January 2020 release of the Netflix documentary series entitled “Pandemic”, or the eerie storyline reflected in “The Eyes of Darkness”.  The latter is a thriller novel about a mysterious virus called Wuhan-400, by American author Dean Koontz, originally written under the pen name of “Leigh Nichols”. (Koontz’s book is currently experiencing a resurgence of interest, and a movie could very well be in the works, even as we speak.) Or maybe we should call a spade a spade: It is spine-chilling.

COVID-19

I am of course referring to the novel coronavirus which is capturing worldwide attention right now, and the disease caused by it – COVID-19* – although the source of this outbreak is said to be a seafood and wild life market in Wuhan, China.

* Note: In terms of severity, the COVID-19 fatality rate in China is currently believed to be lower than Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).  But with a transmission mechanism closer to H1N1 or influenza, it is more infectious and may spread at a faster rate than SARS.  Like influenza, COVID-19 is infectious when symptoms are mild, and can go undetected and spread quite quickly.  The global fatality rate of SARS during the 2002-2003 outbreak was 9.56 per cent, as compared to a 2.14 per cent fatality rate for COVID-19 so far. (Source: Channel News Asia)

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As the official global death toll from the outbreak continues to climb to at least 1,383 at the time of writing, most of the cases so far remain in China, especially in the epicentre of Wuhan in Hubei province, with an official total of 63,851 cases of infection, including those of 1,716 brave but overworked and over-stretched medical frontline personnel, and 1,380 deaths, including those of six medics.  People in many parts of the world are also getting the jitters as they notice and experience the gradual but accelerating impact of this epidemic that some are already calling a pandemic.

The official global number of COVID-19 cases has exceeded 64,000, including 3 deaths in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and recently, Japan.  The virus seems to have struck people from all walks of life, with no discernible trend so far.

The impact of COVID-19 is being felt everywhere – at least 48 Chinese cities and four provinces in complete lockdown; global outrage and the outpouring of grief over the death of a young Chinese doctor, Dr. Li Wenliang, who was initially taken to task for being a whistle blower; countless flights to and from China cancelled; cruise ships quarantined; plane loads of anxious citizens evacuated and quarantined in their respective countries around the world; global sectors badly hit, including tourism, retail, food and beverage, transport, logistics, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and automobiles; major international events cancelled (Mobile World Congress in Barcelona) or postponed (Hong Kong Rugby Sevens and the Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai).

Corporations are scrambling to roll out their BCP or Business Continuity Plans, with many offering telecommuting/work-from-home arrangements.  Airports, shopping malls, universities, places of worship and kindergartens are just some of the public places that are starting to act on limiting exposure to the virus.

Surgical and face masks are often out of stock, and unfortunately some opportunists are selling them at exorbitant prices – to combat this, Hong Kongers have resorted to making their own masks.  There has reportedly been panic buying of food and certain essentials at supermarkets in cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore.  Government officials in Singapore were compelled to appear in the media to reassure the public that there were ample supplies and thus no need for any panic.  Racism has also begun to rear its ugly head in countries such as the US, UK and Canada, with Chinese people reporting insensitive comments and hurtful incidents.

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Meantime, the outbreak is showing no signs of abating in China.  It is therefore unlikely to peak by the end of February this year.  It will also take time to develop a vaccine.  So with the number of cases still skyrocketing in China, it is more likely to take a few more months to peak, and then run its course or be contained.  When that finally happens, it is believed that other parts of the world will then follow suit and peak with at least a two-month time lag.

Compassion

A couple of posts ago, I shared about my experience of having a really awful fever and coughing bout around the tail-end of August and September last year.  It was not funny at all.  I was fortunate to have had loving friends and family around me, and I also remember encountering really nice people who showed compassion and understanding.  I vividly remember looking into the kind eyes of a couple of serving staff at a classy and iconic hotel in Nice, France, that incidentally had also taken good care of victims of the terrorist attack back in July 2016.  I also remember an afternoon when a few people were  relaxing near the beach as my pal and I sipped our drinks along the Promenade des Anglais.  I soon discovered I had something in common with two couples around me – convalescence! – and we smiled at one another kindly and nodded with silent understanding.  It was just a little encounter but it has remained imprinted in my mind.

Compassion

Right now, I am just so thankful that I am not coughing the way I did then.  Imagine the panic and paranoia it would cause.  At this moment, even a sniff or a hint of a cough could cause alarm, with people frowning or moving away quickly.  So my heart goes out to anyone even remotely ill, or anybody who is simply taking precautionary measures by wearing a mask in crowded places – especially those who are Chinese, are of Chinese ancestry, or look Chinese.  I suppose that is how some Muslims must feel whenever a major jihadist attack has occurred somewhere in the world.

A crisis can bring out the best in people but also the worst in people.  Recently, I came across a netizen’s comment that he was worried and hoped that COVID-19 would not hit his country in South Asia as he said the hospitals were already overwhelmed.  Someone soon posted a reply to say that he hoped it would actually happen and “wipe out” everyone in that country – he even included a few inappropriate smiling and praying emojis.  The meanness behind that entry was most disturbing.  Yet this is the kind of world we live in today.

But there is still hope for humanity. A host of countries, including the Republic of Korea (ROK), Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, have stepped forward to contribute funds, medical supplies and expertise to help with the crisis in China. Billionaires and multinational corporations have also contributed generously.*  Several teams around the world are also racing against time to develop a vaccine.  Last but not least, many around the world are praying for China, and for all the sick, the bereaved, as well as the medical and frontline staff across the globe who are working round the clock to fight the outbreak.

