Back to Basics – Motives, Conflicts and Not So Grey Areas

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For leaders serious about their influence and impact on others, a wise approach is to get Back to the Basics when facing conflicts of interest – whether real or perceived – and grey or not-so-grey areas.

Recently our team began working on strengthening and enhancing our relationships.  We have not taken our team synergy for granted. Despite genuine respect for one another and the confidence that we can count on each other to work well towards our goals, we are fully aware that relationships require constant reminders, tending and nurturing.  It includes leaning into discomfort and having crucial conversations. 

The Leader’s Motive

As leaders, we need to ask ourselves why we are in leadership, or why we want to be in leadership.  Reward-centered leaders believe that being a leader is the reward for their hard work – they expect the leadership experience to be pleasant and enjoyable, where they have the freedom to choose what they really want to do and avoid anything mundane, unpleasant or uncomfortable.  However, responsibility-centered leaders believe that being a leader is first and foremost, a responsibility – they expect the experience of leading others to be challenging, requiring hard work and involvement even in areas they may not enjoy, while at the same time acknowledging that leadership is not without elements of personal gratification. Leaders struggle with both approaches but one of the two motives will be the predominant style.  Given that the leader’s motive will have a profound impact on the success of the leader and the organisation he/she leads, the winning approach is that of the responsibility-centered leader.

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We also know that when we manage people, simply managing the team as a whole is not enough, even if we do it regularly.  Time also needs to be set aside for leadership team development, as well as individual team members.  Leaders who manage to build strong, successful teams do not hesitate to lean into discomfort, and are at ease with holding difficult and uncomfortable conversations, whenever necessary.  They also ensure that meetings are held intentionally and productively, and that employees are communicated to regularly and consistently. 

These truths are elaborated in an excellent fable I read some time last year, in a book which deserves more attention, The Motive: Why So Many Leaders Abdicate Their Most Important Responsibilities (A Leadership Fable) by Patrick Lencioni.  A very quick read, it has principles which are simple yet not easy to implement, as they require commitment and consistency;  they are time-consuming yet truly worthwhile. 

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Healthy Work Relationships

Our team has also realised that a good work relationship is not only a mutual or two-way exchange; it often involves one party to be willing to contribute or share more with the other.  Far from being a dumb move, it is actually highly intentional and strategic.  When the other party sees that we are genuine and big-hearted, including willing to share ideas, it builds trust and good will, and will often be reciprocated, in a healthy collaboration.  (We are of course talking about healthy work partnerships or alliances.  Any party that is constantly opportunistic at the expense of others should however be avoided like the plague.)  

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Grey Areas, Conflicts of Interest and Accountability

Yet while working on mutually beneficial relationships, there is another key issue in work or business relationships which needs to be addressed, especially for those in leadership.  It is corporate governance, and more specifically, so-called “grey areas”, conflicts of interest and the need for accountability.  These are crucial issues as we strive to be a team of leaders who are intentional about our impact in our respective spheres of influence.  It is however interesting and disturbing how despite clear guidelines, a number of governments, organisations and leaders keep getting caught in conflicts of interest, with the convenient excuse that they are “grey areas”.  Sadly, there are enough people who believe they can get away with wrongdoing.  Keeping abreast of the news no matter where we live around the world would prove this point time and time again. 

Most recently, the UK health secretary made the news when he bowed to pressure and resigned, following the shocking revelation that he was in a secret extramarital affair with his closest aide, a woman described to have “access to lots of confidential information”.  The hypocrisy of the UK health secretary’s mantra of “hands, face, space” on social distancing has understandably hit a raw nerve with tax payers, after the discovery that they have been funding his aide’s at-least-£15,000-a-year role as a non-executive director for his department, with scrutiny over its operations. The brother of the aide, an executive at a private healthcare company, has also reportedly won a string of NHS (National Health Service) contracts.

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Conflict of Interest

So, just to be on the same page, what exactly is a “conflict of interest”?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a conflict of interest is “a situation in which someone cannot make a fair decision because they will be affected by the result: ‘I need to declare a conflict of interest here – one of the candidates for the job is a friend of mine.’

Another way of describing a conflict of interest is when a work situation benefits an employee in a way that also affects the organisation or institution. Employees are bound through the organisation or institution’s “code of conduct” to act in the interests of their employer and not for their own personal gain.  It is wise for employees not to enter into a situation where their actions might create a conflict, whether it is actual, potential or perceived.  Afterall, perception is reality.

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Here are some examples of conflicts of interest:

At the Personal/Relational/Interpersonal Level

  • Failing to investigate a subordinate or colleague’s wrongdoing because they are a friend or relative.
  • Reporting to a supervisor who is also a close friend or family member.
  • Taking advantage of confidential information learned on the job for your own benefit.
  • Hiring an unqualified relative or preferring the relative over other strong candidates to provide services your company needs.
  • Failing to disclose that you are related to a job candidate the organisation is considering hiring.
  • Dating or having a romantic relationship with a supervisor or subordinate.

At the Organisational or Business Level

  • Making a purchase or business choice to boost a business that you have a stake in.
  • Cashing in on a business opportunity that your company might have pursued.
  • Starting a company that provides services similar to your full-time employer.
  • Accepting payment from another company for information about your employer.
  • Sharing confidential information about your employer with a competitor.
  • Doing business or work for a competitor.
  • Accepting a favor or a gift from a client above the amount specified as acceptable by the company.

The list is not exhaustive, but the examples are certainly helpful illustrations for us to navigate our work life, especially since all of us have some form of influence in different areas of our lives.

Conflicts of Interest in Politics

Beyond the organisation or institution, and at the national level, a conflict of interest would arise if a government were getting a monetary, political or other benefit while acting against the public interest.  Government decisions should afterall be guided by public interest – by what is believed to be most beneficial to the general welfare of society. Therefore, a conflict of interest arises when the private interests of a politician or official clash or coincide with that public interest. The key question is whether private or personal interest could influence, or appear to influence, the decisions officials have to make in their working lives.

Overestimation of Virtue or Open Defiance

Many leaders – whether at work, in business or in politics – have succumbed to the temptation of crossing the (red) line, because they have over-estimated their own virtue and self-restraint; or made light of “red flags” and perceived “insignificant” breaches of conduct right at the beginning.  Unfortunately, not a small number act in open defiance, willfully and deliberately ignoring guidelines and boundaries that keep them safe.

A Worldwide Problem

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The UK

Apart from the incident already mentioned, examples of conflicts of interest abound in the news, such as how the UK’s Covid-19 advisers to the coronavirus vaccine taskforce have been found to have financial interests in pharmaceutical companies receiving government contracts. 

USA

In 2017, a high-ranking government official in a self-styled “free commercial”, encouraged TV viewers to purchase items from the clothing line of the businesswoman daughter of the sitting President of the United States, who also happened to be one of his advisors. 

Yet another example is when leaders in congress or the legislature have substantial investments or holdings in firms that their legislative actions affect.  It is possible for members of Congress in the USA “from both sides of the aisle” to use their influence to benefit the firms in which they invest.  In fact, in 2008, the financial institutions in which key committee members owned stock received favourable bailouts in the “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act”.

Interestingly and tellingly, a nearly three-quarter increase in members of Congress who held Apple stock from 2007 (22 people) to 2008 (38 people) was followed by a nearly 50% reduction in lobbying intensity the following year (2009).  For some time now, savvy companies, such as those in the tech and big pharma industries, are increasingly strategic in their relentless pursuit of stronger revenues, and they have discovered that the owning of stock aligns the interests of the firms with those of their stock-holding lawmakers.  A happy consequence for these companies is that they get to substantially reduce their expenditure on lobbying. 

Firms also donate to election and re-election campaigns in what are seen as “quid pro quo” arrangements, which have a direct impact on the personal interests of individuals in Congress. 

Australia

Meanwhile, over in the southern hemisphere, Down Under, controversy began escalating in 2020 regarding potential conflicts of interest among the commissioners handpicked by the Prime Minister to provide advice at the height of the coronavirus crisis.  All but one of the commissioners were being paid for their advice, out of the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) budget of more than $5m.  The leadership position of the chairman of the NCCC with ties to a gas company raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest because the commission has been promoting gas development as a key way to boost economic growth after the Covid-19 crisis. While he had stepped aside from his role as deputy chairman of the gas company, the chairman of the NCCC acknowledged that he had not recused himself from NCCC discussions about developing gas during the Covid-19 recovery.

Japan

In late 2019, the then Prime Minister of Japan came under fire from opposition politicians for inviting his political contacts to a publicly-funded official government event, the annual cherry blossom party; the party was subsequently cancelled amid accusations of cronyism.  In a damning indictment, government bureaucrats reportedly shredded the list of attendees on the same day the question was raised by an opposition lawmaker.  Such conflicts of interest have been enough to bring down Japanese prime ministers in the past.  

Worldwide, and across organisations, there are not enough political or business leaders who automatically and responsibly recuse themselves from working on issues that have a potential conflict of interest, including those involving their work history or business interests.  Needless to say, such conflicts of interest further undermine public trust.

We know that nobody is perfect.  And because we understand human nature, it is therefore crucial that we set in place the necessary safeguards to prevent conflicts of interest. Even at a simpler level that does not involve high-brow politics, there are relatable scenarios in our more mundane lives. 

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The following is a fictional account with some slight similarities to the current scandal involving the recently ousted UK health secretary, but it was uncannily written before the incident, perhaps because it is a familiar scenario around the world – it aims to illustrate the pitfalls of conflicts of interest as well as when concrete actions are not taken to deal head-on with these conflicts and so-called “grey areas*:

A Little Nightmare Case Study

Tom, a man known as “a visionary with many talents”, is hired to be the CEO of a multi-national corporation (MNC) that seems to be past its heyday.  Over the course of only a year, Tom skillfully forms a strong team of senior executives, and through them, restructures the company, putting key systems in place, turning around the company to be highly profitable once again.  The Board and shareholders adore Tom as the company’s share value and returns have tripled. 

