Conversations with Dato’ Sri Idris Jala

I first met Dato’ Sri Idris Jala when he was the CEO of Malaysian Airlines on October 16, 2008.  He was receiving the Excellence in Leadership award for the commendable work he had done at Malaysian Airlines. He had managed to make the company profitable in less than 2 years after the airline had posted its largest ever loss in its history in 2005.  His acceptance speech that evening in 2008 is still very clear in my memory.  He talked about the six secrets of business transformation that he had embarked on at Malaysian Airlines.  These six precepts as he called it include:

  1. Play the game of the impossible
  2. Use Key Performance Indicators as anchors
  3. Discipline of action
  4. Exercise situational leadership
  5. Building a winning coalition
  6. Accept “divine intervention”

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Last week, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Dato’ Sri at the very the same forum – the Frost & Sullivan Growth, Innovation & Leadership summit- (seven years later) in a session aptly titled “Legends of Asia”.  By this time he had added another feather to his cap.  He had now spent the last five years as the Chief Transformation Officer of the Government of Malaysia.  His career is most unique in a way that it has traversed the private sector, the semi government sector and finally in government.  Following are some of the lessons from this recent conversation:

  • On whether the six secrets of biz transformation was still relevant today – The six principles are universal, what has changed is how you apply them. Leadership style for example changes from being directive at the beginning to empowerment once the followers become competent.
  • To be a very successful leader you have to leverage both the emotion and intellect. If you use only one of the two, you are using only half your capability. We must evoke push to the hill our intellect as well as our emotion.  Communication cannot be just done rationally, it has to reach out to the hearts of the people.  Music helps me evoke the inner part of the soul, particularly the Blues.
  • What separates a good leader and a GREAT leader – Strength of Conviction– A great leader should have the ability to follow through on his conviction. He should feel deeply about the cause or idea he represents.  There are always lots of compelling reasons to not follow through.  Conviction is what separates a great leader from a good leader.
  • Who has inspired him- Nelson Mandela and his ability to forgive and forget. He was able to forgive the people who kept him in jail for 27 years. The way he brought the nation together post-independence is remarkable.
  • Vulnerability is a virtue. Every leader should know that he/she cannot control everything that happens in our life.  This makes the leader humble.  Humility is a great part of leadership.    Humility should not be misunderstood with assertiveness or being directive.  The graveyard is full of people who thought they are indispensable.  Leaders should also know when to put a full-stop and let their teams continue the journey.
  • The only way to develop your leadership is by doing it. No amount of education can help you become a great leader.  Leadership is honed through experience.  Failure is the best teacher, but do not make it a habit.  Do not repeat your failures.
  • “Finally, a leader is all about his or her followers.” This one statement was also repeated by Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad later in the day at the Frost & Sullivan Malaysia Excellence Awards.  Without the followers, there is no leader.

Dato’ Sri had the entire audience spellbound with his stories, humour and candour. He is undeniably one of the best communicators we have in Malaysia today.  We wish him continued success as he leads PEMANDU through another transformation of becoming a financially self-sufficient organisation.  (The full video transcript of the interview will be released shortly)

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