*Note: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (US$100 mil); Alibaba (US$144 mil); Tencent (US$42.7mil); Microsoft (US$142,400); Cargill and Dell (US$284,800); Boeing (250,000 masks), and many more across the globe.

Black Swan Leaders

While COVID-19 appears to have more similarities to the H1N1 in 2009, it still has some similarities to the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003 in terms of severity, and that gives Asian government leaders and medical/frontline staff a slightly higher level of preparedness from past experience.  The COVID-19 crisis could still very much be a black swan in terms of its suddenness, mystery, magnitude, speed of contagion, global impact and the way it has still caught so many people off-guard because of its flu-like symptoms.

Amidst all this, there is a great need for leaders who possess a clear head and a steady hand, with mutual trust and understanding, as well as timely information sharing and unity.

This is not the time for ridicule, mockery, accusations, finger-pointing or ostracism.  Contrary to what some still think, we live in a global village.  This crisis is therefore a shared global challenge.  Lest we be too quick to judge, we should look at the current crisis and say to ourselves: “There but for the grace of God, go I”.  This does not mean that we are highly favoured and therefore spared from the onslaught – things are afterall still unfolding and evolving, and who knows what the future holds?  What it does mean is that our own little neighbourhood, town, city or country could very well have been the epicentre of this mysterious virus, if not some other outbreak or catastrophe.  In fact, if we are truly honest, only the deluded would think they are better equipped to cope with such a horrific incident on such a massive scale.  There are just too many variables that are not within one’s control in such a situation.  Who can confidently claim superior knowledge and skills to overcome something like this?

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It is therefore in such Black Swan events that we need the right leaders to take us through it all, out into the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.  So what are the key characteristics of leaders of our volatile future? They are the same characteristics of those who can rise to the occasion to lead in Black Swan events.

The focus right now should be on saving lives and protecting lives.  It is also about managing the impact of the outbreak on all aspects of life, especially the global economy and jobs.  In such a crisis, we need leaders around the world who are:

  • Wise
  • Competent
  • Humble
  • Clear-minded
  • Focused
  • Unbiased, good listeners
  • Effective communicators
  • Empathic
  • Transparent
  • Decisive
  • Forward-thinking
  • Courageous
  • Adaptable
  • Resilient
  • Compassionate
  • Inspiring
  • Lifelong learners

We also need leaders who lead by example and walk the talk.  We need leaders who are conductors of orchestras, who galvanise teams.  We need leaders who have an abundance mind-set, with a generous heart and genuine desire to give and help, more than to take or receive.  We need leaders to be connectors and mentors who are magnanimous and nurturing, who work well with and through other leaders across organisations and nations. We need leaders who thrive in ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity. We need leaders who stay calm, steady and focused while others panic even in the midst of casualties.

It is a tall order.  But a crisis separates great leaders from the good or mediocre ones.  Only time will tell, even as the world watches with bated breath.

 

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A Christmas Wish

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It is Christmas Day!

I confess that I have already had my fair share of Christmas parties, and I just threw one only a few hours ago.  It is indeed a time of joyful feasting, with the exchange of gifts and the singing of familiar Christmas carols, as we spend quality time with loved ones, and get to know others in a more informal and relaxed setting.  It is a time to “let down your hair” (assuming you don’t have short hair, that is).

For the children, it is all about the presents.  And it is often the same for the grown-ups too, as we look forward to year-end bonuses, the latest tech gadgets and/or a fabulous instagramable holiday preferably to make us the envy of everyone in the city (or make that the entire universe).  Then of course, there are the parties with the usual “live wires” who always make everything that much more fun and unforgettable.  In contrast, there are the quiet ones who either critically observe what is going on or awkwardly stand around, staring into the drink in their hand, planning a quick exit from the party.

Yet what is also true is that in the midst of all the merrymaking, there are those who are really not in the mood for Christmas.  They might have recently lost a loved one (or are constantly reminded of the passing of a loved one several Christmases ago).  Or they could have just been diagnosed with a life-changing or terminal illness, with its implications and sudden impact on the immediate family.  Or there could be somebody who has experienced some other form of personal loss or tragedy, such as an accident or even a natural disaster.  It would be especially difficult for anyone like that during a time meant for feasting and rejoicing.  If we do know such a person, let us pause for a moment, and reach out with empathy, sensitivity and understanding.  Sometimes, all they need is our quiet presence.

Or if you are someone experiencing this yourself, I wish you the peace of Christmas.  My wish for you is that you will be kind to yourself, and allow yourself to grieve.  My wish is that you will live in the moment, and treasure the people who are still in your life.  I also wish for you to be comforted as you allow yourself to express your grief, and for you to be healed in the process.  May you also grasp and fathom the full meaning of Christmas, even as your spirits are lifted by unique or “coincidental” encounters this Christmas.  (Yes, open your eyes and heart, and expect them to happen.)  Last but not least, my wish for you is that despite the unfortunate circumstances, this Christmas will prove to be a truly special one for you, in every possible way.  P. S Don’t forget to treasure and store up these special memories. Hold them close to your heart.

Here’s wishing everyone a Meaningful and Memorable

Christmas

and

New Year 2020!