Then one of Tom’s trusted senior executives, Bill, the Director of Sales, retires from the company, leaving his position vacant.  During the interim, a few high-potential executives, including Sally and Nicole, are hired to beef up the operations.  Meantime, the company needs to fill Bill’s position urgently.  As job applications flood in, Tom’s fiancée, Tina, finds out about the job and applies for it.  Those involved in the recruitment and selection process are three of Bill’s direct reports, John, Sarah, and Peter.  While they are aware of Tom and Tina’s relationship, they are strongly encouraged by Tom to consider Tina over the other job candidates.  Sarah feels uneasy about the situation and shares her concerns with John and Peter.  But her colleagues shrug their shoulders and admit that they would rather not “rock the boat”, as Tom is the star of the company, and they would be foolish to be in his bad books.  They also start making excuses that hiring their boss’ fiancée isn’t a big deal, as they have already met her several times before and she has the required skills on paper. 

Eventually, Tina gets the job, despite Sarah’s continued unease.  Tina proves to be driven and highly confident, and she often out-talks everyone, seeming to be privy to all kinds of confidential information and having much more direct access to Tom, even in comparison to Tom’s most trusted lieutenants in his senior management team, John and Peter.  Tina’s subordinates Sally and Nicole are intimidated by Tina, and find themselves stressed out by Tina’s hard-driving, top-down management style.  They also know Tina does not like to be contradicted. Whenever she is unhappy, Tina sends a chill down their spine by simply ceasing all conversation and giving them a cold hard stare.  Nobody utilises the company’s sick leave even when they are visibly unwell.  When Sally fills out a form to apply for a day off to secretly see a doctor about her work-related stress, Tina flatly turns down the application, citing the busy sales period.  A month later, even when her team of executives knows Tina has made a series of errors regarding some sales numbers and projections, they remain silent as she deftly covers the matter up.  Neither Sally nor Nicole, or anyone on the company’s payroll, including Peter, the Director of HR, feels comfortable and safe enough to bring the matter of the cover-up to anyone, least of all, Tom.  John, who is Tina’s assigned “mentor” in the company, soon learns about the serious errors that have been covered up, but he feels uncomfortable confronting Tina about the matter too.  He also knows that while he is her designated “mentor”, since both of them are at the same pay scale, her annual performance appraisal, like his, will still be signed off by Tom, their boss and CEO.  Nobody wants to lose their job.         

*The above case study is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Questions for Reflection and Appropriate Action

  • Are you able to identify the conflicts of interest in this case study? What are they?
  • What are some ways to deal with these conflicts of interest?
  • “Prevention is better than cure.” What are some helpful measures that can be put in place to prevent such conflicts of interest in our respective organisations?
  • Even with the establishment of clear rules, standards and codes of conduct, what would you recommend to ensure the adherence to these guidelines and greater accountability?
  • How can we ensure that those in office and even post-office do not derive any personal advantage from access to confidential information?
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Coping With Change – The Only Constant

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As if recent years weren’t stressful enough, these days, everyone is stressed out trying to cope with the Next Normal or New Normal of a COVID-19 global environment.  Sadly, as predicted about a year ago, countries around the world are experiencing different waves, some deadlier and with greater virulence in subsequent waves. The worldwide casualties are alarming, despite better information and ongoing vaccination rollouts.  A global economic recovery still remains a mirage. Against such a disheartening backdrop, there is hardly anyone I meet who isn’t trying to cope with some unexpected crisis at work or home, or both. 

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Recently, my elderly mother, despite having had her two Covid-19 vaccinations, had a slight cough and so decided to see the doctor for a quick checkup.  Lo and behold, she was swabbed for COVID-19 and given a three-day Stay Home Notice (SHN).  I became the self-appointed chef, ensuring she had well-balanced meals, including my special nourishing broths, while remaining careful to have her meals left outside her door, without any face-to-face contact.  Although she enjoyed my cooking (her healthy appetite was a really good sign), and I, the cooking process, I was, needless to say, most relieved that her test results came back negative on the third day.  I was totally exhausted.  Imagine that – only three days.  The experience has certainly made me appreciate long-term caregivers much more, along with everyone working in the healthcare ecosystem.  It also made me think again about Being Mortal – Atul Gawande’s excellent book about ageing.     

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In a COVID-19 environment, there are people who are unwell, those who have loved ones who are dying or have died, and/or those taking care of young children and/or the elderly, in addition to an unstable job situation with little or no boundaries.  Managers need to bear this in mind when leading their teams.  Of course, nothing beats going through similar situations to help us lead with greater empathy and understanding! 

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It is always with a heavy heart and a deep frown whenever I listen to younger executives lament about leaders who pile on work without much consideration for employee well-being, especially in a soft job market.  The level of stress is almost unbelievable.  Of course, it can be said that everyone is doing it to everyone else throughout the organisation hierarchy! Yet that is not the way it should be.  It is crucial that we take time to step back a little during a particularly busy and stressful time to re-evaluate what we and the team are doing, or doing to one another

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Not long ago, I was saddened that a valued leader decided to leave our team at a most inconvenient time.  While the reason given was to focus on other burgeoning responsibilities and personal commitments, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed with the suddenness and lack of preparation.  Of course, team changes and departures are nothing new, but it is always a shame especially when there has been hard-earned team synergy.  Although some exits are unavoidable due to certain personal reasons or unfortunate circumstances, a poorly timed exit can also affect team morale, not to mention impact significantly on everyone else, in a myriad of ways.  Yet, as a friend wisely said recently, a culling may be necessary sometimes, and may prove to be a blessing in disguise.  That was a nice way of reframing the situation and strangely encouraging too.   

All the same, it makes sense to revisit our priorities every now and then, not only to recalibrate and keep ourselves on track, but also to ensure we don’t take on new responsibilities or commitments we can’t handle, thus impacting others negatively in the process.   

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I also recall another incident about a year ago when a key team member who appeared particularly enthusiastic suddenly decided to renege on her commitment to a key project, just before its launch.  It was a moment of testing, and it did make me wonder, for a split second, if it was the right time to proceed with the project.  Thankfully, the rest of the team dug in our heels, and we launched the project successfully, as planned.  It has been a year now, and we have seen the fruits of our labour.  Thankfully we didn’t shelve the project just because of the untimely actions of that one person, even though she was supposed to be a core team member.   

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Questions for Reflection: 

  • How are your team members currently communicating and working with one another? 
  • What are areas that need revisiting or reprioritising? 
  • How can we be more aware of the unique challenges faced by each team member to provide the right support?
  • What are some key strategies we can employ to ensure the continued success of team members? 
  • What are some ways to ensure that people are honest and constructive during exit interviews? 
  • How can we preempt or manage with skill and aplomb, the sudden exit of a key team member and ensure a smooth handover or transition?    
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Listening with Accountability

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Leaders, lend me your ears.

Most of us are familiar with the game or icebreaker called “Broken Telephone” or “The Telephone Game”. Others call it “Chinese Whispers”. A simple message that is whispered around a group or down a line of people would, almost without fail, get all distorted, often to much astonishment and hysterical laughter. It is perhaps one of the best ways to prove that most of us are not naturally good listeners. Yet good listening skills are important in life, in relationships, in business and certainly in leadership.

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Five Gems About Listening

Most of us are familiar with top listening tips, yet it is always good practice to remind ourselves of them once in a while.

One Hundred Percent Present

When we are engaged in a conversation, always be one hundred percent present to listen well. We nod and maintain appropriate eye contact. We smile, express sympathy or respond appropriately accordingly. This not only demonstrates respect and sincerity to the person we are communicating with but also allows us to pay full attention to what is being said. Giving our full attention would also enable us to watch out for non-verbal cues, such as micro-expressions and other body language, as well as what has not been said, which may prove to be even more significant.

Listen More, Talk Less

For many of us, it is a struggle to listen more and talk less. However, when we talk, we learn absolutely nothing – apart from telltale reactions to our “monologue”. When we listen while refraining from speaking, we allow others to express themselves, and we learn much more from the other party – about their thoughts, views, ideas, suggestions, recommendations, fears and concerns. We also learn to be respectful and patient as we listen carefully and empathically to others throughout the conversation.

Refrain from Interrupting

When we are in a conversation, especially in an interesting or heated exchange, it is tempting to jump in and interrupt the other party. Yet this might give the impression that what we want to say is far more important and that we are not keen on listening to the other person. If we refrain from interrupting, and resist the urge to form counter arguments or to share exciting but distracting details, we will be able to focus and pay full attention on what is being communicated to us. Of course, as we age, we might worry about forgetting what we wanted to say in the first place. But that is still not a valid reason to interrupt others, unless we are prepared to get clobbered for such insensitivity. There are at least two solutions to this problem: either what we wanted to say wasn’t very crucial anyway, so it wasn’t meant to be shared, or, if a mental note no longer works as grey cells continue to perish, we could always make a quick note somewhere to raise the issue later. Letting others speak first without interrupting them shows respect and could also prove helpful for establishing the facts before we lean in with our own opinions and suggestions.

Be Willing to Listen

Exemplary leaders listen well. They are willing to listen. They listen to keep on learning. They seek to understand others and every situation, and they listen with sincerity, respect, humility and compassion. Top leaders listen to the various subject matter experts on their team and defer to them, because they know they are like the conductor of an orchestra of highly skilled players who work together to produce the best performances. When they listen well, leaders lead well.

Don’t Listen Only to Those Who Always Agree with Us

Yet one of the most important lessons about listening is: don’t listen only to those who always agree with us and always say only the things that our itching ears want to hear. This is especially difficult as we move up in terms of seniority, when we expect more people to listen to us, and there may be an unspoken rule not to challenge us and our decisions and actions. We can avoid piercing ourselves with many griefs if we remain receptive to sound advice, even if, or especially if, it makes us uncomfortable.

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Accountability and Listening Well: Some Lessons

We are all too familiar with how the storming of the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021 was, among other things, a result of disinformation by leaders governing the country and poor listening skills amongst certain segments of the general population. In fact, in recent years, we have been discovering shocking details about well-known, highly respected and immensely popular leaders around the world – people we now realise we should not have listened to. A couple of these personalities have been exposed only posthumously. An example is the founder of the French-based charity, L’Arche International, Jean Varnier, who was previously described as “one of the great saints of our time”.

Last year, a leader internationally known as “a gentleman’s gentleman” passed away in the month of May, amidst an outpouring of sorrow and grief from all those who benefited from his insightful books, as well as riveting talks and lectures – even former Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, attended the memorial service. When a friend texted to express how sorry she felt that we had lost “one of the giants”, I revealed that I was unfortunately aware of certain disturbing allegations against this man for quite some time before his death. I added that this reminded us not to be too easily impressed with larger-than-life personalities, and that all of us are flawed, great leaders included. However, I still conceded that this global leader was indeed an eloquent speaker and a prolific author who had touched many lives with his fine mind.

