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Thursday, 14 July 2011

Drive an Old Volvo

Dr Michael Jeyakumar, community organizer extraordinaire, is an icon of humble service in Sungai Siput. Using the principles of community organizing – the same principles employed by the young Barack Obama in the southside of Chicago – Kumar has given voice to the voiceless and rallied farmers, squatters and the dispossessed to fight for their rights. (He has been arrested many times for his work, most recently during the run-up to the Bersih 2.0 rally).

Dr Jeyakumar leads with minimal power, position or possessions. How do you do that?

One way is to drive an old Volvo. Dr Kumar, a specialist in internal medicine and a member of Parliament, could easily go places with a motorcade or at least a chauffeur-driven limousine. Instead he chooses to arrive at a ceramah in a partially rusted car. His Volvo sends a message, loud and clear, that he does not care about pomp or pageantry. He has no driver. He’s here to serve. He’ll roll up his sleeves, and he’ll do the work himself. The car itself sends other messages: safe, built like a tank, reliable, unstoppable, trustworthy. And that’s how Kumar has been regarded by his constituents.

Upward mobility is the norm in life. Driving a flashy Ferrari – and parking it in front of a ritzy hotel – symbolizes that. In contrast, driving the old Volvo is the radical practice of leadership through downward mobility. It is the belief that, in order to be accorded the rights of leadership, we must first become a servant. If we want respect from people, we must first earn their respect. We do not demand for our personal rights and entitlements; we fight for the rights of others.

How do we drive an old Volvo? Slowly, of course.

Jokes aside, to be honest, I don’t care about driving an actual old Volvo. But I am deeply inspired by Dr Kumar’s underlying philosophy in cultivating a lifestyle of downward mobility. Great leaders do this.

Dato’ Dr. Kim Tan, a Malaysian-born biotechnologist and social entrepreneur who has listed two companies on the stock exchange in London, says: “We can all choose to drive smaller cars, fly economy class or eat in hawker centers, rather than drive luxury cars, fly first class or dine in classy restaurants. At the same time, we should not judge those who live a high lifestyle.” For years Kim Tan drove a Morris Minor until it vaporized in a dust cloud of rust.

The billionaire Warren Buffett, who has pledged to give away 99% of his wealth, drove a 2001 Cadillac DTS for years before auctioning it off for charity.

Here’s how I’m trying to drive an old Volvo, figuratively:

1. I share one car with my wife … instead of both of us driving two cars. It’s more hassle. But sharing a car gives me the excuse and courage to say no to useless meetings (“Sorry, my wife’s needs it”). Plus it’s good for our marriage. We have great conversations during long drives.

2. I bought a home that’s two or three notches less expensive than my peers’. It’s tempting to live in a prestigious neighborhood where rising property prices. But I love my simple home and debt-free life. Our money and time are freed up, so we can venture out and serve in new ways.

3. Cut down on restaurant dining. We invite friends to our home for simple meals. Besides cutting down on money and MSG, we’re able to enjoy meaningful conversations that usually lead to new possibilities.

4. No maids. My wife and I do it all ourselves: cooking, cleaning, washing and parenting. Sometimes we feel tied down and tired out by endless chores. But we’ve learned lots of lessons about life through simple duties. And we have huge respect for maids who do their jobs with excellence.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with owning several cars (whose brand names end with ‘i’) and all that. Please don’t kill me if I overtake you in a Maserati, with a maid in the backseat, as my wife and I head off to the Ritz Carlton for high tea.

So, here’s the question: How will you drive your old Volvo?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Eagle and the Hen

Once upon a time, an eagle's egg ended up in a barn where a hen was hatching her eggs. Weeks passed. And the little eaglet was hatched with the other chickens. The eagle ran happily on the straw pecking for grain with the other chickens.

But as time passed, the eaglet felt the urge to fly. "When will you teach me how to fly?" it said to its mother, the hen.

The mother hen knew she couldn't fly and did not know how to teach the young eagle in the art of flight. But she was too ashamed. "Not yet, my child. I will teach you when you are ready," she said.

Months passed. The eagle by now figured out that the mother didn't know how to fly. And though the eagle wanted to fly, it could not get itself to break loose and fly on its own. Its deepest instinct to soar high had become confused with the gratitude it felt toward the mother bird that hatched it.