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The Work-Recharge-Work Cycle

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You know you are having an absolutely fabulous break when you are still cheerful, joyful and thankful even though you are staving off a week-long fever and coping with a nagging cough that includes embarrassingly sudden bouts that seem to come from out of nowhere, only to go on forever until your face is beet red and your eyes hopelessly watery.  Yes, mortifying instances aside, I recently had the rather enviable privilege of spending extensive precious moments during the tail end of summer and the start of autumn with friends and loved ones in Europe – the UK (mostly London, but also up north), France (mostly Nice, but also other parts of the Cote D’Azur), and the Netherlands (Amsterdam).  The unusually hot and sunny weather in picturesque Nice gave me distinctive tan lines but also did me a lot of good.  Amsterdam was pretty, pleasant and cool, while London was characteristically chilly, even when the sun was out.

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How Some People Recharge 

Some of the people I enjoyed spending time with are incredibly successful in high-pressure jobs in their respective fields of expertise – medicine, banking/finance, IT and education.  They are smart and driven, but also wonderfully down-to-earth, authentic and gracious, often with an indefatigable spirit and a delightful sense of humour.  For sure, some were still hell-bent on discussing their career ambitions, their next big move, their latest research piece or their most exciting property investment, but most were content to simply read a book, have hilarious exchanges with their children, or chill over the latest cult series on Netflix or several swigs of beer, and a chat, after a long day or a particularly stressful week at work.

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The chats were over a variety of delectable meals – a full English breakfast, fish and chips, elaborate afternoon teas, Salade NiçoiseMoules et Frites (mussels and fries), Confit de Canard (duck confit), Soufflé au Chocolat (chocolate soufflé) and Poffertjes (Dutch pancakes), as well as the occasional sandwich, dim sum, sashimi and home-cooked meal.  (This list is not exhaustive, but you get the picture.)  Needless to say, with that came fast and furious advocacy of the Keto diet and some of the latest exercise programmes or fitness fads, all of which seemed really fascinating.    However, I went “old school” and still resorted to simply swimming laps in the heated pool of my hotel, and enjoying pleasant strolls at the park or around the neighbourhood, while also justifying that the sheer amount of walking and climbing I did particularly in France was sufficient exercise for the entire year (and maybe a little into the Year 2020!).

 

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The relaxation not only included delightful visits to museums, theatres and the countryside, but also the relishing of films/movies – on board the plane, in between generous servings of champagne, Bordeaux wine, grilled fillet of beef and Lobster Thermidor, no less, as well as in various cinemas in London and Nice.

An especially memorable time was watching Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” in English, but with French subtitles, in a not-too-crowded cinéma in Nice, France.  We laughed at the wicked and morbid humour, but also screamed a couple of times at the blood and gore, along with the rest of the audience.  (Note: It was interesting that at the end of the film, as the giant movie screen displayed the closing credits, almost everyone exited the cinema rather coolly, with a poker face!)

Suffice to say, I am truly thankful for such a lovely break with people I love and care about.  Keeping in touch and staying connected with family and friends is important, no matter how busy we are.

Then all too soon, it was back to work and reality.

“What is Success?”

I recently had a very capable client who was highly stressed and extremely dissatisfied with life due to the many hats she wears.  Being able to just be a listening ear and sounding board was a comfort to her.  We discussed priorities as well as the question: “What is success?” and the thought-provoking statement: “Failure is being successful in all the things that don’t matter.”

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Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

It was good that she had a significant mind shift and also several strategies in place to help her cope with all the demands and pressures she was facing.  She even pencilled in a short break with her family, and is planning a longer trip with them at the end of the year.  The experience reminded me of the need for guilt-free work-life balance.   I also consider it a privilege to have had her referred to me from someone living in the UK who I had coached previously.

A Woman with Big Dreams

There was also a most interesting referral around the same time – a migrant worker with big dreams.  She needed help with her graduation speech in the English language, after completing a self-improvement course on financial management, and I was approached to coach her on her speech delivery and presentation.

The speech she drafted was amazing and humbling.  Reading about her life touched my heart – the early years of hardship and struggle; how she overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles; and her ongoing and future plans to start and grow a small business.  I felt extremely happy that I was in the right place and the right time to coach her.  It is my sincere desire for this brave young woman, a single mother of two, to succeed spectacularly, against all odds.  Seeing her spunk, humility and willingness to listen to feedback (and feedforward), to learn and to grow, I am absolutely certain that she has nothing but a bright future ahead of her.

Team Synergy and Optimum Performance

For the past few weeks, I have also been part of an unusual team project.  The international team was assembled just a month prior to a quick project roll-out.  It took guts and total commitment on the part of each team member since the timeline was tight and we had barely any time for rapport building.  Most of the preparation was done remotely, and each of us had to plan wisely and exercise self-discipline as we carried out our respective responsibilities.  The wonderful thing is that despite many hiccups, including some that were thankfully averted in the nick of time, everyone gave their all and the project was a resounding success, admittedly much to the surprise and relief of everyone involved.

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The team had many strengths:

  • Wisdom, clear vision and humility of the leaders to manage the multi-faceted team.
  • Accessibility of the leaders to the team members.
  • Quick buy-in and ownership of roles throughout the diverse team.
  • Recognition of and leveraging on the unique strengths and talents of each team member.
  • Focus and unity of the entire team.
  • Placing of collective interest above self-interest.
  • Commitment and reliability of the team members.
  • Celebration of success and showing appreciation to spouses, partners and others for the support provided behind-the-scenes.