Fast forward to September 2020. Only four months after the funeral and memorial service, even more appalling allegations of sexual assault and harassment, including rape, began to surface, leading to extensive investigations. By February 2021, there was sufficient evidence to ensure that this once illustrious and revered leader will go down in history as a consummate charlatan and serial sexual predator across international borders – an outwardly upright man who managed to fool hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of people, over the past few decades. His appalling double life was made possible because there was no accountability – he was considered so respectable that nobody thought to question him when there were red flags even in the early years, such as the 1980s. When early allegations started to emerge in 2017, his board members trusted him so completely that they fiercely defended him (as fiercely as he denied the allegations), and staff who raised concerns were severely dealt with and penalised. Four years later, following irrefutable evidence of the full extent of this leader’s gross misconduct at multiple levels, the board and senior leaders of this organisation, RZIM, named after its now infamous founder, Ravi Zacharias, have been appropriately contrite and busy issuing apologies to all victims and affected parties in recent weeks.

This is a cautionary tale that accountability and boundaries are really for our good, for they keep us in check, especially in the case of senior leaders who hold much clout and are given free rein. It is a timely reminder that we need to be humble enough to listen to others, especially those with unexpected, sound advice that we are tempted to dismiss and ignore, simply because they annoy us or make us uncomfortable and uneasy. Let us not kill the messenger, especially if it is a message that would keep us from harm or save lives – that of ours and others.

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Separately, a few weeks ago in the city state of Singapore, a group of pals went on a noisy joyride in a fancy BMW M4 coupe just minutes before dawn, after a night of partying at a restaurant. Racing way past the speed limit, the car soon spun out of control, and then crashed and burst into flames, incinerating all five young men. There has been an outpouring of grief, but also no small amount of vitriol on social media, with many denouncing the irresponsible behaviour of the young men, especially the driver, who should have known better. While I have mulled over the matter with a heavy heart – afterall, the five young men did perish in a most horrific manner, leaving behind many families and friends in a state of shock and grief – I cannot but wonder what would have happened if friends or loved ones had firmly talked these young men out of their reckless plan to race, and if these men had only listened to such words of wisdom and caution that fateful morning. This is yet another cautionary tale.

Questions for Reflection

1.How are you as a listener at work and at home? How are you different in different settings? Why?

2. What are the main barriers to effective listening? How can you overcome them?

3. What kinds of advice do you receive warmly? What kinds of advice do you ignore and reject? Why?

4. When was a time when you listened well and enjoyed a positive outcome? When was a time when you failed to listen well and experienced a negative outcome?

5. Does every leader have an opportunity to listen and change course for the better all the time? How will this change your thinking and future behaviour?

6. Who are the people in your life who listen well even as they lead? What can you learn from them?

7. What do you need to change in order to become a better listener? What can you do about it right now?

Resilience, Hope & Pragmatism

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The New Year 2021 certainly got off to a rocky start with supporters of former United States President Donald Trump causing what has been termed “an insurrection” and “a domestic terrorist attack” on 6 January. The protestors stormed the US Capitol building, disrupting the certification of the 2020 presidential election won by President Joe Biden, forcing Congress to evacuate, and leaving five dead, including a police officer and a woman who was shot and killed inside the Capitol. (Two police officers have also been reported to have committed suicide in the aftermath of the incident.) With more and more disturbing details being revealed following the shocking occurrence, we realise now that the loss of lives could have been far worse, if not for a fortuitous turn of events and the courage of certain quick-thinking individuals. Yet all this also happened against the global backdrop of more than 100 million COVID-19 cases and over two million deaths. It is a sober reminder that we live in very troubled times.

I had a personal scare too.

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Meeting a personal target on 31 December 2020, I had completed a book project on surviving crises in baffling times, when only two evenings later, on 2 January 2021, I fell from a steep flight of stairs at the carpark near the restaurant where I was to have dinner with a couple of friends. Thankfully, no bones were broken, although my right hand was rather badly injured and bruised. It is moments like these that make me appreciate life! I also got to experience the kindness, care and concern of those around me. During my time of recovery, I read American surgeon Atul Gawande’s 2014 non-fiction book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Given my recent accident, I found Gawande’s views on aging and end-of-life care especially thought-provoking. Above all, with hindsight, and as a person of faith, I am thankful for divine intervention and protection. It is not something I take lightly.

New Year’s Resolutions

Without a doubt, 2020 was a challenging year. Some people say that if 2020 was a person, they would sue him for pain and suffering! Good riddance to 2020, many wouldn’t hesitate to say!

So we know that a new year is about new beginnings and hope for better things. A new year is also often about resolutions – never mind that they are broken most of the time. Afterall, a new year’s resolution is something that “goes in one year and out the other”! (Pardon the pun.) Another classic example is the new year’s resolution to lose weight – and then losing the motivation to lose it! Then there’s the corny joke about wanting to quit all of one’s bad habits for the new year – only to change one’s mind because…very conveniently, nobody likes a quitter!

On a more serious note, for the past two months, my wonderful team has been working on our communication – a key leadership skill. More effective communication is indeed one of my resolutions for this New Year, including writing more clearly and concisely. (This includes my blog posts!)

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Let’s cut to the chase then. Here are some helpful questions to reflect, prioritise and act on at both the personal level and team level to remain focused, resilient, hopeful and yet pragmatic in the New Year 2021:

1. What are my/our top priorities for the year?

2. What should I/we stop doing?

3. What should I/we start doing?

4. What should I/we continue doing?

5. How can I/we use my/our time wisely?

6. Who are the people I/we should invest my/our time in?

7. How can I/we ensure that I/we will live well this year?

8. How can I/we ensure that I/we will lead well this year?

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So let us stayed focused. There is still much to do. We will remain resilient, hopeful, yet pragmatic, in these challenging times, in the new year.

Stay healthy and safe, everyone!

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A Present for the Present & Future

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It is 20 December 2020, Sunday (yes, once again, notice the symmetry, the very last one for this year; this post is also published at 20:20:20 hours, so…look out for the symmetry in your respective time zones…and make a wish or say a prayer, or do both). In five days’ time, on 25 December 2020, many of us around the world will be celebrating a much quieter Christmas, with a number of countries reintroducing strict measures to fight the global pandemic. And on 31 December 2020, we will be relieved to say “Goodbye!” to the year 2020, eagerly welcoming and ushering in the New Year 2021, which we all hope, with fingers crossed, will be more stress-free and stable.

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But has 2020 really been a bad year? Is it possible that it has been a kind of blessing in disguise?

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A Year of Growth

While 2020 hasn’t gone the way most of us would have liked, if we admit it, it has been a year of tremendous growth for everyone. Each of us probably experienced, to varying degrees, the Kübler-Ross model (or five stages of grief) of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – whether we were aware of it or not. We have had a very steep learning curve this year, and we have doubtlessly been baffled, challenged and stretched in unimaginable ways. We have had to remain focused, and we have had to be much more creative, adapting and learning new ways of doing things along the way. We have also discovered more than a thing or two about others, and ourselves, too – the good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak. However, it is very likely that one day in the not-too-distant future, we will look back and actually be thankful for all the valuable lessons we have learnt from the unexpected events in this single year alone. For those of us who have embraced the events of 2020, we know that we have grown in empathy, compassion, resilience, humility (hopefully) and maturity – whether we are traditionalists, baby boomers, or those from Gen X, Y or Z. All the same, there is still so much to learn; there is still so much more room for growth.

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A simple example of growth in terms of empathy can be found around the issue of food and food security. In the thick of the pandemic when there was genuine anxiety about food security, I immediately recalled the suffering and unspeakable hunger in North Korea depicted by Jang Jin-sung in Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee – a Look Inside North Korea. I also recalled the suffering of the Turkish people in WWI and WWII in Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga. In the first account, there was a severe shortage of rice, leading to the manual counting and saving of individual rice grains, and the consumption of grass. In the second account, there was a serious shortage of bread, causing the author and family members to scramble for stale bread and scraps of food. I can also recall how in Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, he writes about his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, mixing water with clay at a riverbank to quell her intense hunger during her younger days of extreme poverty in South Africa. Seen in such contexts, what we have experienced is not as heart wrenching. Yet at the onset of the pandemic in February to March 2020, many in East Asia and Southeast Asia, including Singapore, stocked up on rice and noodles (and toilet rolls). People around the world also started baking their own bread, with many complaining about a shortage of yeast and baking powder. Today, food banks and charities are being stretched to the limit as well. Somehow, all these experiences have made the extreme conditions in war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia (or even Nagorno-Karabakh and Tigray) much more relatable and closer to home.

When people are dying or have died, leaving behind grieving loved ones; or when people have lost their jobs, or will be losing them in the near future; or when businesses – iconic, established enterprises as well as small “mom-and-pop” ones – have ceased operations, or will become insolvent soon, we see how incongruent it is to be throwing loud parties of excessive feasting in any way, shape or form. It just doesn’t seem right when we know there are many who are struggling during this festive season. On the other hand, there is still much to celebrate. We celebrate life. We also celebrate family, friendships, the human spirit and acts of kindness. We learn to be thankful for things we have taken for granted. We also learn to live more intentionally.

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Living & Leading Intentionally

At the beginning of each day, it helps to prepare ourselves by asking:

  • What do I aim to accomplish today? How do I ensure I achieve this today?
  • How can I add value today? How can I encourage others to value-add as well?
  • How can I fully engage with those around me today, especially with those I lead?
  • How can I use my time wisely today? Who are those I should invest my time with today?

At the end of each day, it helps to pen down in a journal, as we reflect by asking ourselves:

  • How have I lived well today?
  • How have I led well today?
  • What are three things I am thankful for today?
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What’s Ahead

I still remember what I wrote last Christmas. It was and is never my wish to write anything foreboding. Yet I know I had to write what I sensed in my heart last December. Right now, I am writing what I sense in my heart yet again.