This story is told by a spiritual guru Antony de Mello.

This is a chilling story. There are so many ways we can hinder ourselves, or hinder others, out of good intent.

We hinder ourselves when we do not listen to our deepest desires. We tell ourselves, "I should be grateful for this or that." We settle for less. We stay stuck to the ground when we should be flying.

We can also do this to others. As a parent I am aware that one day I might be tempted to hold back my son from fulfilling his potential because I want him too much for myself.

When I was eighteen, I can still see my parents waving goodbye tearfully at the airport as I walked through the security gates to board the plane that would fly me to America. I left home that day. Yes, I returned to Malaysia, and I often returned to visit my parents, but I had left home. I am amazed by their ability to let me go. I admire and love my parents because they did not hinder my desire to fly.

This story also makes me think of my country, Malaysia. The government has enforced a bunch of laws and policies that essentially says that we are not yet ready. Not yet ready for free speech. Not yet ready for full equality. Not yet ready for a level playing ground. My country tells me, "I will teach you how to fly when you are ready, but not yet. Meanwhile, learn to be grateful for how I have taken care of you."

I am a big believer of gratitude. Let us be grateful for our family, our mothers and fathers, and for daily blessings.

But this story of the hen and the baby eagle reveals to me the dark side of gratitude -- especially when it smothers our heart's deepest desires.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Who will you relate to today?

Earlier, I posed a dilemma: could my world-famous mentor be wrong?

He once said: "Who you relate to is more important than what you do."

But the opposite sounds just as good. What you do is more important than who you relate to.

For instance, when we introduce ourselves to a stranger, we ask, "And what do you do?" Nobody ever asks, "Hi, who do you relate to?" That's weird.

We also spend most of our time thinking of what we do. "What do I do now?" we ask ourselves when we're stuck. Our jobs, career and livelihood revolve around what we do. We don't spend much time thinking about who we relate to.

Furthermore, action matters. "All the best leadership theories are worth nothing without execution," Salleh Tabrani, a top airline executive once told me in an interview. Our actions -- what we do -- give us credibility and identity.

All that is good commonsense.

But Prof. James Houston, my mentor and founder of a renown graduate school of theology, is remarkable for his counterintuitive commonsense.

The quality of our relationships, and the people we relate with, may be more important than the actions and accomplishments we achieve. This dynamic gets more and more important the older we grow and the higher up in leadership we rise.

We've seen Type A managers who work like crazy trying to get things done without caring about people. They may climb the lower rungs doing this, for sure. But it comes at a cost. These managers are usually stressed out, and they stress others out. More importantly, when they rise to the top, their inability to relate with people cripples their ability to get things done.

Ultimately, it's our relationships, not our jobs, that give us our greatest identity. What we do matters a lot, obviously. But one day, when we grow old, what we do will diminish. We retire from work. Our bodies grow frail. At some point we have no choice but to stop defining ourselves by what we do.

That's when it becomes absolutely crucial that we've spent the bulk of our lives focusing on who we relate to.

I see this in Dr Houston's life. In his old age, I see that he is regarded as a mentor and a wise one because of the quality of his relationships, and the people who seek him out, and the people whom he seeks out. His life is rich, full and deep ... thanks to all the relationships he has cultivated intentionally over the years.

In your workplace today: are you mostly preoccupied with all the things you have to do? Or will you rewire your brain to focus on the people you will relate with today?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Could my mentor be wrong?

"Who you relate to is more important than what you do."

James M. Houston, a former Oxford professor who founded a world-famous theological institution, wrote this. He's now in his late-80s. But his mind is as sharp as ever. Leaders from all over the world seek his counsel and wisdom. He's a mentor's mentor. He's also well-known for uttering profound epithets -- such as the one above.

I sought him out as my mentor years ago. He lived in Vancouver. Early in the morning, I'd pedal my mountain bike, up and down seven hills, to reach his house overlooking the gorgeous sea. We'd walk together for 45 minutes. I'd ask him questions, and he'd respond. He's one of the wisest people I've ever known.

But what if Houston is wrong on this count?

Let's flip the thing around: What you do is more important than who you relate to.

That sounds pretty good, too, doesn't it?

