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I have worked with many organisations.

Listened to their hopes and dreams. Their visions and missions.

I have heard — time and time again — that their people are their most important asset. It is almost always the first thing they say in their annual reports and corporate brochures.

But when I enter such said organisations, I find that many of their pledges towards protecting their chief asset becomes lost in the everyday business of…running a business.

Somewhere in the drive to profit and sustainability, these organisations seem to forget their pledge and their people — their most important asset — become collateral damage on their way towards brand glory.

The irony of it all is that glory is an elusive destination when your generals and soldiers keep leaving you every few years. Worse, they may not leave you and you will become saddled with low performers who demoralise their subordinates yet command a high salary.

This is what I keep hearing from CEOs:

“I keep rewarding them but they are still not performing”

“I empower them but they don’t seem to want to take it”

“I can’t seem to attract the younger people to work for us”

Thousands of books have been written on this. Hundreds of courses have been built around the quandary that is leadership. Why is it so hard? And why is it that relatively few companies thrive? There is a Chinese saying: “the fish rots from the head down”. That is perhaps an apt description of many organisations.

We all know that leadership is never a walk in the park. But the key afflictions that I see in many leaders are behavioural ones.

These are the broad categories I’ve observed.

Please Like Me

For example, some leaders are extremely decent and caring but have an insistent desire to be liked, which clouds their ability to be fair or to make the tough decisions.

Do What You Think Is Right (but do it my way)

Then there are those who see themselves as nurturing and empowering. They have an uncanny ability to say all the right things at the right times. They tick every political-correctness box but are really control freaks at heart.

Don’t Mess With Me (please..)

Then there are those who are lovely, gentle and shy but feel the need to embody a steely no-nonsense demeanour so that they don’t get taken advantage of.

I Can’t Decide, So I Do Nothing 

Others are torn between rewarding loyalty and rewarding results in an ever-aging organisation.

Then there are those who are made powerless by government edicts of zero dimissal.  In work cultures like those, there only carrots, no sticks. No matter how badly-behaved an employee may be, they stay. That’s the rule. What you have is a boat with a leak and most of your energy is spent bailing out water to  stay afloat, instead of going full steam ahead toward the required destination.

Crash and Burn

I have also worked with several NGOs which are led by very strong individuals. They have enough force and perseverance to drive their agendas through for the benefit of their core stakeholders, i.e., the people they set out to help.

They spend so much of their energy fighting the cause, saving countless lives, that they sometimes do not leave enough of themselves to fight for their people within.

It is often the cause that unites rather than the leadership.

According to Ed Schein, Author of Organisation Culture and Leadership, 80% of an organisation’s culture is influenced by :

    • What the leader attends to, measures, rewards and controls
    • Leader reaction to critical incidents
    • Leader role-modelling and coaching

The easiest to do is the first one. In a local context, the second one could do with improvements but it is the third point that leaders really need to take notice of.

There are no easy solutions but the first imperative for leaders who want to improve is to look within and recognise who they are as a Leader. In fact, they may find they are more suited to being good, reliable followers. There is nothing wrong with that and in fact, you may have a far happier employee as a result.

Once you have done this, then you can seek ways to address the weaknesses. So business owners who have extraordinary vision in a tech start-up business, for instance, but who have poor leadership skills should hire a Chief Operating Officer to fill in the gaps and help lead.

Others may require long-term coaching to overcome their personal fears and perceptions that limits them as leaders.

Personally, I thoroughly encourage everyone to find a coach.

There is a saying, “Physician, heal thyself” — an analogous exhortation for doctors to first be whole and healthy before they attempt to heal others.

Likewise for leaders. While providing coaching for your employees, you should be coached yourself. Leadership can be lonely and you are never sure if the feedback you get from your subordinates are the real thing, or highly watered down for fear that it may limit the messenger’s career.

Hence, leaders need someone who will not be afraid to give it to you straight in order for you to grow as a leader. Given time, a good coach can spot the BS you tell yourself and challenge you on it.

On coaches

Some coaches badger you into changing. Great coaches, on the other hand, will listen, act as your mirror, guide you and then allow you the make the final decision on the area of weakness you are working on. Ultimately, a great coach understands that no-one can make you change. You have to be ready, to want to change.

“If we don’t change, we will die” said a CEO, after he had embarked on a personal journey to look within, with the help of a well-known coaching course. With that realisation, he saw that to effect change, he was the person that needed to change the most. He stopped playing the nurturing, benevolent fatherly figure and became a fair but firm and caring leader.

Within 18 months, his organisation had a complete turnaround. Low-performing department heads became shining stars. He also acquired the courage to let go of those who could not change.

*NOTE: There are many coaches and coaching organisations in Malaysia. Vistage is one example aimed at CEOs. Arbinger is another. To find coaches, you can contact the International Federation of Coaching.