Leadership Lessons from Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Mar 18, 2020 8 Min Read
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad
"Tun Mahathir had the opportunity to be the Nelson Mandela of Malaysia and take her forward. Instead, he decided to be a politician and play the political game. It was a recipe for disaster that I hope other leaders learn from."

At 94 years old, Malaysia’s seventh Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the oldest elected state leader in the world, with a mind sharper than many people half his age.

In a career of lifelong service in politics, Mahathir has set a remarkable example for each of us to follow as he continues to play an active role in the political makings of this country and helping to continue shaping its future.

They key question on many peoples’ minds – did he shape our country positively or continue to destroy the nation?
Before we explore this conundrum, let’s reflect briefly on Tun Mahathir and some of the positive elements of his leadership.

Mahathir: The reflective leader

In his second spell as Malaysia’s Prime Minister, it’s openly acknowledged by Tun Mahathir himself that he made mistakes in the past: no leader – no human – can expect to be perfect.

One of his endearing qualities is his willingness to continue reflecting on his past in an attempt to be better. By his words and example, he encourages all of us to learn from our past and to use valuable lessons today so that we can become a better version of ourselves tomorrow.

However, many today believe that Tun became so busy with the politics of his party (Bersatu) and its shenanigans that he did not take enough time to be reflective in his role. This spelt the end of his legacy.

While he retired after his first stint as Prime Minister (and was able to reflect and learn from his mistakes), today, his busyness doing the work as Prime Minister, and failure to reflect on the numerous mistakes made, may have resulted in his topple and fall from grace, losing his role as PM to his mentee and No. 2.

Amongst the key issues brought up by many over the course of his recent premiership was his support of race-based politics, which divided the nation rather than uniting it. He was also unaware of many ‘divisive’ and non-productive issues created by various ministers he appointed from his own party and was quickly regarded as an incompetent leader.

Leadership is very contextual. Tun came back to power at age 93 because of his reflective ability, yet he has lost this ability in the past couple of years in the office. He may never be regarded as the statesman leader he so craves to leave his legacy as if he continues to remain non-reflective.

Such is the power of reflection and introspection that when you fail to do it, you end up losing all your leadership capability.

Tun’s leadership mantra

In a speech at Setia City Convention Centre recently, he told onlookers that leadership isn’t rocket science, but a quality that can be developed and honed by living according to our principles and values.

In his speech, he talked about several ingredients that go into effective leadership; and, as someone who has had a great influence on the development of our country and the lives of its people, who better to learn from than one of Asia’s most respected leaders?

Let’s take a look at five key ingredients that Mahathir discussed in his speech to future leaders of Malaysia:

1. Integrity & honesty

Without these traits, a leader would be corrupt and untrustworthy, Mahathir warned. For some leaders, the temptation of using their position of power for their own advantage is too much to resist. For all leaders, that same temptation is sure to present itself, and so we must ensure that we maintain our honesty and integrity if we want to be effective leaders who serve a noble purpose.

Yet, this is one of the key reasons that led to the downfall and loss of legacy of Tun Mahathir. His lack of integrity in dealing with his own party and inability to eliminate dishonest individuals led to a revolt that ultimately cost him his job.

2. A willingness to work hard

This might seem like stating the obvious, but how many of us truly give even close to our all to whatever goal we set for ourselves? When we look at successful people, they work all the time in order to achieve their ambition. That doesn’t mean that we should work ourselves to death – even successful leaders know the importance of unwinding – but just imagine what we could achieve if we raised our game by just 20 per cent. The results we want don’t come by desire alone – we need to work for them. Yet, we also know that hard work alone is not enough. It has to be coupled with an authentic spirit and sincerity.

3. A hunger for knowledge and awareness of change

As Tun Mahathir advised, we need to be aware of changes and adapt accordingly, or risk being left behind. As we grow more experienced, we might encounter the pitfall of thinking we know it all and yet, we no longer talk about change in years or decades but in months. This is why lifelong learning is so important. But most important is to remain open and approach challenges and opportunities with a curious mind – this is how we become informed and able to move with the times.