While COVID-19 vaccines have started to be manufactured and distributed, it will still take months for noticeable positive effects to take place. We hope that the vaccines truly have negligible side effects, if any, for there are already enough people who are wary of getting vaccinated, including the usual “anti-vaxxers”. Developed economies are also bracing themselves for a festive and post-festive season resurgence of coronavirus cases, especially since winter is also the flu season, which, coupled with pandemic fatigue, will put a greater strain on hospitals and healthcare professionals. And while there are parts of the world where COVID-19 is more manageable, most countries are remaining cautious, given the tricky nature of the virus. Then there is still the full impact of the global economic fallout of the pandemic to watch out for. Mental health will also remain a key concern as personal struggles and strained relationships deepen and multiply. Social unrest and terrorism should remain areas of concern too. Realistically, this is what it looks like at least for the next few months until next spring. It is very likely to drag on for the whole of 2021.

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To thrive and not just survive, we need to remain calm and positive. We need to encourage and communicate clearly and regularly with those we lead. We need to instill hope. But to do this, we need to stay positive and hopeful ourselves.

The good news is that it is still possible to be hopeful because there are thankfully still many wise and capable leaders around. These are leaders who are also principled, courageous, focused, committed, transparent and compassionate, with empathy and the ability to make things happen. We just have to be discerning who these leaders are.

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So there is no need to be, in the words of John C. Maxwell, “leadership sad” or “leadership mad”. Let’s be leadership glad! Of course there will still be those who will fail us and let us down, but let’s not allow them or any unfortunate circumstances to drag us down. If we want positive, transformational change, we must become part of the solution. We must be the change. (In fact, Maxwell is about to launch his new book Change Your World next January.) For positive and lasting change to happen, we all need to step up and do our part. Let us not waste time pointing fingers or moping about the “what ifs”. Let us learn from mistakes – those of others and our own – and let us move forward into the new year, much stronger and wiser.

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Season’s Greetings – A Present for the Present & Future

This Christmas 2020, here’s wishing every one of you, my friends, readers and associates, Abundant Love, Strong Relationships, Deep Joy, Lasting Peace, Excellent Health and Never-ending Hope. May the New Year 2021 be another year of Infinite Growth and Fruitfulness in every aspect of your lives!

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Focused Leaders: Lessons

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In many parts of the world, major news outlets seem to report almost entirely on the aftermath of the US presidential, senate and house elections, as well as the concerning coronavirus situation and the promise of effective vaccines. Repeatedly, they address the following: Will President Trump concede defeat to President-Elect Joe Biden? Is something sinister about to happen? What is the likely impact of a Biden administration across the globe? What are the new record numbers in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths? Which vaccine is likely to be put on the market soon?

The race is heating up

Yet everyday, ordinary people and clients are also trying to cope with day-to-day, bread-and-butter issues in their own lives. Besides health, everyday conversations are centered on surviving economic, business, job/career and relationship crises. According to research by McKinsey, the pandemic has led to one of the largest GDP drawdowns in memory – an annualised minus 32.9% drop versus a minus 30% fall over three years for the Great Depression in 1930. Key consumer trends identified by McKinsey include a flight to digital, shift to value, shock to loyalty, a “homebody” economy and a new holiday outlook. With these trends and the immense impact on businesses and the global economy, mental health is also understandably becoming an issue of increasing concern.

In light of this, we continue to turn to inspiring people in our lives, and also uplifting stories and accounts about remarkable people who we could learn a thing or two from. These experienced leaders have weathered storms and overcome personal crises through their strong sense of focus, purpose, conviction, resilience, and positive attitude or sheer grit.

President-Elect Joe Biden has had his fair share of setbacks

For a start, we could consider third-time lucky President-Elect Joe Biden, who incidentally turns 78 this very day, 20 November 2020, Friday, and how he has overcome so many tragedies and setbacks in his life. These include his stutter; the deaths of his first wife Neilia and young daughter Naomi, nicknamed “Amy”, in a car accident in 1972; bringing up his two young sons in Delaware while commuting to work at Capitol Hill via 90-minute train rides everyday; losing his older son Beau to brain cancer in 2015; and his two failed presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008. Whatever one’s political leanings, this is without a doubt a man who has had his fair share of personal setbacks. He is now about to become the 46th and the oldest POTUS (President of the United States).

Yet today, I am really going to talk about just one woman – an incredible, brilliant trailblazer. She was super smart and she had g-r-i-t. Her life story is all about focus and resilience.

RBG

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, otherwise known as “The Notorious R.B.G.”, was a highly respected “no nonsense” Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Many mourned when she passed away two months ago on 18 September 2020, due to complications from pancreatic cancer, at the age of 87.

Joan Ruth Bader was born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York in 1933. Unfortunately her six-year-old sister, Marilyn, who nicknamed her “Kiki” for being a “kicky” baby, died from meningitis when RBG was only 14 months and the latter understandably had no memory of her sister.

RBG began to use the name “Ruth” to avoid confusion when there were two other girls who shared the same name in her kindergarten class. She showed promise right from the start, emerging as a top student in school, while privately struggling over her beloved mother Celia’s losing battle with cancer. RGB chose to forego her speech at her high school graduation when after four years, Celia succumbed to her illness, and the funeral was held just the day before the graduation ceremony.

RBG faced so many challenging situations in life that one can only conclude that she had a unique character that was refined and strengthened by multiple crises and setbacks.

Minyan – a Jewish funeral

When Celia passed away, even though RBG took her Jewish faith seriously, she was upset that she was not counted as part of the “minyan” or prayer service quorum for the period of mourning simply because she was not a man.

During her time at Harvard Law School to read Law with her husband Marty Ginsburg, after she had graduated from Cornell University with honours, RBG had to juggle between her law studies and caring for their newborn baby, Jane, who was born in July 1955.

At Harvard, the small number of female law students meant that in the two classroom buildings, there was only one women’s bathroom. (This is slightly reminiscent of the bathroom scene in the Hollywood film, “Hidden Figures”, based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by the same name; interestingly, the latter does not have a heroic Kevin Costner character who rights the wrong.)

The dean of the law school invited first-year female students to dinner and over a chat, asked them to justify taking up a place at the school that otherwise could have been occupied by a man, even though there were only nine female students and more than 500 male students at the time. (In fact, for many years, the legal profession had excluded women as the law was considered unladylike. A member of the Columbia Law School Board of Trustees vowed in 1890: “No woman shall degrade herself by practicing law in New York, especially if I can save her.”)

RBG was one of only two girls to get a place on the Harvard Law Review (as predicted by Marty). However, when she needed to look at a journal in the Lamont Library’s old periodical room as part of her law review work one evening, she was denied access, even though another library, Widener, was open to women. Moreover, for the law review banquet, RBG was frustrated that she was unable to invite her mother-in-law, Evelyn Ginsburg, as her guest, because only male guests could be invited.

Then at age 25, Marty had cancer. RBG mobilised a team to help Marty get through law school despite his serious health condition, and her husband eventually recovered enough to graduate with a job offer at a leading law firm in New York City. This was when RBG, who had joined Harvard Law a year after Marty, gave up the idea of graduating with a Harvard law degree and transferred to Columbia Law School in New York, so that the couple could stay together.

Despite securing places on law review at Harvard and then Columbia, and then tying for first place in her graduating class at Columbia, RBG was rejected after every one of her 14 job interviews, unlike her highly sought-after male classmates. So instead of ending up at a top law firm after graduation, she worked as a law clerk for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri in August 1959; this was only after repeated attempts by her Columbia professor to secure her a place, with the promise to recommend a male replacement, as a contingency, although this later proved unnecessary. RBG’s clerkship with Judge Palmieri finally opened doors to law firms in less than two years. The firms’ concerns about RBG being both a woman and a mother were dissolved by her experience as a clerk and by Judge Palmieri’s assurances of her competence.

When RBG was offered a teaching position by Rutgers Law School, she accepted the job as one of the very few female law professors in the United States, even though she was indignant that Rutgers chose to pay women significantly less than their male counterparts. Later, when she was expecting her second child, because she feared the dean at Rutgers would not renew her contract, she chose to wear loose clothing to hide her pregnancy. Baby James was born in September 1965, and RBG returned to the classroom soon after.

RBG began to win battles for women and girls who were held back by unequal treatment. She also joined others at Rutgers to fight for equal pay and won that too. She began to research on sex/gender discrimination and the law, including the concept of “Jane Crow”. Examples of gender discrimination were everywhere, and included known statements such as: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life” and “the paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator…” (Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley); “Land, like woman, was meant to be possessed” (Curtis J. Berger, Land Ownership and Use, 1968).

RBG began to fight for the equal rights of women (and men) in several cases, such as Charles Moritz (who was denied a tax benefit for money spent to care for his elderly mother because he was a man); Sally Reed (who was denied access to her teenage son Skip’s simple belongings after his death because the law stated that “between persons equally entitled to administer a decedent’s estate, males must be preferred to females”); Sharron Frontiero (a female air force lieutenant whose husband, being male, did not receive the automatic benefits such as extra income for a larger home and free medical care that wives of male air force lieutenants did); Stephen Wiesenfeld (who ran a business from home and was denied the government’s “mother’s benefit” to care for their newborn baby boy even though his wife Paula had died at childbirth).

In the late 1970s, as a well-known lawyer and professor, RBG was considered by some to be a good candidate to be a judge. However, despite having been involved in many cases around the country and more than two dozen at the Supreme Court, not to mention having published more than 25 legal articles about the law of gender equality, the male-dominated legal establishment undervalued the work RBG was doing. Many thought she did not qualify to be a judge simply because she lacked experience handling major securities cases involving financial investments. Yet she continued to fight on and was instrumental in overturning the practice of jury selection that excluded women jurors from service. In January 1979, jury laws no longer assumed that women should only be in the kitchen instead of the courtroom, and women began to be included for jury service.

President Jimmy Carter, who took office in January 1977, was committed to women’s equality more than any president before him – he brought women into his Cabinet and executive branch as senior officials. The judicial branch of government at that time had only one female judge among 97 judges of the Federal Courts of Appeals, and only five women among almost 400 judges of the Federal District Courts. Furthermore, in the nation’s more than 200 years, only eight women had ever been appointed federal judges. By the end of President Carter’s term in January 1981, the number of federal female judges jumped from six to 40, and RBG was one of them. Her new job took her to Washington D.C., at the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second-most important court in the land, second only to the US Supreme Court. Shortly after that, on 7 July 1981, and to RBG’s delight, Judge Sandra Day O’Connor was nominated and appointed Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan.

