May 23, 2011

The Long-Desired Leader

This is the article that got me 2nd place in the Article Writing Competition during Perubatan's Medicophilic Month 2011. It's a little bit long, sorry. And believe me, not that great. So, please no judging or criticizing, ok :p

Sociologists tell us that even the most introverted person will influence ten thousand other people during his or her lifetime. In other words, leadership naturally comes as an innate aptitude or a default setting in every individual, without exception. Everybody will somehow lead and be lead in an aspect of our life or another. This pretty much reminds me of a hadis narrated by Ibnu Umar which reminds us that everyone of us is a leader, and we will be held accountable for the people we led.

People always associate great leadership with a number of things: circumstance, timing, luck, or natural talent. But not many are able to realize that leadership skills and knowledge are the most important tools in creating a great leader.

Nobody is 'born to be a leader'. That is overrated, if you ask me. To be influential, one has to develop a very high sense of understanding of the people he leads and remarkable communication skills. And in order to acquire those qualities, it necessitates strong determination and tremendous efforts, not just a specific ‘leadership gene’ that one inherits, even if he is a prince in a monarchic kingdom in which the power of ruling will be passed down as a hereditary right.

According to a research conducted by a renowned psychologist, Dr. Benjamin Bloom, based on his anonymous interviews with the top twenty performers in various fields, the report stated conclusively that drive, determination, and desire, not great natural talent, led to the extraordinary success of these individuals.

It is agreed then, that natural aptitude plays some very little role in establishing an illustrious leadership in an individual. But the question remains here. What does academic achievement have to do with being a successful leader? Is it really a crucial component in assuring one's influence on others?

Well, history shows us a very clear pattern on the priority set by most of the world-class leaders throughout the world. Those who made it to the top and got recognized internationally have spent their fair share of time in some prestigious institutions.

Take the 44th and current President of the United States for example. Barack Obama graduated from two of the most prestigious universities in that country; Columbia University and Harvard Law School in 1983 and 1991 respectively. He then served as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School for twelve years as a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996, and as a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004 teaching constitutional law. He is not merely a product of some overhyped campaigns like most of the political candidates nowadays are. That is why he succeeded in smashing the previous presidential mould and got elected by the United States citizens to be their first African-American president.

And who would be a better example of our own leader when talking about leadership than our 4th Prime Minister. Unlike the others who preceded him, Tun Mahathir did not come from The Malay ruling elite. He endured a very difficult life as a child. He was just the son of a former schoolteacher when he first got involved in politics. So nobody was there to give him the advantage when climbing up the political ladders other than his academic credentials and his leadership qualities. But in just 22 years he has proven himself worthy and was granted the sobriquet of Bapa Pemodenan (Father of Modernization) for his magnificent efforts to promote the economic development of the country and emblematically put Malaysia on the world map.

Even the most humble-looking political leader like Gandhi himself did not fail to follow this pattern. Who in the world would ever think for a second that Gandhi is actually a law graduate from University College London back in the 1890's? As hard as it is to believe, he has clearly proven to the world that in order to give great influence to others to the extent that he was able to initiate the civil rights movement in South Africa from 1893 to 1914 and responsible for the independence of India in the 1940’s, academic achievement is a nonnegotiable option.

To demonstrate the vitalness of academic achievements in leading one’s country, let me just reveal an ugly truth on the obvious difference between a developing country and a developed country. You are not going to like it, and some might even see it as offensive. But to prove my point, I am just going to spill it, no matter what it costs me.

See, although Malaysia and Singapore are just two countries located beside each other, one can see the huge difference in terms of development and technology advancement between them. One of the thought-provoking hypotheses that was proposed is the presence of huge difference between the academic credentials of Malaysian and Singapore Cabinet Ministers. While most of Singapore Ministers graduated with at least a master’s degree from various prominent universities in the world such as Harvard, Yale, and Imperial College in London, some Malaysian Ministers on the other hand did not even graduate from any university, be it local or abroad, thus rendering their ability to handle their portfolio assigned to them questionable.

If we were to narrow the scope a little bit, it is also inarguable that the head of a certain department in any institutions should be the one with the most knowledge on that particular subject. A head of the Neurosurgery department for instance, must be the one who is considered as the most knowledgeable and skillful among the other neurosurgeons available. Of course leadership materials are important factors too, but in order to make sound judgments and crucial decisions, it surely requires enough eligibility as to avoid any malpractice that could compromise the credibility of the whole department that represents the reliability of the hospital.

