Life and leadership lessons from one generation to the other
By PETER LAM
Now that I’ve got your attention, let me start by confessing that I have 3 young adult children (all millennials or Echo Boomers). So, to be honest, they’re not likely very tuned into what dad has to say about “leadership”.
That aside, last week I met 19-year old Jay, who’s pursuing an accounting degree at a local university. Jay is bright and ambitious and aspires to join one of the Big Four upon graduation.
Upon learning about my past career in the corporate world he boldly asked what tips I could give him to build his leadership skills. Here’s the essence of what I told him during our 45-minute chat in the form of a letter.
First of all, thank you for asking the question. It’s rare for young people to think ahead about what skills are important for them to acquire to prepare them for entering the workforce.
Many just join the workforce and “do their best” or “wait and see what happens”.
Your forward thinking and initiative coupled with your boldness to ask and learn put you ahead of probably 95% of your peers.
Jay, I believe leadership starts with you. I call it personal leadership, leading oneself first and foremost before leading others. People like to follow people who walk the talk, do what they say.
Nobody likes to follow a hypocrite or someone they consider not trustworthy – saying one thing but doing something else. We all know people like that, and we generally stay away from them – even if they happen to be our boss (unless we’re veteran “butt-kissing” yes men/women)!
The fact that you’re thinking ahead, Jay, shows you are already exhibiting leadership qualities.
Leaders have a clear vision and goals. They think ahead and know what they want and what needs to be done. By being clear about goals and objectives, they’re able to articulate what their vision is to others – their superiors, team members and peers.
And they probably have some sort of plan on how to achieve those goals and objectives.
This will inspire others to have confidence and even add to the plan because of your clear vision and goals.
The other part about leading yourself Jay, is personal mastery. The foundation of strong leadership is character, and the base of one’s character is his or her virtues. So, my advice is to develop your virtues.
Leadership after all is a skill, a learnable skill. And the foundation of leadership is popularly referred to as character traits or qualities. I prefer to call them virtues. These are things like reliability and dependability (leading to trustworthiness), initiative, fortitude (determination, courage and perseverance) justice (a clear sense of fairness), patience and so on.
A virtue is a good trait, usually implying moral good. You see Jay, you don’t want to end up being a violent leader like Hitler or a corrupt or a dishonest/unethical leader (like the past Presidents of Brazil and Korea).
There are examples of this in the corporate world too – remember Enron, Lehman Brothers, Baring Bank UK, the VW emission scandal and even Arthur Andersen to name a few.
The foundation for good leadership
As I said Jay, character is the foundation of good leadership. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, character is like a teabag – you have to put it in hot water before you know how strong it really is. That’s why parents should not only focus on academic and intellectual development of children but also on their character formation. In the real world, in career, business and life, our character is the bed-rock of our success. By having clarity about your values, why and what you stand for, you will know what to do instinctively whatever the situation.
In moments of great uncertainty, crisis or volatility, strength of character will see us through. Think of leaders like Churchill, Gandhi, or Lee Kuan Yew and even Mother Teresa. And corporate leaders and entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, Jack Welch, Soichiro Honda, Robert Kuok, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Jack Ma.
They are all different personalities and have different strengths. But when push came to shove, they stayed calm, maintained their integrity, perseverance and determination and they stayed true to their values, never abusing their wealth, power or fame.
Before I left the corporate world, I was the area manager for South-East Asia for a Hong-Kong based food multinational. The company faced a major crisis in 2011 and Malaysia was especially hard-hit by adverse publicity. We had to undertake a nation-wide product recall and were under scrutiny by the media, health authorities and various other parties.
Amidst all this turmoil, we had to calm our employees, especially the factory staff and assure them that we will get through the crisis without any job losses. After the storm, we were able to galvanise the team to implement a recovery plan to rebuild volume we had lost during those months of crisis. It was a stressful time but we got over the set-back and managed to build sales and volume back to pre-crisis levels within about six months, with no jobs lost.
Another skill you need to cultivate Jay, is to be a team player. Be a leader, but also a team player. That means building relationships, getting along with everyone – neither dominating or trying to over-control but listening to ideas and opinions.
Develop your emotional IQ. On this point, I’m glad you’re the Organising Chairperson for the upcoming Inter-Varsity Chess Championships in August. In this voluntary and honorary role, you’ll get to practice all the skills above. Keep it up! Remember the non-verbal as well as verbal cues in your communication!
The 3 practical leadership steps
At the end of the day, Jay, leadership can’t be learnt or taught in one day. You acquire it and develop it as you go along. Make some mistakes and learn from it and begin again, wiser.
Let me leave you with a practical three-step framework to grow your leadership capabilities. First, do a self-awareness check. Identify what are your best virtues or character traits right now? How would you score yourself on each trait or virtue on a scale of 1-10? What two or three other virtues would you like to acquire or develop further?
Next, do a regular self-reflection. Perhaps weekly. How have I done in this area or that this past week? What have I learned about myself? What will I do better in the coming week?
And finally, step three is self-regulation. In the absence of a coach or mentor, ask yourself, on a scale of 1-10, how important is that thing, event, outcome right now, do I need to get stressed up about it?
I hope this helps, Jay. All the best for your big Chess Championships in August!
P.S. Who knows, maybe my three Gen Y children will be a little inspired to read this someday.
Recommended reading: My Father Will Always Be My Hero