What do you think? Which statement holds more truth especially in your current workplace?

And does it matter?

Monday, 20 June 2011

One Thing You Must Do to Survive (and Thrive) When You're Really Stuck

Last week I told you about how Angela, a news anchorwoman in Hong Kong, faced a no-win situation.

Her boss wanted her to charge companies hefty ad fees for featuring the companies on her TV show. That appeared to be a highly unethical move for a top journalist such as Angela. Should she draw the line (and risk killing her meteoric career) or should she kow tow to the boss (and kill her credibility)?

Amazingly enough, Angela did neither. She proposed that companies featured on her current show would be asked to provide sponsorship for the next company that would appear next. She came out with a win-win-win solution.

Her boss was pleased with the additional revenues; Angela was given a free hand to uphold journalistic integrity; and the companies were motivated to ensure their hefty sponsorship dollars were spent on deserving companies -- which created a virtuous spiral.

Brilliant, huh?

Leadership gurus such as Roger Martin, author of the Opposable Mind, offer decision-making tools to help us raise our thinking to a higher level. Roger's power tip: "Whenever you face a decision between two options, don't think that your job is to choose; think that your job is to create a better option."

But here's the thing. Angela didn't know about Roger Martin's work. She didn't turn to McKinsey or BCG either.

And Angela insists that she didn't use her wits. In fact, she was at wits' end. She had really wanted to quit.

So what did Angela do -- when pushed to sheer desperation, and forced to make an important decision?

She prayed. That is the singular and most important thing she did throughout her crisis, as Angela tells me. She is completely unapologetic about it.

Most people I know divorce religion from work. But in my research on extraordinary leaders in Malaysia, I've discovered that most extraordinary leaders possess a deep faith in God -- and they bring their faith to work. Here are three examples:

a) Idris Jala, who successfully turned around a failing airline, told McKinsey in an interview that one of his six leadership principles is a deep belief in divine intervention. Idris' principle, stated simply, says that we are not in control of life. Only God is in control. So we'd better pray!

b) Tan Sri Jemilah Mahmood, the founder of MERCY Malaysia, told me that prayer connects her with God and deepens her awareness of God's love. This awareness, that she is deeply held by God, has sustained her in her dangerous work of saving lives in Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Aceh and North Korea.

c) Phua Seng Tiong, a former Tokoh Guru and Pengetua Cemerlang, told me that he prays every time he talks to a student or a teacher. He attributes prayer and his relationship with God as the secret to his success in transforming bottom-ranked SMK Jinjang high school into an academic powerhouse.

So what did Angela pray about -- and what are some tips we can learn from her on how to seek divine intervention?

1. Pray for your people. In the midst of the crisis, Angela continued praying for her TV viewers, her staff, and even her boss. Angela had a deep trust that God loves and cares for His people.

2. Turn to the Sacred Texts for inspiration. Angela, who's a Christian, read her Bible an hour everyday before being plunged into the crazy vortex of work. Meditating on the Bible anchored her. Everyday, she's reminded that she's safe in God's care.

3. Ask God for help. Specifically, Angela asked for God's Spirit to raise her spirit to a higher level. Her prayer protected her from self-pity, misery and anger -- especially toward her abrasive boss. Instead of discouragement, she focused on courage.

4. Keep on going. Praying isn't passive. Angela persisted in using her wits to find solutions and persuade clients to give sponsorships and encourage her staff. She didn't do nothing because God was doing everything. Instead she saw herself as God's active coworker and partner.

Here's one of her prayers to Lord Jesus Christ which she shared with me: "Lord, thank you for letting me know that I am your child -- a child of God. I'm sorry that I complain and felt like giving in to pressure and wanting to quit. In my weakness you show me your strength. I dare not think of anything profound or lofty. I am like a weaned child in a mother's arms -- no panic and anxiety. Through these challenges, you have led me into close encounter with you."

Are you struck by how Angela, who dare not think of anything profound or lofty, ended up coming up with a brilliant business decision?

Do you believe prayer really makes a difference in how she leads her life and leads others?

One thing i know: I am simply amazed by how this highly successful news anchor -- who has thrived in Hong Kong's dog-eat-dog media world -- finds herself so utterly dependent on divine providence. Angela's a rare gem!