However, no team is perfect.  Moving forward, we managed to identify areas for improvement for future collaborations.     The team would certainly benefit from the following:

  • Asking questions and seeking input from team members at an early stage and regularly throughout the project, and not just at the post-project debrief, despite the clear specifications, tight timeline and fixed deadline.
  • Giving more time and space to team members to build rapport as well as pause, clarify, reflect and think more creatively.
  • Anticipating contending viewpoints, being receptive to them, and managing them calmly, graciously and fairly.
  • Understanding the emotional needs of each team member to ensure everyone is fully on board, without distractions or valid but hidden concerns that need to be ironed out.
  • Finding ways to cope with pressure, maintain balance and replenish energy.
  • Gleaning from, keeping a formal record of, and capitalising on lessons learnt as well as post-project insights, feedback and feedforward to keep growing capability and capacity/scalability of future teams for future projects.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Further Reflection

Perhaps this is also as good a time to reflect further on the following:

  • What is “success” to you and your team?
  • “Failure is being successful in all the things that don’t matter.” What do you think?
  • How can you maintain focus and yet ensure work-life balance for yourself and your team?

What Really Drives Us

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A CRA Wedding

Just a couple of weekends ago, I flew into a nearby Asian city and attended a CRA wedding.  CRA, as in crazy, and Crazy Rich Asians.  While I admit I have become slightly jaded, there were still many amusing and memorable moments.  For one, the bride was absolutely stunning in both her exquisite gowns.  She should be on the cover of Vogue or Tatler, says this proud cousin of hers.  The groom, a successful entrepreneur, is one very lucky guy, and not least because he also managed to mobilise a team of loyal friends who sportingly performed ridiculous forfeits alongside him, typical Asian-style, just so that he could get to his bride hiding behind the door.  Of course, it was all in good fun, although a number of us, the bride’s brother included, were visibly relieved that we were spared from the shenanigans.  We were just content being spectators.  Then following a tea ceremony and a delectable luncheon, we had a mid-afternoon snooze before the wedding banquet at our hotel.  There was gorgeous food, as well as glamorous threads, a wonderful live band, thoughtful wedding favours and hilarious speeches.  Yet some of us hit the dance floor only briefly before returning to our hotel rooms around midnight.  I really liked the idea of simply taking the lift/elevator straight up to the top of this particular hotel on the 34th floor and to bed!

A Crazy World

Yet all this merrymaking, luxury and comfort was almost surreal, juxtaposed with the stark and sobering rumblings and unfolding events across the globe.  The list is long but not exhaustive: the ongoing Brexit saga with new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson dealing with multiple cabinet resignations; the US-China trade war; US-Iran, US-Turkey, Japan-South Korea and Japan-North Korea tensions; mass protests and detentions at the Moscow city duma election; the suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan; heavy floods and deaths in Nepal; the proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the Altamira prison riot and deaths in Brazil; wildfires in Siberia; Bangkok bombings during a regional security summit; India versus Pakistan over Kashmir; the Venezuelan presidential crisis; extradition bill protests in Hong Kong; the unprecedented European heatwave; shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio; car bombing in Cairo, Egypt; the Iran-Iraq Persian Gulf crisis; the collapse of Harland and Wolff, builders of RMS Titanic and HMS Belfast.  We live in a complicated, disruptive, conflict-ridden and troubled world.

While certain issues are beyond our control and/or far too complex to be resolved in a short span of time, many are man-made, driven by greed, ambition as well as political posturing and manoeuvering, or simply the result of misguidance or prejudice.  Some issues actually arise because of what our culture values, pursues and perpetuates.

Impressive Individuals in Our World

Let me introduce you to three individuals who have made the news recently.

Individual #1

He began his career in finance at a New York-based global investment bank, before setting up his own firm.  As a well-connected multimillionaire who hobnobbed with the financial, political and cultural elite, many of whom flew in his private Boeing 727 jet, he was a long-time acquaintance of a British royal and a former US president.  Donald Trump once called him a “terrific guy”, before they became embroiled in a 2004 bidding war for a US$40 million mansion, which the future US president eventually won. Establishing himself as a philanthropist as well as an advocate of cryonics and transhumanism, this individual started a foundation to fund science research and education.  In May 2003, he pledged a series of donations purportedly totalling US$30 million to create a mathematical biology and evolutionary dynamics programme at Harvard which was run by Professor Martin Nowak.

Individual #2

A young German heiress with a trust fund worth 60 million euros, her grand vision was to open a “members only” club and visual arts space in the Big Apple.  She mingled with established hoteliers, businessmen, real estate developer tycoons and the fashion crowd.  She travelled by private jet, stayed at exclusive hotels, engaged expensive personal trainers, indulged in high-end spa treatments, extravagant shopping sprees and luxury vacations, as well as dined or hosted lavish dinners at fancy restaurants.  She once chartered a jet to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway annual investment conference to see Warren Buffett.  Hotel staff were known to appreciate her casual US$100 tips.

