Exploring The Leadership Legacy Of Datuk Dr Fowzi

Jul 24, 2015 1 Min Read

Photo (above): The charismatic leader Datuk Dr Mohd Fowzi Bin Hj Razi (with microphone)

[First posted on Leaderonomics.com on 24 July 2015]
[Updated with podcast: 12 September 2015]
[Updated with video: 4 January 2016]

Leadership lessons learnt from a great Malaysian leader


On July 12, 2015, Datuk Dr Mohd Fowzi Bin Hj Razi, the executive managing director of Suria Capital Holdings Bhd passed away at his home in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Just a few weeks prior, I had spent an entire morning with him, learning and understanding his perspective on leadership. And suddenly, this highly-respected leader and a person I viewed as one of the best business leaders in Malaysia, had left us.

As the news of his sudden departure flashed on my mobile phone, I realised that I knew very little about his past, other than what he told me in the various “war” stories he used to illustrate his leadership journey. I knew he started out as an accountant in the Sabah State Civil Service in 1979 and worked his way up to become state treasurer, and later the permanent secretary of the Sabah State Ministry of Finance.

He took on a number of leadership roles, including becoming CEO/executive director of Sabah Bank Bhd and CEO (chief executive officer) of Innoprise Corporation, before being made the director of the Economic Planning Unit of Sabah in 2006.

Lesson 1: Charisma = Power x Love

As I reflected on the life of Datuk Fowzi, one word that best described him is “charismatic”. Yet, the charisma that he displayed was a potent combination of two completely opposite elements – power and love. He was a tall man. The moment you meet him, you immediately see him as a man of power and strength. Yet, as you speak to him, he shows warmth and kindness, and a love for people.

Most times, men of strength and power would stand in stark contrast to the warm and friendly folks. In business, we fear and respect ‘strength’ but label ‘warmth’ as weak. Yet, Datuk Fowzi was both – hence charisma – the power of strength that demanded your respect and reverence, and yet, his smile and warmth encouraged you to go near, feel at ease and feel connected.

Martin Luther King once said:

“One of the great problems of history is that the concept of power and love have usually been contrasted as opposites – what we need is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

Datuk Fowzi was one of the few Malaysian leaders I have met that evoked feelings of admiration for both his strength and his warmth. As I reflected on his life, I began asking myself this question: As leaders, what feelings do we invoke in others? Do people respect and look up to us as a leader of competence and strength, yet feel attracted and drawn to the warmth, and feel safe in our leadership circle?

It is not easy to look ourselves in the mirror and evaluate how people view us, but Datuk Fowzi had taught me that it is not enough to be revered, nor to be loved – you had to be revered and loved. And that was not something easily done. It would take years of building up respect and credibility to earn your “power” status.

It would take lots of effort to build trust and warmth with people you interact with daily, to earn your “love’ status. Yet, this man showed me that it was not impossible to achieve both elements in a seamless manner.

Lesson 2: Humility accelerates learning

Datuk Fowzi was a learned man, obtaining a bachelors in Australia, getting an MBA and MS from the University of Strathclyde before receiving a PhD in Economics from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Surprisingly, when you interact with him, you always get the feeling that he is intently listening to you and almost “learning” from you.

This need to learn from everyone came from great humility, believing that he was never the smartest person in the room and that there was always something he could learn from anyone in the room. This led him to really listen and ponder on each word heard. I am reminded by what I once heard from Larry King, which I believe Datuk Fowzi practised – “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”

He not only had the humility to listen to everyone, he also had a passion to constantly learn and keep improving. His HR (human resources) leader at Suria Group, Junita Tajul Arrifin described him as a “working encyclopaedia” or “Fowzipedia”. He read voraciously and collected books for fun.

Junita adds, “His knowledge from reading helped him to come out with new innovations, directions and projects that benefits Suria Group. He encouraged us to read constantly. He was very passionate about knowledge and constantly pushed us to learn new things. Once, he was perplexed on why his team could not finish reading the books he assigned them. He would frequently finish reading a 400-page book during a flight to Kuala Lumpur from Kota Kinabalu.”

Another Suria leader Kai Ling adds, “Datuk would often make us read management books, especially on leadership, and make us share what we had read and how it would apply in our work.”

As I reflected on this aspect of Datuk Fowzi’s life, I had to ask a few questions:

  1. Am I humble enough to learn from everyone?
  2. Do I truly believe there is something to be learnt from everyone in the room?
  3. Am I going to listen intently to be able to truly draw out lessons and learnings?
  4. Do I passionately and continuously seek to improve everything I do?
  5. Am I reading constantly and seeking new knowledge and insights?

Lesson 3: “Turun Padang” literally means “turun ke padang”

Many CEOs like to mutter about their willingness to turun padang and mingle with their lowest level employees. The reality is that most leaders have the desire to turun padang to hear what is happening in the ‘battlefields’ and customer touchpoints of their organisations, but many never actually know how to do this.

Often, leaders will organise townhall sessions and have a Q&A session at the end, hoping to “hear” the heartbeat and battle stories faced by the frontline of their organisations. Some may resort to special one-off events to mingle with the masses. Unfortunately, most never manage to do it consistently.

Datuk Fowzi was an exception. He devised numerous ways to spend quality time not only with his leadership team, but also the employees from all levels of his organisation. Ng Kiat Min, the Group CFO (chief financial officer) mentioned that “he would find any opportunity to mingle with the employees regardless of their ranks and positions. He exuded enthusiasm in participating and officiating in almost any staff function.”

Datuk Fowzi also devised an annual ritual to spend a good portion of a week with a small group of 10–15 employees across various divisions and levels in the Group. He termed it the Maliau Basin Expedition. Each year, this group of employees would go on an adventure together with Datuk Fowzi, where they would live, talk, survive and bond together.