4. Humility

This is such a critical component of leadership, and yet one that’s often overlooked. Especially in this part of the world, humility joins the ranks of understanding and compassion as being ‘weak’, such is the adherence to the Great Man theory of leadership that has become outdated. As Mahathir said in his speech:

Being humble does not make a leader weak. Instead it binds him with the people, those who supported him and makes him their leader. If a leader loses touch with his people and supporters, he ceases to be a leader.

Unfortunately for Tun, his own inability to stay in touch with the people and understand their issues resulted in his fall. No matter how great a leader is, they need to understand the importance of humility and not becoming proud and conceited.

5. Lead by example

More often than not, leaders are effective communicators, and can therefore talk a good game. However, as the life of any great leader shows (Mahathir’s included), their actions tell a far more powerful story than their words. In the end, words are easy – we can all say what we can, should and must do, and we can all describe our visions, aims and objectives.

The litmus test for any leader is what they do. How do you treat people? How do you conduct yourself? How do you set an example through your work? Do you expect more of yourself (and deliver) than you do of your people? The ability to lead by example is what inspires people to follow your vision – an ability that Mahathir has demonstrated from time to time but failed to at the very end. His inability to be true to his word (surrender power to Anwar Ibrahim and other promises made) and his silence as his party created a backdoor government that ultimately led to his demise, is a reminder to all leaders to always be true to their word and lead by example.

Talking the talk and walking the walk

If we look at the various elements Tun Mahathir speaks about many would question if he lives by the standards he sets out. Many claim that much of his wealth has been amassed by his political ties. His children’s wealth has also been called to question.

All said and done, I do believe that in his own eyes, Tun truly believes he is a man of integrity and works hard to better the nation. However, the litmus test would have been if he truly put structures in place to ensure integrity and honesty were practiced across the government institutions.

Now that he has lost his Premiership to his very own second in command, he may never be regarded as a great leader.

Many of the checks and balances in the government were destroyed during his first term in office. If he had managed to reinstitute these structures, he would have been regarded as a leader of integrity. This should have been one of his first actions when he took office this round.

However, he not only failed to do so, he played a key role in blocking many of the other MPs, especially from the DAP party, who were trying hard to clean up government agencies and institutions.

That being said, Tun Mahathir works very hard and has a hunger for knowledge and growth. No one can deny that his work ethic (especially for a person in his 90s) is beyond reproach. And he loves to grow and learn.

Tun Mahathir wanted to build a learning nation. Many in our country do not embrace a similar learning culture. He wanted his legacy to be of transforming Malaysia into a developed nation by 2020 but even there, he failed miserably, with Malaysia not even coming close to a developed country.

He hoped that he would enable Malaysians to be at the cutting edge of knowledge and a constantly growing nation, yet many of his race-based policies resulted in mediocrity and complacency, causing the nation to regress and see dives in productivity.

Finally, does Tun Mahathir pass his own test of humility and leading by example? He is definitely more humble than the previous prime minister, Najib Razak by leaps and bounds. There are no airs about him and he mingles with everyone comfortably. So, I would say he passes the humility test.

Lead with integrity to the very end, or risk being remembered not for what you are, but for what you should have been.

His biggest naysayers criticise him for his leadership. Many times, he leads by the “divide and conquer” rule. He constantly uses the race card to divide Malaysians. Instead of being a nation-builder uniting Malaysians (like how Nelson Mandela united South Africans in his term as President), he used the opposite approach. In the context of the 21st century, where people are more educated and have access to information, the latter approach may have earned him respect and status as a great world leader and statesman.

All in all, it is hard to dissect Tun Mahathir and his leadership. Now that he has lost his Premiership to his very own second in command, he may never be regarded as a great leader.

Tun Mahathir had the opportunity to be the Nelson Mandela of Malaysia and take her forward. Instead, he decided to be a politician and play the political game. It was a recipe for disaster that I hope other leaders learn from. Your legacy will be defined by your lows as much as your highs. Lead with integrity to the very end, or risk being remembered not for what you are, but for what you should have been.

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at www.roshanthiran.com


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