Individual #3

Born into a wealthy Malaysian family, this young man attended the elite Harrow School in London and also graduated from Wharton Business School where he developed strong ties with the scions of wealthy families and royalty, especially those from Malaysia and the Middle East.    He cultivated relationships with some of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, and was instrumental in mega deals such as the US$600 million acquisition of a hotel in New York, US$2.4 billion takeover of an energy company, US$2.2 billion buyout of a music publishing business and the formation of a Hollywood film production company that created a movie which garnered five Oscar nominations.  Both his parties and casino jaunts were legendary – he was often seen with A-list celebrities, and he once gave casino staff a US$1 million tip.  He owned a US$250 million super yacht, and of course, a private jet – the US$35 million Bombardier Global 5000.  His philanthropy began after a reported cancer scare in 2012. In 2013, his foundation committed US$50 million over 12 years to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he spent six months recovering from his infection and cancer scare.  The funds were to begin a pilot programme using IBM’s computer system as a clinical decision support system to acquire, analyse and organise vast amounts of data to help physicians determine the most promising treatments for cancer patients.  His foundation also committed US$25 million over 15 years to the humanitarian news service IRIN in November 2014, a step intended to fill a funding gap after the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs withdrew support in 2014.

Who are these people who have impressed so many in high society? What do they have in common?

The answer is that they are all individuals who lived the high life at stratospheric levels and impressed or seduced countless people with their perceived wealth and “charm”.  Sadly, they are all respectable-sounding fraudsters – Jeffrey Epstein; Anna Sorokin; Jho Low.

Jeffrey Epstein

Jeffrey Epstein, 66, was a convicted sex offender and financier.  Prior to his conviction for sex crimes in 2008, Epstein was a well-connected multi-millionaire who was frequently spotted at lavish dinner events, fundraisers and political campaigns.  Through his connections and wealth, and as part of a plea deal, he was able to secure a mere slap on the wrist for his 2008 conviction.  However, the law finally caught up with him.  Epstein was arrested again on 6 July 2019 on federal charges for sex trafficking of minors in Florida and New York, USA.  He faced the possibility of up to 45 years in prison.  According to The Boston Globe, contrary to Epstein’s pledge of US$30 million in a series of donations in 2003, the actual amount received from him was only US$6.5 million. In 2019, Forbes deleted a 2013 article that called Epstein “one of the largest backers of cutting edge science”, after The New York Times revealed its author, Drew Hendricks, had been paid US$600 to submit it falsely as his own.  Meanwhile, billionaire Leslie Wexner has also claimed that Epstein misappropriated US$46 million from him while serving as his financial adviser.  (On 10 August 2019, just a couple of days after this blog post was penned, Epstein was found dead in his Manhattan prison cell.  He reportedly hanged himself.)

Anna Sorokin

Anna Sorokin (or Anna Vadimovna Sorokina) is a 28-year-old fraudster of Russian descent, who for several years posed as German heiress Anna Delvey.  Now notoriously known as “the Soho Grifter”, Sorokin was arrested in 2018 and convicted in May 2019 of multiple counts of attempted grand larceny, theft of services, and larceny in the second degree for scamming New York hotels and wealthy acquaintances.  She was sentenced to four to 12 years in prison.  Her lawyer has defended her by explaining away her actions as simply “fake it until you make it” behaviour.  Sorokin has been quoted as saying: “The thing is, I’m not sorry…”  She is currently planning two memoirs – one to span the time she spent in New York and the other about her time in Rikers.  However, she may not receive any money from her Netflix deal due to New York’s “Son of Sam” law, which restricts the amount criminals can profit from their crimes.

Jho Low

Jho Low is a 37-year-old Malaysian fugitive sought by the authorities of Malaysia, Singapore and the US in connection with the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal, which has led to the downfall of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his notorious wife Rosmah Mansor.  Prosecutors allege that Low is the mastermind of an elaborate global scheme to siphon US$4.5 billion from 1MDB into his personal accounts and those of his accomplices.  It should be noted that Low was not the sole perpetrator.  Many parties were involved in pulling off this “heist of the century” – political figures as well as top executives from sovereign wealth funds, banks and audit firms who stood to profit in some way and therefore chose to look the other way. It is also interesting to note that top models and celebrities who were constantly seen with Low, especially the A-listers – whether they were paid to do so or not – did not care to question the source of his mind-boggling wealth.  (For a detailed account on the 1MDB scandal, please refer to Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood and the World by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope. The Sarawak Report by Clare Rewcastle Brown is also a good alternative.)

Nature versus Nurture and Complicity

Jeffrey Epstein did not have a college degree but he thought he could get away with anything, including the exploitation of underage girls, as long as he was well-connected and acquired enough wealth and like-minded friends to buy himself out of trouble every time.  Anna Sorokin was born in a working-class town in Moscow, but she wanted to live the life of an heiress, a lifestyle she thought was attainable as long as she faked it to make it, facilitated by a bedazzled entourage fawning and feeding her ego.  Jho Low misused his Harrow and Wharton education, and by conspiring with like-minded criminals, including his own family members, robbed his own government and fellow citizens of Malaysia. Epstein, Sorokin and Low never gave any thought to the harm they were causing others.  They were blinded by their lust, greed and ambition.  They simply focused on “taking care of Number One”.  The sobering thought is that there were many people surrounding them who were complicit – “birds of a feather flock together”. Epstein, Sorokin and Low lacked good mentors or coaches who challenged their thinking and behaviour.  Simply put, they did not have any role models with a moral compass in their lives.

