Lessons on leadership from Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad (former Prime Minister of Malaysia)

Two days ago, I had the good fortune to spend some time in the company of the Honourable Former Prime Minister of Malaysia.  He joined us at the 11th edition of Frost & Sullivan’s Malaysia Excellence Awards.  It was one of the most inspiring moments of my career.  He was very punctual and came exactly on time along with his wife Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah.  We spent some time in the holding room discussing the event, the traffic in Kuala Lumpur, GST and its implications.  As I ushered him to the event room, the historic nature of the moment dawned on me.  He is today the only remaining of the many incredible leaders of the modern era.  I had tears in my eyes as I walked beside him, receiving a standing ovation and welcome.  There was a very genuine sense of respect, admiration, gratitude and love being showered on this man and his wife for his admirable leadership in leading a country for 22 years.  Allow me to share three inspiring personal lessons / moments in the company of this incredible leader.

  • We presented about 42 awards over 2.5 hours. He and his wife listened to all the 42 citations and speeches from the recipients.  It did not matter if the speaker was good or bad, he was genuinely interested in them and the success of their company.  He wanted to know more, he wanted to learn.  Both he and his wife made it a point to applaud every single award recipient.  Most of the others in the room were distracted in other conversations or food or social media as the evening progressed.
  • We got to know that he will be attending our event only at about 2 pm that very day. He attended the event to collect an award on behalf of Proton.  Proton received an award for the Value-for-Money Car of the Year (1.3L & below).  I was amazed at his continued dedication for his favourite project (National Car Maker Proton).  He had found out earlier in the day that Proton was receiving an award and made an instant decision to come and celebrate that success with his team.  He received the award on stage, with the same enthusiasm and excitement that I saw in many young CEOs who were receiving an award for the very first time.
  • I had an opportunity to ask him a few key questions on leadership on what makes him a great leader. He mentioned he was personally inspired by the Prophet and by Nelson Mandela (whom he regarded as the greatest leader of all times).  His parting message was that “A leader is all about his followers”.  The only focus of a leader is to ensure the wellbeing of his followers.

As the evening came to a close, we escorted him back to his car.  It was selfie time.  He patiently reciprocated every single request to pose for a selfie.  There were several hundreds of them that evening.  I would summarise his leadership attribute in the short time with him in three words – He was interesting, interested and humble.  Thank you Tun.

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