The Maliau Basin Conservation Area, referred by many as “Sabah’s Lost World”, is located deep in the remote interior of North Borneo. It is reported that only 30% of the area has been explored since its first recorded expedition in 1988. The basin is rich in flora and holds the highest density of primates and wild cats.

Datuk Fowzi took different groups of employees there each year to really get to know them, their stories and their struggles. Nothing builds friendship and trust with the CEO as spending time in a jungle filled with wild cats and the unknowns.

As I reflected on this annual pilgrimage, I thought about leaders who are able to guide organisations to greater heights. They are the ones who know the pulse and heartbeat of its organisation at all its level. These are leaders who can then sense danger and are able to see reality as it is. Having a direct connection and being able to bond with employees all across the organisation is a powerful leverage great leaders should have.

Noor Afzalinah Mohd Afzul Khan, another leader at Suria adds:

“To a lot of us, he was a charismatic and people-centric leader who was generous with staff, took care of their welfare and would spend time bonding with them. It is his sincerity and care towards staff that earned him so much respect from them.”

Lesson 4: Culture is king

Many of my discussions with Datuk Fowzi centred on driving cultural change. He was a firm believer that culture was often a neglected element in driving high performance. We both shared the view that generally, most people do not come to work trying to do a bad job. Most people want to perform well in their roles.

However, they are constrained by numerous issues which includes leadership, systems/structures (internal infrastructure), business models and culture. Whilst most CEOs focused on fixing the other issues, culture seems to always be relegated to HR (human resources) and never on most leaders’ radar.

Datuk Fowzi was different. Even during my first meeting with him almost three years ago, he brought up the issue of culture. He believed culture was essentially made up of our “beliefs”. If our beliefs do not change, no matter how much we try to drive change, our actions and results will remain the same.

He knew that the only way to drive change was to start by changing the beliefs of each of his employees. Thus, he spent a lot of time thinking about how to devise cultural change at Suria.

He also believed that leaders had to role model the aspired culture. In fact, creating a culture of showing appreciation was something he personally role-modelled.

According to Kai Ling:

“He was a man who stood by his principles and was firm on his decisions. He had full respect for people and was compassionate about nature. He was approachable and he would genuinely show his appreciation to those who perform. Little gestures such as “thank you” after a presentation made us feel appreciated.”

To him, culture was an evolutionary process, not revolutionary. It had to constantly evolve. Whilst values are timeless, culture had to be revisited and intentionally designed for the specific phase in an organisation. There is a need for a productivity culture as the organisation goes through a productivity cycle. But then culture has to evolve as the organisation goes through the next phase of growth and development. It cannot be something static.

This insight enabled him to constantly look at intentionally creating rituals and experiences for his employees that were designed to “tweak” their beliefs. By purposefully crafting culture, organisation can avoid falling into the trap of allowing culture to be dictated by disengaged employees or external forces. Culture must be aligned to the goals and purposes of the organisation.

This raises a question for all of us: Are we intentionally designing and crafting our organisational culture? Is our culture supporting our vision and growth, or is it hindering it?

Lesson 5: It is never too early to build the future

Datuk Fowzi brought me and my Leaderonomics team to Suria to help build a succession pool. Even though he could have remained in the role for many more years, he was looking to ensure his legacy was a legacy of people. He wanted his replacement to be better than himself.

He knew that people were critical to the success of his organisation. Yet, he realised that if he focused on people only, he would end up pampering them. He knew that to build great leaders in Suria, he needed to focus on processes. He worked tirelessly with his leadership team to build their capabilities, competencies and aspirations. More importantly, he had begun the process of instituting organisational processes for building leaders, talent management and people development.

He always argued that process was far more important than people. If we had great processes, we could develop, manage and retain great people. As I reflected on his statement, a question that we all have to ask ourselves is: Are we committed to building “people” processes? Are we truly building the future if we are not building our people?

Yet, he truly cared about people. Again, it may seem contradictory for someone to focus on processes, yet care. Junita reiterates:

“He was a leader who genuinely cares about his people. He treated his people with respect, no matter what level of the organisation those people operate in. He respected people as individuals, regardless of race, working background or religion.”

When people knew he truly cared for them, they were more than willing to be subjected to various ‘processes’ for growth and development, even when the experience may seem painful. When care is combined with a rigorous process, this is how great leaders are built. It’s the same with great athletes who have coaches; they know their coaches truly care for them, yet push them hard. Datuk Fowzi was one such coach.

Datuk Fowzi and Roshan
Datuk Fowzi (left) presenting a token of appreciation to Roshan in March 2015.

Final thoughts

Datuk Fowzi – you will be sorely missed by your family, your employees and all of us at Leaderonomics. You taught us many life, leadership and humanity lessons. We are forever grateful for having known you and being a part of your legacy. We will ensure we apply the many lessons you have taught us. Thank you and rest in peace.

For the corresponding audio related to this tribute, listen to this BFM podcast by Roshan:

For the corresponding Be A Leader video related to this article, watch this video:

Roshan Thiran is CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise. Roshan and the Leaderonomics team are still grieving over the loss of this great leader but are determined to ensure the legacy that Datuk Fowzi has built will continue to grow into something mighty and wonderful. For more Be A Leader articles, click here.

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Lay Hsuan was part of the content curation team for Leaderonomics.com, playing the role of a content gatekeeper as well as ensuring the integrity of stories that came in. She was an occasional writer for the team and was previously the caretaker for Leaderonomics social media channels. She is still happiest when you leave comments on the website, or subscribe to Leader's Digest, or share Leaderonomics content on social media.

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