Cambridge Analytica: Data Manipulation to Swing Votes

Let us also not forget the unravelling and eventual May 2018 collapse of British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), and its role in more than 200 elections around the world.  With its key leaders being CEO Alexander Nix, investors Robert Mercer and Rebecca Mercer, and the ever-controversial former Vice President Steve Bannon, CA worked quietly with political strategist Dominic Cummings and succeeded in delivering Brexit with their targeted messaging around “£350 million” and “Turkey”.  Then bolstered by their success in the UK, CA used their expertise to help the Trump campaign secure the election of “outsider” Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election.  CA targeted potential and “persuadable” voters with bespoke messages, and managed to convert or swing votes in strategic constituencies to deliver the shock victory in Trump’s favour.

Yet it all began much earlier in 2015 when the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users were acquired via the 270,000 Facebook users who used a Facebook app called “This Is Your Digital Life.” By granting this third-party app permission to acquire their data, the app gained access to information on these users’ friends network.  This resulted in the data collection of about 87 million users, the majority of whom had not explicitly given CA permission to access their data. Again, CA and their clients in the UK and the US never thought twice about the ethics of what they were doing.  They just wanted to win.

In short, it was a new kind of ruthless voter manipulation powered by Facebook data.

What helped the case against CA and its eventual demise were the relentless investigative reporting of British journalist Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer as well as the testimonies of former employees and whistle blowers Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie.

Reflection

Given the way the world ticks these days, how many people, ourselves included, can resist the lure of money, power, status and the high life? How many, even when aware of blatant wrongdoing, would willingly halt such an attractive, compelling, irresistible, comfortable and revered way of life? Kaiser has confessed that she began working for CA the same year her once wealthy family ran into financial troubles and lost their home.  She was soon drawn into the cocktail circuit and rubbing shoulders with the elite even at NRA (National Rifle Association) networking events.

While some may question the real motives of Kaiser and Wylie, as well as the veracity of their roles as whistleblowers, we must acknowledge and applaud that their testimonies have brought to light key areas of concern, including data privacy and protection against nefarious use.

Here are a couple more questions: When we, in our respective spheres of influence, are presented with a questionable opportunity, what would we do? Would we question it? Would we voice our genuine concerns? And what would our ultimate choice and decision be, when nobody’s looking?

Also, if trustworthy, talented and loyal employees or team members do their job by sharing their honest analysis, assessment and some “inconvenient truths” (whether with or without the use of diplomatic cables or encrypted emails, for example), should these truthful but perhaps unflattering comments or details ever be leaked, will we stand by our few good men and women? Or will we as leaders, for the sake of personal ambition and personal gain, expeditiously “throw them under the bus”?

What then can we learn from all this? What really drives each of us? What impresses us? Why were so many people duped by Epstein, Sorokin and Low? What frustrates and riles us? What kind of targeted messages orchestrated by Cambridge Analytica and the like would get us all worked up and ready to do something or “take back control”? How do we allow ourselves to be swayed by the political rhetoric of politicians and leaders? And how do advertising, marketing and social media advocate lavish lifestyles which inform, shape and encourage our aspirations and also ubiquitous scams? How does what we value in business and in life influence the way we perceive and treat others, and the way we prioritise and lead? How are we complicit?

Last but not least, as leaders, how then can we ensure accountability and use our influence to set the right tone in our organisation and our world?

Intellectual Humility and Blind Spots

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I was at a pharmacy (chemist’s or drugstore) recently.  There was a store-wide discount and the cashier informed me that not all items were on sale.  Indicating that I understood completely, I nodded in agreement, “Sure, sure.”  She then looked grumpily at me and said, “I work here.  Of course I know all the prices and discounts.  Why are you asking me if I’m sure or not?”

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At first, I was puzzled by her response.  Then it dawned on me.  While I had said, “Sure, sure”, with the usual tone and intonation used for a confirmation and statement, supported by a nod and eye contact, this lady had mistaken what I had communicated and thought I was questioning her by asking, “Are you sure?” She missed my tone and falling intonation, as well as all the non-verbal cues.  Rather than try to explain everything and risk confusing and upsetting someone who was obviously tired and stressed out, I decided to drop the matter.  I took a deep breath mentally, paid for my purchase and walked out of the store without a fuss. 

What’s that song from “Frozen”? Let it go…

Then there was the time I was talking animatedly to an acquaintance about favourite cuisines – French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and so on.  Quite out of the blue, my Asian acquaintance asked, “Do you like gotchi?” I frowned.  Wow, I thought, was this a new Japanese snack like mochi? She was getting impatient, and sniffed with a hint of disdain: “Do you even know what gotchi is?” (to me, it sounded like “Gore-chee” or /ɡɔːtʃiː/).  I was genuinely puzzled and was about to shake my head when it suddenly dawned on me: it’s not Japanese; it’s Italian.  She meant gnocchi.  Italians pronounce it as /ˈn(j)ɒki/ while native English speakers say /ˈɲɔkki/

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I kept a straight face the whole time as I calmly clarified that she really meant the cute little Italian pasta dumplings that are best eaten freshly made.  (This interesting incident did however inspire me to make my own potato and semolina gnocchi with sage butter the very next day.) 

What’s that song again? Let it go…

These encounters seem rather hilarious.  Unfortunately, not all exchanges end up so harmless.  It can get far more complicated in non-face-to-face exchanges such as conversations over the phone or via email. 

