By LAY HSUAN, LIM
Stargazing at night as a child outside the house while singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star really made me wonder what the universe is like out there beyond planet Earth. Although it makes us earthlings feel small in the midst of the many galaxies, it also helps us appreciate the magnificent creation of the almighty Creator (though some will dispute this with the Big Bang theory).
The universe and space exploration have always fascinated mankind because of its enigmatic nature of the unknown. In conjunction with Merdeka Day (Aug 31) and Malaysia Day (Sep 16), The Leaderonomics Show caught up with our very own trailblazer in the field of astronomy and astrophysics, and that’s none other than Datuk Mazlan Othman.
We learnt some of her career and leadership insights in pioneering projects with great national interests such as the setting up of the National Planetarium in 1993 and the Malaysian astronaut programme in 2003–2007.
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From our interview, here are four key takeaways from Mazlan.
1. Know what you want and pursue it
Mazlan was initially groomed by her parents to enter the medical field even though she knew her interest was in physics. She thought that if she couldn’t do physics, she had a back-up plan to do neuroscience.
Fate has it that she received a 1981 Colombo Plan scholarship to read physics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. It was in the land of The Hobbits that she discovered the beauty of astrophysics, which essentially is the physics of the stars and astronomy.
According to Mazlan, astronomy itself is a conducive ground for imagination without boundaries as it’s also closely related to aesthetics, philosophy and religion – areas which remained close to her heart till this day.
Object lesson: As a leader, you have to be aware of yourself before you invest your time and effort into an endeavour. Let not anyone determine your life’s direction, but carve one on your own. Once you find that passion, pursue it relentlessly. At the same time, be wise to have Plan B in case your original plan doesn’t work out.
2. Be curious and ignite your creativity
“Doing my doctorate in New Zealand back then was tough because it wasn’t well equipped with the latest technology, unlike other universities in the United States or United Kingdom,” reveals Mazlan.
However, there was a blessing in disguise in that experience, as it pushes her to think outside the box for alternative solutions. It helps her to dig deep into her creative mind to invent, build and create her own equipment necessary for her studies. Not only did it build confidence in her, but also the spirit of independence in planning and executing a task, a skill which proved valuable later in her career.
Being geographically isolated from the rest of the world, the experience also allows her to fully focus in her studies and excel.
Object lesson: Being a leader is never easy. One has to be original in their style of leadership, coming up with ideas and solutions when faced with obstacles. It may be a lonely journey, but perseverance and sheer grit will pull you through, as long as your focus is set on your end goal. Be curious enough to think beyond the present tense.
Recommended reading: How Developing Curiosity Changes The Way You See The World
3. Step back if you need to
Mazlan confesses that the toughest time of her life was when she undertook the Malaysian astronaut programme from 2003–2007.
“It wasn’t so much the science behind the programme, but because it’s a high profile project involving the Government. So it was susceptible to public scrutiny due to the perception that it has political mileage for certain individuals,” says Mazlan.
Although her focus of the programme was on creating awareness in the field of astronomy and space exploration, as well as to unite and inspire Malaysians, the media then was more interested in how or when we would be sending our first Malaysian to space.
Along the way, Mazlan had a run-in with the media, where the media picked on something she said about “having roti canai and teh tarik in space”. From there, people nitpicked and tried to discredit the programme by saying it was a pure waste of public funds.
As soon as the programme was completed, she retired from government service and began another new chapter of her life as director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna.
Object lesson: As a leader, quitting is not an option. Therefore, finish what you started and in what you believe in although you might not have everyone’s buy-in. You can, however, take a step back from a major setback to pursue something else that will still add value to you as a person and to your country.
4. Always think ahead
Mazlan shares of her time where she negotiated and convinced Russia to launch our Malaysian satellite in 2007, instead of Russia’s original plan to launch it in 2006. To spark the flame of patriotism among Malaysians, she intentionally suggested that year to coincide with our Merdeka golden jubilee year.
While Russia then suggested to launch it in April 2007, Mazlan insisted to launch it in October, i.e. after our Merdeka and Malaysia Day. She reminded Russia the significance of that month, which was also the 50th anniversary of Sputnik launch by Russia (then Soviet Union) in October 4, 1957.
Indeed, Mazlan had all these details well thought out years in advance so that everything comes together perfectly.
Object lesson: As a leader, you have to be ahead of everybody else. You proactively look out for changes to happen instead of being dictated by circumstances around you. In other words, you have to be visionary and intentional in your decisions because you want to see the desired outcomes of your actions.
When asked for her sound leadership advice, Mazlan concludes:
“To be a great leader, learn to be versatile. Change your way of thinking according to situations, because there is no leadership style that fits all circumstances. Also, be on the lookout to where your organisation is going next. As a leader, keep reading, learning and listening.”
As it is, only the sky is the limit on what we want to achieve in life, or how we want to lead.