Monday, February 23, 2004

Weekend Guest: It’s important to understand the art of following a leader

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

THE Prime Minister’s early call to “work with me” rather than “for me” still rings fresh in the minds of many. The call is a pleasant surprise because for a long time most Malaysians at practically all levels were used to working "for" someone. Perhaps it was "correct" then.

In fact, over the years "working for me" has undergone various interpretations, ranging from "sincere trust" to "blind obedience" and at times "downright hypocrisy".

All things considered, the axiom "working for me" is not difficult to understand or execute. For most part, Malaysians have been quite comfort-able working for someone right down the line with few or no questions asked.

It has often been said that when one is paid to do a job, the rule of thumb is: follow as instructed.

Moreover, one is answerable to the top person(s), and, therefore, what is laid down should be followed as closely as possible to the letter. Otherwise, a charge of insubordination can be real, or the person could be reprimanded for "not being co-operative".

It is, therefore, understandable that not too many would want to take the risk and question what is being asked of them. They reckon it is safer not to rock the boat.

In this respect, to merely follow is thus a no-brainer. It is easy, although at times it affects the implementation of the decisions or instructions.

This is especially so when the instructions are not fully appraised by the implementers, or when the implementer does not fully agree with what he has been asked to do. The outcome is bound to be littered with shortcomings.

In reality, therefore, "to follow" has its own downside. It is more than just the ubiquitous phrase "saya yang menurut perintah" because to follow has its inherent risk, sometimes greater than not taking any risk at all.

Herein lies the dilemma.

Thus, "work with me" is a welcome shift in mindset. The question now is, what can we understand from the call to work "with" someone, including the Prime Minister? How different it is from working "for" someone? To start with, we need to recognise the importance of "followership", a concept which can be as complex as the concept of "leadership" itself. After all, for leaders to lead, there must be followers.

And without "followers", there is no necessity for a leader as such. More importantly, the quality of leadership is somehow increasingly dependent on the quality of followership that it can command.

Certainly, blind obedience and hypocrisy is ranked very low as a form of followership, and is not the way to go.

It goes beyond such superficiality, and necessarily so, if we want to arrive at the next level as a nation of thinkers.

While the entire concept of "followership" may not be as well articulated, the time to expound on it has arrived for Malaysians.

More so if it is understood as a course of action in common with a leader to achieve an organisational goal.

It is further suggested that effective followership means taking an active decision to contribute towards the achievement of the goal and demonstrate enthusiasm, intelli-gence, self-reliance and the ability to work with others in pursuit of the goal.

In addition, an effective follower needs to consider all issues on their merits, make his own decisions, hold his own values, speak his mind and hold himself accountable for the consequences for his actions.

To be an effective follower also means to recognise the authority of the leader, the limitations this imposes on one's own actions, and making the best of the situation.

Increasingly, the question of trust and communication becomes one of the key drivers in developing a true meaning of followership. It acknowledges that successful leadership is the outcome of the fruitful interaction between those who lead and those who follow.

It draws attention to the importance of and the potential contribution from a larger pool of talented people as followers — the 24 million citizens of Malaysia — by working as a team.

Therein is the relevance of the word pimpin in Bahasa Malaysia in contrast to its equivalent "lead".

Unlike "leading", pimpin brings out the connotation of being on the same plane with the leader, though not necessarily in the physical sense. In a sense, pimpin is closer to the idea of working "with" rather than "for" someone.

In pimpin, the practice is often consultative (masyuarah) where "fruitful interaction" is the expressed norm. In short, "working with someone" is not something that is alien to Malaysian society.

It is, therefore, only appropriate that it be given a mainstream focus in navigating the future of the nation.

In other words, apart from developing and putting in place the principle of effective leadership (as often advocated), it is equally important that effective followership too be given serious consideration.

Warren Bennis, the well-known leadership guru, acknowledges this when he wrote: "The more I study effective leaders, the more I am convinced of under-appreciated importance of effective followers." He elaborated: "The single most important characteristic may well be a willingness to tell the truth.

"In a world of growing complexity, leaders are increasingly dependent on their subordinates for good information, whether the leaders want to or not.

"Followers who tell the truth, and leaders who listen are an unbeatable combination." The Prime Minister made a similar request that he be informed of the true picture even though when it is not all rosy.

On why this is absolutely necessary, Bennis quoted an incident, and it goes like this. Almost 30 years ago, USSR leader Nikita Khruschev went to America, and he met reporters at the Washington Press Club. The first written question he received was: "Today, you talked about the hideous rule of your predecessor, Stalin. You were one of his closest aides and colleagues during those years. What were you doing all that time?" Reportedly, Khruschev's face grew red, and roared: "Who asked that?" No one answered. "Who asked that?" he insisted.

Again, silence. "That's what I was doing," Khruschev confessed.

Though Malaysia has no Sovietstyle leadership, Bennis' story is a telling one.

It is here our understanding of followership as the true art of following a leader will determine to what extent we are working with the Prime Minister.

As Bennis noted: "Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the follower who is willing to speak out shows precisely the kind of initiative that leadership is made of." Here is where the future of Malaysia lies.

The writer is the Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be reached at:

NST - February 2004

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