Meantime, RBG continued to hold her view that the Constitution was a “living” document, an evolving instrument intended to endure for ages to come. She believed strongly that the law affected real people and was not just an academic exercise.

On 14 June 1993, it was President Bill Clinton who nominated RBG for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. On 4 October 1993, for the first time in history, two female justices settled into their chairs at the US Supreme Court. In 1996, seven members of the Supreme Court, including both female justices, voted to strike the Virginia Military Institute’s exclusionary rule on admission, with Justice O’Connor graciously inviting RBG to write the majority opinion on the matter instead. RBG cited as precedents the Court’s rulings in the Sally Reed, Sharron Frontiero and Stephen Wisenfeld cases, all of which bore her thumbprint.

In 1999, RBG was diagnosed with colon cancer. Yet she scheduled her chemotherapy treatments for Fridays, so she could recover over the weekend, and she never missed an oral argument. At 66 years, she became a gym rat to stay healthy. There is even a fitness book by Bryant Johnson called “The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong . . . and You Can Too!”.

After Justice O’Connor’s retirement in 2006, RBG was the only woman on the Supreme Court bench for three years. Opposing her male justices in 2007, RBG wrote and announced her dissent from the bench in an unequal pay case involving a Goodyear tyre company employee called Lilly Ledbetter. In 2009, the first law President Barack Obama signed as the 44th President of the United States was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. In 2009 and 2010, upon the retirements of justices David Souter and John Paul Stevens, respectively, President Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, so women formed one third of the Supreme Court. The appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to replace RBG, following the latter’s demise in September 2020, continues this one-third representation.

While nobody is ever perfect, in terms of character, gumption, focus and impact on lives for good, RBG is certainly among the top of outstanding leaders who have graced this earth. Her life story is both inspiring and remarkable, and we realise we have often taken so many things for granted. We forget that we stand on the shoulders of many men and women of substance who have cleared the path for us or shown us great examples for the way forward. Contrary to belief, many of these courageous men and women did not have it easy. They had to overcome and persevere through countless personal tragedies, prejudices and setbacks. Yet they simply stayed focused.

Some questions for reflection:

  1. What is the key takeaway for you from the stories about RBG?

2. Besides RBG, who else mentioned in the stories have inspired you? Why?

3. Who in your life inspires you to stay focused, overcome and thrive? Why?

4. How can you also live and lead by example?

Leading with Courage

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A top executive is pushing through a key decision that has major implications and potential conflicts of interest that could complicate issues further down the road and/or put all parties involved in jeopardy.  However, this senior executive is also your boss, and he is someone you respect.  He may even be your mentor and friend.  You know he has been instrumental in helping you progress in your career, and as the head honcho, he also holds the key to your future success in the organisation.  You know that many around you respect him as a leader and would never think of contradicting him or questioning his motives and actions in any way.  As his direct report, what would you do?

Or imagine yourself being involved in a dangerous country-wide anti-corruption operation that would bring down all your powerful senior political leaders, and most of your peers, many of whom you consider old friends.  What would you do? What would enable you to press on with your role and responsibilities?

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Character

In my last blog post, I mentioned a leadership table discussion on the importance of character in a leader.  We know that while there are many things in life we have no control over, we can and do certainly choose our character.  We create our character every time we make choices – to cop out or work ourselves out of a difficult situation; to fudge the truth or stand under the weight of it; to take the easy money or pay the price.

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A crisis reveals the true nature or “true colours” of a person.  Adversity is a crossroads which causes a person to choose one of two paths: character or compromise.  Every time a leader chooses character, he or she becomes stronger, with increased self-respect, even if that choice brings opposition and negative consequences.  Afterall, the formation of our character is at the heart of our development, not only as leaders, but as human beings.  Discerning followers do not trust leaders whose character they know to be flawed – they will not continue following such leaders.

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Courage

When it is time for us to do the right thing, will we have the courage to do it? In an environment where nobody speaks up or tries new ways of doing things, it is easy to simply go along with whatever is proposed or whatever is standard practice, and just stay agreeable and generally liked.  Afterall, nobody wants to be the bad guy (or gal).  Don’t ruffle feathers.  Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t cause trouble.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Is it worth it, anyway? Such thoughts will naturally come to mind whenever we are trying to summon courage to do the right thing or do something different.  When we speak up while others conveniently stare at their smartphones, the uninteresting ceiling or the unremarkable carpet, there are likely to be implications and consequences for doing so.  Doing the right thing or trying something radically different takes courage. 

When we picture people of courage, we imagine them standing up for an unpopular opinion, or making a frightening decision, or risking their own life, and doing it anyway, and fearlessly.  Yet courage means taking a risk in spite of fear, not in the absence of it.  Courageous leaders look fear in the face and decide to act on behalf of others anyway.  They grab the huge risk by its horns and put their leadership on the line for their organisation, team and people. 

While courage is easy to recognise in war heroes, it is present in every great leader in any business, government, institution, community or nation. Whenever we see any significant progress in a country or organisation, it is because the leader or leaders made courageous decisions. 

Courage demonstrated by any person encourages others.  But courage in a leader inspires people.  It makes people want to follow them.  Billy Graham once said, “Courage is contagious…When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are stiffened.”  In other words, courage puts steel in the spines of others

Courage puts steel in the spines of others.

Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States,
from 1933 to 1945

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.  You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror.  I can take the next thing that comes along.  You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Mentor and friend John C. Maxwell has also said that “leaders who face their fears and step out of their comfort zone on a regular basis impart their courage to their followers.  And the entire team or organisation is empowered to take big risks, make frightening decisions, and do great things.”

Lessons on Courageous Leadership

Against the backdrop of political rhetoric in town halls in the USA in the run up to the presidential election on 3 November 2020, people across America are either valiantly battling the coronavirus or flatly denying its existence or lethality, or experiencing “pandemic fatigue” and “precaution exhaustion”.  A frozen yogurt shop in Colorado even offered a 10% discount to maskless customers! And across the Atlantic, COVID-19 cases have also been on the rise at alarming rates, especially in Europe, with even the Austrian and Belgian foreign ministers testing positive for the coronavirus. Meantime, many in the UK are frustrated about the three-tier coronavirus system – Tier 1 (Medium); Tier 2 (High); Tier 3 (Very High).  

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Whatever the beliefs and behaviour of others, many in the general population are turning lemons into lemonade. As revealed by our recent leadership table discussion on the topic of courage this month, people who are not in the limelight are courageously doing whatever they can to: care for the sick, young, elderly, vulnerable, bereaved and depressed; do things creatively and innovatively, in valiant attempts to ride out the latest storm of life; work hard to put food on the table; homeschool or study hard, either online or in a blended learning environment; help the poor and needy with empathy and compassion.  These are the unsung heroes and heroines we should recognise.

On 9 October 2020, I attended the very first virtual Live2Lead Conference.  The programme began at 9am in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, with much fanfare, but here in my part of the world, it was already 9pm.  By the time the half-day conference ended, it was about 1.30am for me, yet I was still wide-awake because I was greatly encouraged and inspired by what all the speakers shared.

Although the speakers spoke on different topics, it was easy to recognise courage in all their narratives.  I was particularly impressed with COO and President of Focus Brands (North America) and former President of Cinnabon, Kat Cole; and former President and CEO of the Ford Motor Company, and current Google board member, the much celebrated corporate leader, Alan Mulally.

Kat Cole, COO & President, Focus Brands (North America)

Kat Cole – Woman of Substance

Cole is COO and President (North America) of Focus Brands, the American global franchisor and operator of food service brands, with more than 6,300 restaurants, cafes, bakeries and ice cream shoppes around the world that generated an estimated revenue of US$421.9 million in sales from all its brands in 2019. She shared the four mindsets that are critical for success, and they unsurprisingly include courage:

  1. Humility – the deep belief that we can learn from others, that we need others, and that we don’t know all the answers.
  2. Curiosity – the willingness to ask questions.
  3. Courage – speaking up even if it is uncomfortable, and doing the right thing.
  4. Confidence – the belief that we can figure things out even if we don’t have all the answers.

She reframes failure by making the word “FAIL” an acronym for First Attempt In Learning.  Cole has clearly demonstrated an intrepid heart throughout her life.  For a start, she credits her own mother for being the best role model and perfect example of “hustle and heart” because she single-handedly brought up three young daughters after her divorce, with Cole being the eldest child.  Due to her parents’ divorce, Cole started working at the tender age of 15, selling clothing at a mall, before joining Hooters as a waitress.  By 19, she flew out of the USA for the first time to launch a franchise in Sydney, Australia.  She was made a Vice President by age 26, and became President of Cinnabon at 31. 

Cole candidly shared a couple of setbacks, including having to stop a successful line of business after its launch due to the lack of a system of checks and balances.  When she was 26 years old, she also had to deal with a peer in his mid-sixties who did not think she belonged at the leadership table.  Cole heeded the wise advice of a mentor and dialled down on her youthful enthusiasm as well as adjusted her communication style and approach.  The man eventually stopped being an adversary and “blocker”.

Alan Mulally, Former President & CEO,
Ford Motor Company

Alan Mulally – the Man of the Moment

Most are familiar with how Alan Mulally played a key role in the dramatic turnaround of the Ford Motor Company when it was bleeding US$17 billion in 2006, amid massive losses and declining market share.  Many must have thought Mulally was either foolhardy or exceptionally courageous for leaving a very successful career at Boeing to join the beleaguered Ford Motor Company in September 2006.  Mulally has shared that he did it because he felt he was being asked to serve a second American global icon, and it was important in terms of economic development, security and environmental sustainability.

On his first day at work, Mulally was immediately ushered into an impromptu press conference at Ford’s world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.  Hundreds of journalists and many more online wanted to hear from the first CEO hired by an automaker who did not grow up in the industry.  They challenged the new chief about the 10,000 parts required in a car of sophistication, emphasising the need for quality, systems engineering, safety and fuel efficiency.  Mulally calmly brought up the fine example of the Boeing 777 which had four million parts and managed to stay in the air.  The following day, headlines heralded: “I think we got the right guy”.    