In a face-to-face communication between the sender and the receiver of the message, the receiver gets to pick up and decipher the message as well as the verbal and non-verbal cues.  The sender also gets to observe the response or reaction of the recipient of the message.  Yet we still occasionally get the message wrong, even with all the visual and auditory cues. What about phone conversations when we can only rely on what we hear? What about email exchanges when we can only rely on the text that we read and how we interpret it? If misunderstandings or miscommunications can happen between native speakers of English (or any given language), then what about conversations between non-native speakers, or even between a native speaker and a non-native speaker?

For instance, I was baffled and shocked to be part of a business email exchange that suddenly went south (or “pear-shaped”, as some would say), simply because of a misunderstanding over a common term of expression.  This time, it was an exchange with a non-native speaker of English from Europe, not Asia.   

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It was most unexpected.  So I asked myself: What was that about? I was crestfallen – enthusiasm and excitement for a promising project had been misconstrued and misinterpreted as the exact opposite.  How bizarre.  What were the chances of that happening? 

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I naturally also tried to find reasons to explain away the unexpected response and outcome.  I put it down to the other party’s hectic schedule and overall stress caused by different time zones, impossible deadlines, too much travelling, jetlag, lack of sleep, infrequent meals and other unspoken pressures.   

A couple of things I have learnt from this unfortunate episode: I am reminded to always assume miscommunication instead of malice. Always assume positive intent.  Such an approach is rarely wrong when working with great people anyway.  Secondly, perhaps in certain cases, it might be worth risking the use of a couple of emojis and emoticons in less formal emails, just to drop a few positive hints.  Of course, the jury is still out on that.

Anyway, what’s that song again? Let it go…

HALT

I am reminded of the acronym: HALT.  Never allow ourselves to become too Hungry, Angry, Lonely and/or Tired.  Guard against putting ourselves in a situation in which our perception and judgement may be clouded.  We need to stop – before we regret our words or actions.  We need to pause for reflection.  And we certainly need to admit it when we have made a mistake.  

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To make the most of tricky situations, we need humility.  We also need self-control, patience, a generous and magnanimous spirit, and a sense of humour.

Humility

Most of us struggle with humility.  But being humble will prevent us from getting immediately offended in a miscommunication or misunderstanding.  If we are not humble and lack self-control, we are likely to jump to conclusions and fly off the handle by retaliating whenever our precious ego has been hurt. 

The best way is to be aware of our triggers, to stay calm, and to be quick to listen and slow to speak.  It takes patience and an abundant, generous heart, because you are keeping your mind and heart open to what is happening and what others have to say. 

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Besides listening well, being humble also means being magnanimous and forgiving, and not making fun of the mistakes or ignorance of others, difficult as it may be at times.  Afterall, nobody is an expert at everything.  We all have had our fair share of getting things wrong.  (Would you like to hazard a guess how I pronounced “chaos” – a key word often used to describe the state of the world in which we live today – when I was a confident 14-year-old in school? And while I managed to maintain my composure during the incidents mentioned in this article, there have been numerous other times when I clearly did not.  I am confident that you have your own stories to tell.) 

Intellectual Humility (IH) and Blind Spots

It is said that although Benjamin Franklin knew he was smart, he was intelligent enough to know that he could not be right about everything.  Whenever he was about to make an argument, he would open with something along the lines of, “I could be wrong, but…” This put people at ease and helped them to take disagreements less personally.  However, it also helped Franklin to psychologically prime himself to be open to new ideas. 

Journalist Shane Snow and author Gustavo Razzeti have come up with a term to describe Franklin’s unique strength of cognitive flexibility.  They call it “intellectual humility” (IH).  It is defined as the sweet spot between intellectual arrogance and intellectual servility.  While regular humility is characterised by honesty, sincerity and selflessness, IH is “about being obsessively curious” and being able to ask the question: “What if I’m the one who’s wrong?”

IH has four main characteristics:

  • Respect for viewpoints
  • Lack of intellectual overconfidence
  • Separation of ego from intellect
  • Willingness to revise viewpoints.

If openness to experience means you are willing to try pickle-flavoured (or durian-flavoured) ice cream, intellectual humility means you are willing to admit you like it, even if you initially thought you would not.  A person who scores high on both of these (openness to experience, and willingness to try new things, take in new information and revise viewpoints), will be likely to listen to people, no matter who they are, and have a kind of Benjamin Franklin-like cognitive flexibility after listening.  There will be a willingness to change, yet with the wisdom to know when not to.  Snow argues that travelling a lot, reading extensively, and living for extended periods in foreign cultures in particular, tend to make us more willing to revise our viewpoints.  Our brains would be better at accepting new approaches to problems at work too.  

A simple truth is that all of us tend to think we are smarter than we really are.  Given that we all have blind spots, a clear awareness of them would cause us to have a healthy scepticism about everything we believe to be right.  It is “not about lacking confidence or changing your mind all the time but about being determined to uncover your blind spots”.  This is likely to prevent intellectual arrogance and groupthink, and would instead promote constructive dialogue, creativity, trust as well as diversity of thought to create value and generate growth.

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Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University explains: “If you’re sitting around a table at a meeting and the boss is very low in intellectual humility, he or she isn’t going to listen to other people’s suggestions. Yet we know that good leadership requires broadness of perspective and taking as many perspectives into account as possible.”