We are always reminded of the phrase, “We cannot give what we don’t have.” It is a simple math, indeed. A leader with inadequate knowledge on a particular field cannot be much of a help to others that he leads. This is agreed by one of the most prominent figures in leadership training worldwide, John Maxwell. He said in his book, 25 Ways to Win with People, “There are people who possess good hearts and the desire to give, yet they have very little to offer. Why? Because they have not first added value to themselves. Making yourself more valuable is not an entirely selfish act. When you acquire knowledge, learn a new skill, or gain experience, you not only improve yourself, but you also increase your ability to help others.”

But it is a little bit unfair to be talking about knowledge and academic achievements only, when there is one more factor which is as important, if not more, as these components. What else could it be other than your attitude. We often hear the saying, “It is your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude.” Despite the fact that it rhymes perfectly, it somehow manages to convey the message entirely. Natural talent without positive attitude is just plain moot.

Leadership is influence. People catch our attitudes just like they catch our colds – by getting close to us. It is important as a leader that I possess a great attitude, not only for my own success, but also for the benefit of others. A leader without proper attitudes, no matter how talented he is in a certain field, will only repulse others. I love the proverb that says, “He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.” If you cannot influence people, then they will not follow you. And if people won’t follow, you are not a leader.

A leader with good attitudes will always look for a way to understand other people, sacrifice for them, point out people’s strengths, see within the larger context and put any form of personal gain aside, remember people’s good days, not their bad ones, give positive energy to the surroundings, provide stepping stones for other’s success, maintain motivation, be one of the environmental change agents in the workplace atmosphere, put people in their strength zone, celebrate success, practice listening skills, and so many more.

Of course all of those desirable qualities could not be all attained overnight. The adjustment of our attitudes is a lifelong project. We choose what attitude we have right now, and it is a continuing choice which we have to make every day. This is the attitude of a – as the famous author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey put it – ‘proactive’ person.

One of the most important leadership components which is worth discussing is the communication skill. John W. Gardner, the former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson observed, "If I had to name a single all-purpose instrument of leadership, it would be communication."

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who is the most influential leader throughout history, as the author Michael H. Hart put it in his book, ‘The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History’, possessed a very exceptional communication skill the world has ever seen. Manners-wise, he was the incarnation of the Holy Quran. It doesn’t come as a surprise when the Islamic historians told us that many of disbelievers embraced Islam during the Prophet’s time just by seeing the attitude showed by him.

When talking, for example, he was so polite that everybody who listened was pleased. Sometimes he repeated what he said three times, as to make sure the listener hears it clearly. He also spoke in accordance to the intellectual level of those he addressed something to, as not to make it hard for them to perceive what he was trying to say.

The Quran has shown us many communication tips for Muslims to be implemented in their daily lives. One of them is mentioned in Surah Al-kahfi verse 93 in the form of a narration of a great leader, Zulqarnain. He was portrayed as having succeeded in conquering the East and the West during his reign; hence the name, which literally translated to ‘the one who possesses two horns (East and West)’, and one of the components of his success was his distinct communication skills, which was so good that he managed to solve the problems of those residing between the mountains despite the language barrier between them.

Listening skills were also given a similar emphasis in the Quran. In surah an-Naml verse 20, it was mentioned that prophet Solomon (peace be upon him), despite his enormous kingdom and immense ruling power, still spared some time to hear the explanation of a small hoopoe bird regarding its ‘AWOL’, if you may, as not to pronounce any unjust judgment on anybody, even a small bird. This is a must-have quality for a successful leader. Without it, followers will no longer give their full respect and undivided support a leader deserves, because they feel like they are not a part of the team in any decision-making process.

In a nutshell, it is undeniably true that a true leader must possess utmost intelligence, immense knowledge, and critical mind to be able to create positive shock waves the world needs nowadays, not just some natural aptitudes one is born with. Some complementary leadership elements are equally important too, and these, together with the academic credentials one is equipped with, will definitely produce a long-desired leader the world has always waited for.

To conclude, let me just share what a Noble Price winner in Literature, George Bernard Shaw once said about the most intellectual person the world has ever seen, “I believe that if a man like Muhammad were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving its problems in a way that would bring it much-needed peace and happiness".

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