In his first year at Ford, Mulally boldly led the effort for Ford to borrow US$23.6 billion by mortgaging all of Ford’s assets.  He did this with the intention of using the money to finance a major overhaul and to provide a “cushion to protect for a recession or other unexpected event”.  The loan was interpreted as a sign of desperation at the time, but is now widely commended as a wise and astute move to stabilise Ford’s financial position, compared to rivals General Motors and Chrysler.  Unlike General Motors and Chrysler, Ford did not file for bankruptcy during the automotive industry crisis of 2008-2009, and was the only one of the Detroit Three that did not ask for a government loan.

Mulally also transformed Ford’s corporate culture of crippling fear of admitting to problems that did not have immediate solutions – he encouraged transparency and the open sharing of problems.  There is a fascinating account of how Mulally first introduced a colour coding system for status updates, and yet how for weeks, despite the US$17 billion loss, every department at the weekly business plan review meetings displayed green charts to indicate that everything was “on plan”.  There were no yellow charts to indicate identified problems that were being worked on, or red charts to indicate new problems with unidentified solutions.  It took courage for Mark Fields, the senior executive in charge of operations in the Americas, who subsequently succeeded Mulally as President and CEO of Ford in 2014, to display the very first and only red chart in a sea of green charts.  Even though Mulally applauded Fields’ courage, everyone thought Fields was going to get fired.  Fields’ solo red chart amidst 319 other green charts continued for several weeks before trust was sufficiently built up for the business plan charts to finally resemble a rainbow. 

While Mulally strikes everyone as a genuinely personable and humble leader, like Cole, he was firm about holding team members accountable.  He did not hesitate to let go of top talent who did not fit the company culture of working together.  An excellent example of this is when a very smart senior leader was respectfully but surprisingly allowed to leave Ford because of his refusal to change his abusive “command and control” behaviour at work.

When Mulally joined Ford in 2006, the organisational culture survey revealed that only 30% – 40% of employees felt positive about the company.  By the time he retired in 2014, that percentage had soared to 91%.

Claudia Paz y Paz – the Intrepid Attorney General

Several years ago, an intrepid Attorney General in Guatemala stood up bravely and fought tenaciously against corruption in the land.  Claudia Paz y Paz, the first female Attorney General of Guatemala (2010 – 2014), set numerous records in her aggressive prosecution against organised crime, corruption and human rights violations. Her work and that of her successor, Thelma Aldana, eventually led to the prosecution and downfall of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti.

More than 300 leaders ended up in prison and the work of Paz y Paz put her and her loved ones in grave danger. Yet she said that the most difficult part of her job was the fact that half of the people who were imprisoned were her friends, one of whom was someone she had shared weekly family meals with for 17 years.  In 2012, Paz y Paz was recognised by Forbes magazine as one of the “five most powerful women changing the world”. She was also considered a leading candidate for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. The life of Claudia Paz y Paz is yet another inspiring example of character and courage in action.

Questions for Reflection and Action     

Now would be a good time to pause, reflect and answer the following questions:

Character

  1. Spend some time analysing your motivation for leading others.  What are you trying to accomplish as a leader?
  2. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, how does your character come into play?
  3. Where do you need to grow so that your character and motives are positive and strong?
  4. What will you do to change?
  5. When and how will you take action?

Courage

  1. How do you know when to take courageous action as a leader? What principles or factors inform your decision making?
  2. Think about your current leadership role and how you would be able to help the people you lead.  What courageous action do you have to take as a leader?
  3. In what kinds of situations do you most often respond with courage, and in which do you have a difficult time? Why do you think that is?
  4. What is the role of courage in leading others?
  5. What can you do to become strong and courageous?
  6. When will you take action?

Developing Our Character as Leaders

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Something really embarrassing happened to me recently.

Now that I have your undivided attention, here’s the story.

Last weekend, I attended an in-person training session. There were only five participants, all socially distanced and wearing a face mask, and the trainer wore a face shield. We were all asked to use a marker to write our names down on a sticker/adhesive label and I wrote my first name in block letters. A couple of people complimented me on the clearly written name and I explained matter-of-factly that it was a habit formed from years as a trainer writing on flip charts in the past – we always wrote in caps for greater legibility. But that’s not the end of the story.

After the training session, I decided to drop by at a newly upgraded mall to get some much needed supplies at a pharmacy/drug store/chemist’s and groceries at the supermarket. I took my time and pushed my trolley through most of the aisles. It was only when I got home that I realised that I was wearing the sticker with my name the whole time! Thank God for the requirement to wear a face mask these days! (Another thing I would like to add right here is that I would have appreciated this wear-a-mask-at-all-times policy 100% when I was a teenager battling acne decades ago. People would then have concentrated on my soulful, expressive eyes instead.)

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Spinach and Chocolate

While I am aware that I must have had a lot on my mind to have uncharacteristically forgotten about the sticker, I did also wonder why nobody bothered to tell me as I paraded around the mall – what about the guy at the bakery who handed me the wonderfully warm multigrain loaf I had picked out, or the cashiers at the pharmacy/drug store/chemist’s and the supermarket? Or just any member of the public?

Are we all too busy to notice these things these days? Or are we too unconcerned that we don’t even make an effort to help someone else? Perhaps everyone was just taking social distancing a little too seriously. But I know that if someone had spinach in her teeth, I would tell her. Discreetly, of course. For I know I would want someone to tell me if I had something similar – dark chocolate, perhaps? – on my teeth. I would rather have a minute of awkward gratitude than hundreds of minutes spent grinning away like an idiot in front of everyone I encounter!

LOL

Yet that wasn’t the only moment of embarrassment that day. Yes, there is more. At the training session, it dawned on me that I had to exercise extra care whenever I used the letters “LOL”. As an occasional millennial wannabe (only when trying to blend in with a younger crowd), I have been using the expression “LOL” liberally – “Laugh(ing) Out Loud” – in both text messages and private chats on Zoom in lighter moments. (By the way, did you know that the Thai equivalent is “555”?)

Anyway, I use “LOL” (or “lol” when I don’t have time for caps) because I feel it’s a great way to connect with people. Honestly, it is also rather convenient and efficient, given that I only need to type out three letters on my keyboard, often as a quick, appreciative response to a funny observation or comment made, before refocusing on a Zoom session-in-progress.

But lo and behold, I just found out that “LOL” has another meaning! Some other people think “LOL” stands for “Lots Of Love”! (Just imagine at least five exclamation marks here.) While I would hate to come across as a cold fish (ha!), I really hope there haven’t been any mixed signals as I Laughed Out Loud along the way. I certainly hope nobody thinks of me as being too affectionate. I am truly mortified by this LOL business. The very idea makes me blush, and a tad paranoid now. And I have to confess that since I was rather unconvinced about the matter (like, who ever thinks that way, right?), I actually asked my (elderly) mum what “LOL” meant to her. Her reply was immediate: “Lots of love!” So, okay, point taken.

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Laughing at Ourselves

It is healthy to laugh at ourselves. Counsellors and coaches consciously avoid self-disclosure to maintain neutrality and to be fully present and focused on the clients before them. It also lends an air of gravity, objectivity and professionalism. So for a change, I thought this was a perfect opportunity to share a little about some hilarious moments in my own life. (You might even have appreciated the reminder to remove your own name tags or stickers and to refrain from using “LOL” too liberally.)

I am also doing all this as a conscious effort to laugh at myself, and treasure the lighter moments in life, every now and then. This is important, especially when we need to build resilience, when there are so many angry, anxious or grim faces around us, and so much doom and gloom in the world.

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Exhaustion

All the same, I am not trying to nullify our respective struggles. I do wonder how you, dear reader, are holding up at this time. I say this because the response I have been getting from several people of late is that they are “exhausted”. I was feeling the same way too, albeit briefly, about a week ago. (Hence the sticker episode, I suppose.)

Later today, I am going to meet some truly amazing individuals from different cities, on Zoom. A few of them are really, really tired. I know they are tempted to give in to their fatigue, change their minds and back out of their commitments. I am going to ask them if they have heard of The 40% Rule. It is something as mind-blowing as it is life-changing.

The 40% Rule

This rule simply states that when our mind is telling us that we are done, that we are exhausted, that we cannot possibly go any further, that we cannot take it anymore, we’re actually only 40% done. Yes, that means we still have 60% left in us. The 40% Rule is an excellent reminder that no matter how exhausted we might feel, it is always possible to draw on an untapped reserve of energy, motivation, and drive that we all possess.

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The Runner’s High

Wow. It reminds me of my (very) brief years as a marathon runner. I found that I would start to hit a wall when I had completed 80% of the route, and all I had to do was keep pushing myself to keep going, even if I ran at a much slower pace. But once I was close to the finish line, time and time again, I would suddenly experience an adrenaline rush – “the runner’s high” – and my legs would literally feel very light, almost like I was flying. I would run on and on, almost unable to stop, even way past the finish line. It was always that same feeling once I passed the finish line – like there was energy to go on much more.

The 40% Rule is motivating and it is backed up by science. It says we’re not even half-way there and we have so much more left in us. And when we believe this, we will have the mental resilience to challenge the idea that we are spent and can’t go on anymore. It is a scientifically proven mental framework. In a 2008 study, researchers found that subjects who were given a placebo but told it was caffeine were able to lift significantly more weight than those who were really given caffeine.

Jesse Itzler, the husband of Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, who himself is the co-founder of a private jet card company, actually hired a Navy SEAL to live with him and his family for a month to train them in mental toughness. Now, we don’t have to be a billionaire like Itzler to find out more about the 40% Rule. Itzler has written a book called “Living with a SEAL”. But a quicker way is to check out the YouTube video below to learn more about his fascinating experience:

Jesse Itzler talks about his extraordinary experience “Living with a SEAL”.

And if you are wondering who this awesome Navy SEAL is, he’s none other than David Goggins. Check out the video below – complete with a motivational music score – that was made about a year ago:

David Goggins explains the 40% Rule.

We Do Not Know Our Own Strength

Now, I can hear you saying: “But I’m not a marathon runner. I don’t even like the idea of climbing stairs to get to my room, or running after the train or bus or taxi/cab or my toddler, every morning.” I hear you. We don’t have to be a marathon runner. The key thing is to remind ourselves of the 40% Rule and what it means. It tells us not to underestimate what we’re made of. We literally do not know our own strength. (Remember that Whitney Houston song with her powerful vocals, “I Didn’t Know My Strength”? Although it saddens me whenever I think of how she was ironically taken from us way too soon.) The 40% Rule tells us that when we think we’re exhausted, we’re not. It tells us to never ever quit.