According to leading executive coach Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, in the future, “the most important leaders will be managing people who know far more about what they are doing than the leaders do.  In the new world, with its global organisations, diverse stakeholders, and rapidly changing technology, the leader often knows less than the people he or she leads.  The higher the leader moves up the organisational chain of command, the more this is true.” 

In other words, the leaders of today and the future would do well to possess an agreeableness, flexibility and openness to new experiences, ideas and approaches, as well as an honesty and a willingness to admit “wrongness” or mistakes, and learn from the experience.   

Moving forward, we know that leaders today can no longer consider themselves superior, with a monopoly of knowledge.  Being a smart leader is also not enough.  Leaders who are effective and increasingly celebrated are those who are good listeners, communicators and facilitators – they listen well as well as inspire and mobilise the outstanding talent around them to achieve their team’s shared vision and goals.  

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For more details about Intellectual Humility (IH), and effective communication, especially email communication, check out these links:

Harvard Business Review: A New Way To Become More Open-Minded by Shane Snow, Harvard Business Review, 20 November 2018

Stretch for Change: How Intellectual Humility Can Make You a Better Leader by Gustavo Razzetti, 29 January 2019

LinkedIn: How to Spot Intellectual Humility in Others by Shane Snow, 11 November 2018

Psychology Today: What If You’re the One Who’s Wrong – Solve your conflicts without casualties by Gustavo Razzetti, The Adaptive Mind, 14 March 2019

Intellectual Humility: The Ultimate Guide – What Exciting New Science Tells Us About Open Mindedness, Innovation, and Getting Better Together by Shane Snow

Big Think: Lack of Intellectual Humility Plagues Our Times, Say Researchers by Paul Ratner, 12 November 2017

CNBC: Leadership – A New Study Shows Why You Dread Writing Emails So Much by Zameena Mejia, CNBC, 23 August 2017

Psychology Today: Why is There So Much Miscommunication Via Email and Text? – How we interpret electronic messages is shaped by our feelings by Melissa Ritter, Ph.D, Psychology Today, 15 February 2015

Fortune: How to Master the Art of the Email by Larry Alton, allbusiness.com, 24 September 2016

Harvard Business Review: Avoiding Miscommunication in a Digital World by Sarah Green Carmichael with communication expert Nick Morgan, author of “Can You Hear Me?: How to Connect with People in a Virtual World”, HBR IdeaCast, 6 November 2018

 

 

Stop, Start, Continue and Change

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On the 7th day of the New Year, 7th January 2019, I had posted a short LinkedIn note to encourage friends and associates to put into action what we have each resolved to stop, start, continue and change this year.  The challenge is for us to narrow down to a few key things and to be consistent about it.

Coincidentally, today, 11th February 2019, is the 7th day of the 15-day Lunar New Year (otherwise known as “Chinese New Year”), which is celebrated by many Asians around the world, including those in China, Singapore, South Korea, North Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  Today, the 7th day of the Lunar New Year, also happens to be “Renri” (“人日”), “everybody’s birthday”.  Happy Birthday, everyone! Perhaps it is also a good time for each of us to make a birthday wish for the year ahead.

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Recently, I had coaching sessions and meetings that provided me with some valuable insights.

My fellow coaches and I only coach those who are motivated and ready to be coached.  In other words, we coach only those who are coachable, committed and willing to learn and grow.  It makes a lot of sense.  We do not believe in wasting anyone’s time – theirs or ours.

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At the same time, I was recently reminded of how a growth mindset changes almost everything – legendary teacher Marva Collins taught “discarded” inner-city Chicago children to read Shakespeare and The Wall Street Journal; Jaime Alfonso Escalante Gutierrez taught inner-city high school students college calculus in Los Angeles; Dorothy DeLay taught violin at Juilliard School of Music, believing that “anything is possible”; coach John Wooden focused on helping his players fulfil their potential in life, not just in basketball; former CEO Lou Gerstner led IBM in its historic corporate turnaround in the 1990s by focusing on personal growth and a corporate culture that fostered it.

All this was possible because each teacher, coach and leader made the effort to listen and observe those who were not fulfilling their potential.  While there are those who are genuinely uninterested and unmotivated, there are also those who seem unmotivated only because, among other reasons, they have been put in the wrong environment with the wrong fit and/or without the necessary skills and resources to succeed.

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As leaders, managers and coaches, we must be able to pause, discern and ask ourselves honestly if we have truly listened and given our team members or coachees the best conditions and resources with which to flourish.  It is equally important that we resist the temptation to provide all the suggestions and answers, especially with coachees who are new to coaching and eager to “learn from the expert” or “the boss”.  They need to understand that a coach is not a counsellor or consultant dishing out all the ideas.

Top leaders facilitate and draw out the best in people.  Effective coaching involves asking the right questions to challenge coachees to come up with their own ideas and solutions.  Such facilitation and coaching lead to greater ownership, sustained transformation and performance, as well as a stronger sense of achievement in those who are coached.

What also helps is not having the “CEO disease”, i.e. reigning from atop a pedestal and wanting to be seen as perfect, with decreasing self-awareness.  Seasoned leaders who coach and are themselves coached know that they constantly need humility, as well as the courage and discipline to keep on getting better.   They excel when they also have an attitude of gratitude, a growth mindset and a desire to keep on learning.

So, this year, as a leader and a coach, what will you stop, start, continue and change?

 

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Note: Several examples provided were extracted from Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol S. Dweck’s book, Mindset (2017 edition).