The Twin Enemies Of National Transformation

Sep 02, 2016 1 Min Read
skyline of Kuala Lumpur


The celebration of a nation’s independence signals the beginning of a transformation process that goes right down to the root of the leadership mindset because it embodies the hopes and aspiration of every citizen.

As the weight of the national dream lays heavy on the leaders of the country, the first task of leadership at a national level is the establishment of a united and common identity. The principle is that of knowing first who we are before deciding what we should do. It is identity before implementation.

Man holding up an "I'm Malaysian" banner

During the 1997 Asian financial crisis, certain countries were able to weather the tough times better than others. It is my observation that countries with a common culture and heritage were able to rally the spirit of their citizens better than those with fragmented identities.

Think about it.

When an organisation is facing a moment of crisis, will brandishing the balance sheet and profit statement in front of employees rally the spirit of everyone together? Countries with a common identity have an underlying DNA that motivates people of every level to rally together, even when times are tough.

Even in the organisational context, those who turn in sustainable high performance are those who are not only clear about what they sell but also on what the organisation stands for.

The first enemy

The basic unit of leadership is not how we perform as a nation, but rather it is how we are performing as families. If we as Malaysians seek to be transformed as a nation, we need to ask ourselves whether if we as a family are clear about what we communicate to our children concerning our history and heritage.

The test of whether we have truly matured in our national identity is not what is communicated on the official channels but what is conversed at the dining table in homes.

What I tell my children at home about who we are as Malaysians bears significant weight to their understanding on who they will eventually become.

The first enemy of national transformation is a poor understanding of history

History is more than a collection of facts, dates and information. History provides an anchoring for right actions and decisions. Imagine this: if a country goes to war, how will the soldiers be motivated to fight, how can the leaders rally the citizens together for the cause? Without the right understanding of history, we would not know what we are fighting to protect.

No wonder, in civilisations’ past, when a new dynasty takes over, they waste no time in destroying the books, relics and artefacts of the past generation. In other words, no remnants of past history is spared because it might distract the agenda of the new regime.

So, what are my leadership responsibilities when it comes to inculcating the right understanding of history?
1. Be prepared to listen to a wide perspective of the past without prejudice.
2. Engage the younger generation in active conversation rather than “down-talk.”
3. Appreciate the contribution of the older generations who have gone before me.

Understanding the nation’s history is not about nostalgia, it is about learning from the past. As George Santayana once said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

My personal leadership example at home with my family – what I tell my children, how the truth is presented and the connection to historical lessons – is an important part of the national transformation journey.

The second enemy

The basic requirement of a leader is that of having a good reputation. In fact, a Middle-Eastern proverb states: A good name is better than silver or gold. Unfortunately, in today’s age of political mud-slinging, many leaders try to look good by making others look bad.

For such situations, the degree of one’s reputation is determined not by one’s character but by comparing with others worse than us. This is a quick way to gain an image of leadership but it will not earn the integrity of leadership.

The second enemy of national transformation is the habit of playing the blame game

The mark of a wise leader is not someone who never makes a mistake. Rather, it is someone who quickly owns up when a mistake is committed and takes personal responsibility to right the wrong with the commitment to make necessary restitutions.

Transformation fails when everyone is putting up a front and pretending that nothing is wrong. This is further compounded when no one steps up to the plate and starts finger-pointing. It is a game where everyone loses and nobody wins.

So, what are my leadership responsibilities when it comes to stopping the blame game?
1. Be humble enough to admit my mistakes and not let my ego get in the way.
2. Regularly solicit for feedback and really listen.
3. Take ownership to ask, “What else can I do?”

If you think about it, so much productivity is wasted in meetings where the focus is on finding out who is to blame rather than for every team member to come to grips on what really needs to be done. If the national pastime is for people to complain and murmur in coffee shops, just talking and pointing fingers, then we will have an army of armchair critics rather than transformational leaders.

Understanding the nation’s history is not about nostalgia, it is about learning from the past. As George Santayana once said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

There is something very wrong with the state of leadership when the only way to earn credibility is by discrediting others. A good name is earned by being blameless, not by blaming.

The one challenge

The single most important challenge for any national leadership is that of rallying everyone to a cause worth fighting for. Without a cause worth fighting for, the tendency is to be calculative and inward looking.

At every level of leadership – national, organisational or in the family – the main focus is to craft a cause that looks beyond the boundaries of discrimination and the pitfalls of corruption. The twin enemies, a poor understanding of history and the habit of playing the blame game, will thrive if we as leaders in our own field of influence do not define a unified cause for our followers.

National transformation can only happen when every individual takes on personal accountability to rise above personal differences and work towards a purposeful vision. Attaining our independence is only the starting point, the commitment to interdependence is the next key to united transformation.

Are you willing to do your part?

Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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Tags: Transformation & Change

Joseph is a Leaderonomics faculty trainer who is passionate about engaging with leaders to transform culture in organisations. Previously, he was CEO of Leaderonomics Good Monday. He is currently based in the United States

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