Naturally, this brings us to Winston Churchill’s famous “Never Give In” speech:

Winston Churchill served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 – 1945, when he led the country to victory in the Second World War, and again 1951 – 1955.

Oh, may we have more leaders who can inspire us like that!

Character

Later today, 20 September 2020, I will be facilitating a small leadership table comprising women living in several cities in Europe and Asia, on Zoom. It will be our launch session on Leadership, and the first topic for discussion is: Character.

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Role Models

While we often hear about male leaders known for their character and integrity, such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, George Washington and William Wilberforce, not enough is said about women of substance such as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Susanna Wesley, Elizabeth Blackwell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Queen Liliuolakani, Chien-Shiung Wu and Junko Tabei, just to name a few. We can learn so much from so many – both men and women – who have gone ahead of us.

There is also a prolific author who literally changed the world through his thinking – James Allen, who wrote the bestseller, “As a Man Thinketh”, published in 1903, on the power and right application of thought. From very humble beginnings, Allen managed to beat tremendous odds to turn his dreams into reality, simply by educating himself and developing modern inspirational thoughts that were proven by practice in his own life.

But are there leaders we can learn from today? While nobody is perfect, if we choose to look hard enough, we will find that role models exist in our midst, especially in these tumultuous times. It is said that “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”. May we all be constantly learning, so that the very best teachers and mentors will appear right before us, along our continuous journey of growth.

Being Part of the Solution

When Covid-19 first hit us, if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us expressed great frustration at the seeming incompetence of the leaders in charge, while sitting on our hands. For a while, I empathised and provided a listening ear to anyone who wanted to “vent”; sometimes, I joined in the griping too. But at a certain point, I began to challenge myself and anyone who kept mumbling and grumbling, by asking point blank: “So, given the situation, what can you and I do about it? Do we have any concrete ideas of our own?” At one time, the answer shot back went something along these lines: “Well, they’re paid handsomely to do the job! I’m not.”

While there is some truth in that, it didn’t make sense to me then, and it still doesn’t make sense to me now, that we can choose to sit back and not try to come up with solutions as well. Afterall, aren’t we all in this together, like it or not? And what is most interesting is that we are often part of the solution. We may not be governing (or helping to govern) a country, or helming a huge multinational corporation, but we can still show up and do our part.

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Multiplication

Another thing is that we need all hands on deck. We can’t do everything alone. To make a difference with real impact, we need to work together. I think it is wonderful that we can work across international borders, time zones and cultures for the good of our communities and our world. I know I am not like my friends in the arts, or the medical field, but I can be me, and I can do my part too. When I work alone, the impact I make is like addition at a snail’s pace; when I work with and through others, the impact we make is suddenly like multiplication on steroids – we multiply the impact of our efforts, and in record time too. Together, we can multiply positive results in our respective spheres of influence in our communities and across the globe.

In the small leadership table we are launching today, we will be challenged to live intentionally everyday, to better ourselves as leaders, and to train others to be leaders. We will also hold each other to account and grow with a sense of purpose and responsibility. It is only in this way that we can activate the multiplier effect and compound the returns of all our efforts, however small. But this also calls for faith.

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Walking the Talk

It is paramount that we walk the talk. We can choose to be intentional and purposeful, and we can show appreciation to one another with affirmations:

  1. “I value you. I treasure you.”
  2. “I believe in you. You’ve got this.”
  3. “I’m counting on you, my friend!”
  4. “I want you to succeed. I want the very best for you. You know that.”

And since I teach children in Sunday School at least twice a month, I want to be intentional with them too. Afterall, the young are our leaders of the future. I want to use this “kids version” to keep saying to them, so that it becomes ingrained in them like a mantra:

  1. “Hey, you’re precious to me. You’re a good kid.”
  2. “You can do it! I know you can!”
  3. “You can count on me. I’m counting on you too!”
  4. “I want the very best for you.”
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The Golden Rule

Of course, action speaks louder than words. So, as leaders, we have to “show and tell”, or rather, tell and then show as well. We embrace The Golden Rule: Treat others as we want to be treated. Whenever I am listening to someone in distress, I try my utmost to be the kind of person I would want to be listening to me if I was the one in distress. In fact, we want to empathise and be other-centered too, so we will also want to treat others as they want to be treated.

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Four Character-Strengthening Qualities

We are all Works-in-Progress (WIP), and developing our character is a choice that requires deliberate action. For as long as we remain on this planet, there is still so much more to grow into and so much more that we can do. We can also apply the 40% Rule and work on honing our character: make the choice; be intentional; learn and apply proactively; take action; put it into practice.

The following are four character-strengthening qualities:

Humility – Being humble does not mean that we deny our strengths, but it does mean we are honest about our weaknesses. When we are humble, we do not think less of ourselves (so there is an absence of low self-esteem and low self-confidence), but we consciously practise self-forgetfulness, and think of ourselves less often.

Authenticity – Being authentic is about being real and genuine. We are ourselves. We are comfortable in our own skin. We can laugh at ourselves. We walk the talk.

Self-Respect – We gain self-respect not from self-confidence or personal achievements, but when we have overcome personal struggles with internal temptation, and have emerged stronger inside. We earn self-respect when we are morally dependable, and not like a blade of grass that bends however and wherever the wind blows. We earn self-respect by being increasingly better than we used to be.

Teachability – As lifelong learners, we are always eager to learn. We never quite “arrive” because there is always something else to learn about and more room to grow. The most successful people are always learning and they are excellent listeners who apply and live out what they have learnt.

Let us all grow in character. Let us grow in Humility, Authenticity, Self-Respect and Teachability.

Thou hast already begun.

Remember, start not in haste,

Lest all thy labours go to waste.

But after careful deliberation,

And ensuing liberation:

Run with joy, my friend, run!

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Leading in the Next Normal

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The seismic global economic, business and social disruptions and upheavals continue.  We are all living in the new normal, or as some like to call it, “the next normal”. 

Clients, colleagues, family and friends I know have been experiencing “interesting” situations and trends.  Business owners are pleased the work from home (WFH) arrangements are saving them tidy sums in terms of office rentals and other operating costs.  Tenants and renters are relieved that rents have dropped, enabling them to move to better homes at more affordable prices (landlords are naturally not thrilled).  At the same time, many of those with WFH arrangements are stressing out over an unexpected avalanche of work, demanding bosses and clients, as well as job insecurity, bills to pay, home schooling, and childcare commitments. HR managers are also tearing their hair out over extra paperwork as they struggle to bring in foreign talent stuck at international borders.  

Still others are trying not to be anxious about being separated indefinitely from loved ones who have had difficulty entering or re-entering countries due to travel restrictions.  There are even those who left their rented apartments overseas in a hurry, to return to their family homes for what they thought would be just a few weeks, only to find themselves unable to get back to work or college due to travel restrictions, all the time still paying rent for their vacant apartments.  

But then there is the young executive who heaved a sigh of relief that her home renovations were completed the previous year, or they would certainly have run into difficulties in the middle of this pandemic. There are also home buyers and bargain hunters who are closely monitoring house prices, anticipating further price drops next year. 

Meantime, international students and their families are rebelling against the exorbitant cost of online college courses, while others are protesting against disappointing grades awarded to them due to exam cancellations.

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Positive Developments

Apart from the “interesting” developments I have just mentioned, here are some positive developments, depending on your tribe allegiance and level of optimism: 

  • On 20 July 2020, it was announced that a COVID-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19) would be capable of triggering immune response and antibodies. The university is working in partnership with Astra Zeneca.
  • On 2 August 2020, the SpaceX Dragon capsule carrying NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico – it was the first commercial crewed mission.  (Incidentally the billionaire inventor behind SpaceX and Tesla, Elon Musk, has tweeted that aliens built the pyramids in Egypt. I kid you not.)
  • On 11 August 2020, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had become the first country to grant regulatory approval to a COVID-19 vaccine, the “Sputnik V”, despite no scientific data being published or phase 3 trials having even begun.
  • On 13 August 2020, Israel struck a historic deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to normalise relations, suspending plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
  • On 18 August 2020, Joe Biden was formally nominated as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate during the second night of the Democrats’ first-ever virtual convention.  He has chosen California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, the first woman of colour selected by a major political party, who has accepted her nomination, and has also added, “There is no vaccine for racism”.
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However, the horror movie we have been forced to watch or be part of on a daily basis continues.  For those who enjoy the horror genre and the macabre, and/or those who have (deliberately) been living under a rock, do scroll right down to the last section of this article, “The Horror Show”, for a peek at the various challenging developments in just the past month. For those who only want the sunnier side of things, please read on.

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Hope From Winning Teams

We will stay positive yet realistic. As the world continues its free fall, there are businesses that have remained unscathed.  Top-of-mind examples include online retailer Amazon, video conferencing leader Zoom, and streaming service Netflix.  Here are other thriving enterprises:   

  • On 19 August 2020, Apple became the first US company to be valued at USD$2 trillion, just two years after it reached $1 trillion valuation. 
  • With the ESG (environmental, social, governance) momentum, Tesla is also a prime beneficiary.  Not only is it the biggest manufacturer of electric cars and the most valuable car company in the world, it is even bigger than ExxonMobil.
  • With competitive video gaming and esports gaining traction globally, along with other online activities, FansUnite Entertainment Inc. has become a major player.
  • In a pandemic, biopharma has been making a big splash, with major players such as Astra Zeneca, Pfizer and Moderna leading the way in vaccine development.
  • Along with all things digital, e-commerce has been exploding onto the business arena with Shopify Inc at the center of the boom. It has over one million businesses using its platform, including Budweiser, Tesla and Red Bull.  Shopify has also started its own sustainability fund, which it adds $5 million to each year, to help deal with the climate crisis.

Learning From The Best

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In the next normal, we can learn from the best, from those who are agile and always ahead of the game.  These individuals and organisations survive and thrive because they have the five R qualities identified by McKinsey & Company:

  • Resolve to make tough decisions and take decisive action;
  • Resilience to keep going and to keep pushing through;
  • Return to effective business operations and production at pace and at scale;
  • Reimagination as opportunities are seized to improve business performance with an overhaul of priorities and modus operandi; 
  • Reform in the way business is being conducted, ranging from retail and healthcare, to education and travel.

But there are also other qualities that are needed in these challenging times.

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Speed

Companies are mobilising talent to cope with the speed of change and transformation, in order to work in new ways.  Speed happens in the presence of new business models but also catalyst leaders; effective meetings; delegation; immediate high potential talent deployment; empowered teams; and hybrid work arrangements. 

Catalyst Leaders

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The chief executives of today are becoming less of the rock star and more of the conductor of an orchestra peopled with complementary skill sets.  Top leaders are moving away from calling the shots in a command-and-control crisis response, towards the building, energising, empowering and unleashing of winning teams of fellow leaders.  

Today’s forward-thinking leaders are not only able to see things before others do – they are also strong sponsors who open doors of opportunity, and encourage creativity, innovation and intentional life-long learning.  They understand the need for clear, consistent and regular communication, and invest extra time to stay in touch with their people, to build trust, and to help everyone stay inspired and focused on the mission and vision of the organisation.  Leaders today are essentially visionary catalysts who inspire, motivate, as well as drive innovation, change and growth.

In a competitive business environment, it also makes sense for board members to have a limited term of about three years.  The concept is elaborated on in John C. Maxwell’s book “The Leader’s Greatest Return”, where the emphasis is on leaders developing, reproducing and “compounding” other leaders within an organisation.  For board members, their first year is spent identifying potential leaders to coach and mentor; their second year is spent further developing the potential leaders; and the end of the three-year term is celebrated when outgoing board members successfully hand over their board duties to new board members, before moving on to serve in other boards.   This practice ensures healthy leadership renewal, a growing organisational culture with fresh ideas, and leaders who are consistently reproducing leaders. 

To stay focused, leaders throughout the organisation also subscribe to the Pareto Principle of developing only the top 20% of their respective team members, with the rest doing the same, down the line.  This would ensure the optimum use of time for each senior executive, a strong and consistent culture of leadership development, as well as a leadership pipeline full of emerging high potential leaders that would never run dry.

Effective Meetings

Speed also starts with faster decisions made at fewer meetings with fewer decision-makers.  We can cut down on unnecessary meetings, even as we ensure we have the right frequency of relevant meetings.  We can also eliminate time wasters by reducing the number of committees and appointing a “chief of staff”.  Whenever we meet, succinct pre-meeting materials instead of long PowerPoint decks are distributed ahead of time, so everyone comes to the leadership table well-prepared – to engage and share ideas and solutions.  For instance, it is standard practice for lean start-up meetings to consider value and growth hypotheses, by asking frank questions on whether a product should be built, not whether it can be built; or whether the team is to persevere or pivot in terms of strategy, experimentation and product development. 

When everyone comes well-prepared, each meeting becomes highly focused and productive, and ceases to be merely informational in nature.  Quarterly reviews are also preferred over yearly reviews, as they are much more up-to-date, time-sensitive and effective. 

Post-meeting, the “chief of staff” ensures proper coordination with other committees and follow-up actions.  Leaders running well-oiled enterprises also take it a step further and have a small pool of executives trained to wear the hat of “chief of staff” to guarantee flexibility, continuity and scalability. 

Delegation

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We have all been held up by leaders who moved at a snail’s pace or refused to loosen their grip on the reins.  Even in the ancient days of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, father-in-law Jethro gave Moses some very sound leadership advice: delegate.

Delegating decision-making is possible for non-mission-critical decisions.  It frees up the time of senior executives, enabling them to focus on critical decisions needed in strategic or higher level crisis management response for issues cutting across international borders with a global impact, as opposed to more localised issues within one country or territory. 

With less micromanaging, flatter structures, reduced red tape and bureaucracy, more responsibility can be given to frontline staff who are empowered yet held accountable to take the initiative and execute in a more timely manner.  

Leaders who are doing well right now are leveraging the trust they have invested in and established over the years.  They have built a network of teams, with proactive members who are doers and deciders.  Effective leaders have also cultivated extraordinary partnerships and alliances to integrate their systems and processes to work smarter together, across organisations, especially in times of crisis.

Immediate High Potential Talent Deployment

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Every cloud has a silver lining.  In this pandemic, the silver lining is the rapid emergence of leaders with high potential and capability.  Seasoned leaders can spot and immediately deploy talented individuals who boldly embrace new challenges and lead in the midst of crisis and uncertainty – newly discovered leaders who can make sound decisions, act decisively and persevere with purpose and courage.  It is in times like these that those who rise to the challenge are often not those others expect.  In such a business environment, there is also no time for hierarchy or rank. 

Organisations that manage to identify future leaders and quickly redeploy talent skillfully will naturally have an edge over their competition.

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Empowered Teams

The network of teams that a catalyst leader unleashes is essentially a synergistic inter-connected system of small, nimble, empowered teams that are focused and cross-functional, with strong performers and members representing different capabilities, learning quickly, and working autonomously.  

Agile organisations have had an edge in these turbulent times because they already have processes and structures available to them, such as cross-functional teams, quarterly business reviews, empowered frontline teams, and clear data on outputs and outcomes – all elements critical to adapting to the COVID-19 crisis, or any other crises in the future. They have adjusted faster, with minimal employee turmoil. Internally, organisations with business units that had gone agile long before the pandemic – focusing on customer satisfaction, employee engagement and operational performance – have all managed better during the current crisis.

Hybrid Work Arrangements

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On 27 July 2020, Google announced that its employees could work from home until July 2021.  It is the largest tech company to commit to WFH. Work arrangements are now becoming more flexible and varied, and include fully remote; hybrid remote; hybrid remote by exception; and on-site.  Working in a hybrid way means employees sometimes meet with colleagues in person on-site and sometimes work remotely.   While this hybrid work model has some challenges, it can also unlock significant value, including more satisfied employees, for those who have managed WFH well, and lower real-estate costs – anything from 30% to close to 100% cost savings.  There are also other benefits to a hybrid working model, including access to a broader range of talent, greater flexibility, and improved productivity. 

On the other hand, some team members have complained that WFH arrangements can cause energy drains and aggravated stress levels due to the frequent use of mobile devices, often late into the night; difficulties in setting boundaries, especially for those with young children at home; as well as social isolation and loneliness. 

Ways of getting around WFH challenges include listening to feedback and feed forward from team members; ensuring the prioritisation of tasks and mutually agreed upon timelines; and respecting the need for space and autonomy. Team members can in turn stay connected with colleagues and like-minded individuals; learn to saying “No” to time drains by setting boundaries; make time for healthy meals and exercise; and have a “digital detox”, especially from social media, to protect their time for sleep and rest, as well as to ensure mental health and work/life balance. 

Listen To The Still Small Voice

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In challenging times, it is the simple things that can truly make a difference. Additional ways to de-stress include making time for hobbies; volunteering to help those in need; writing a “Gratitude Letter” to a loved one or a good friend; counting our blessings by writing down “Three Good Things” that have happened at the end of each day; and practising Self-Compassion. Many people of faith also find peace and comfort through their daily quiet time, reading and meditating on the scriptures, and just being still before their Lord.

Whenever we do not know what to do, we should simply pause, get quiet, and try to listen to the still small voice within us.  It will tell us what to do. 

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Choice and Courage

According to Dr Lucy Hone, a resilience expert in Christchurch, New Zealand, resilient people acknowledge that suffering is part of the human existence; they tune into the good; and they rid themselves of unhelpful and harmful habits and practices.

So amidst all the gloom and doom, let us also be reminded of the insight of Viktor Frankl, the Viennese doctor and psychiatrist who survived four Nazi death and labour camps during World War II. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl wrote: “Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning…Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So how we choose to respond to any situation is really up to us. And how we choose to influence and lead others in the next normal is up to us too.


 The Horror Show (Optional reading)

  • On 27 July 2020, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that COVID-19 was “easily the most severe” global health emergency it had ever faced.
  • On 30 July 2020, the US economy output posted the largest quarterly fall on record with its GDP down 9.5% (3 months to 30 June 2020).
  • Eurozone economic activity fell 11.9% for April – June, with Spain the worst at -18.5%, its deepest in modern times. The UK posted its worst quarterly economic slump on record, -20.4% (April – June), pushing it into the largest recession worldwide. On 16 August 2020, Japan’s economy, the world’s third largest, posted its worst-ever decline, falling 7.8% (April – June quarter).
  • Globally, as of 22 August 2020, the WHO reported 22,812,491 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 795,132 deaths. (Click here for the latest figures.) According to Reuters, the first 10 million cases took almost six months and the second 10 million took only 43 days.
  • Countries initially applauded for having managed the pandemic well are now struggling with a second or third wave – on 2 August 2020, the Australian state of Victoria announced a state of disaster; New Zealand now has 101 active cases, after marking 100 days without community transmission of COVID-19 on 9 August 2020; South Korea is currently fighting another outbreak at a church in Seoul. Europe has also been fighting a new COVID-19 surge with Germany, France and Spain posting their largest daily infection totals for three months on 12 August 2020.
  • On 6 August 2020, a University of Washington study stated that the US COVID-19 death toll could reach 300,000 by 1 December 2020, with about 70,000 lives saved, if masks were worn consistently.
  • On 6 August 2020, COVID-19 detected cases in Africa passed one million, with 21,983 deaths. Four days before that, South Africa confirmed over 500,000 cases of COVID-19 with 10,107 deaths, the highest total on the African continent.
  • On 4 August 2020, the United Nations stated that the COVID-19 pandemic had created the biggest educational disruption in history, affecting nearly 1.6 million students in 190 countries, or 94% students worldwide. Yet reflecting the dilemmas of educators across the globe, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill became the first US college on 17 August 2020 to send students home and convert to online classes after 135 COVID-19 cases were detected.
  • Adding to its economic and political woes, huge explosions rocked Beirut, Lebanon, on 4 August 2020, killing more than 200 and leaving over 6,000 people injured. In less than a week, the Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the resignation of his government.

There is no time to discuss the largest-ever demonstration in Belarus, or the largest protests in Thailand in six years. Neither is there time to talk about the alarming true number of COVID-19 cases in Iran and Brazil, and the Arab world’s first nuclear power station in the UAE.  Nor is there time to talk about the largest floods in 70 years near Chengdu, China, or the hurricanes and wildfires in the USA.   (Note: On 6 July 2020, a report by the United Nations revealed that Zoonotic diseases, which jump from animals to humans, are increasing due to unsustainable farming and climate change.)

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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