Understanding the behaviours and insights that stand the test of time
By Deva Param, TPCL SEA (South East Asia)
I’m reminded of Adam Smith (the famous Scottish economist who wrote The Wealth of
Nations) because in October 2019, I was invited by my alma mater, Heriot Watt University,
for a speaker series at their newly-renovated Panmure House.
There was an impressive lineup of speakers, alumni, students and guests at this
magnificent facility which the university had recently purchased. It so happened that
Panmure House was also the abode of Adam Smith who lived there between 1778 and 1790.
His landmark book was the vehicle through which he shared his well-known concept of The
Economic theories and leadership drive
Over the years, many have praised Smith for his findings and The Invisible Hand (an
the economic concept that marries the unintended social benefit and public good brought about
by individuals who act in their own self-interest). But what dawned on me is that, while we
can dwell on the economic theories, much of this would only work if there exists strong
leadership in both the private and public sectors.
Why is this the case?
1. A combination of economic theories and leadership drive is very much needed for the
economy to develop and for the wealth of nations to be realised.
2. There are similarities in the leadership initiatives implemented in both the public and
private sectors that can be leveraged. But what might some of these similarities look like?
Would it call for a certain drive? What might be needed to deal with sustainable
implementation of various policies and initiatives?
Much like basic economies, organizational life contains many influencing forces that largely
reflect human nature. These forces help people to identify their equilibrium on two simple
principles i.e. the motivation to perform and the opportunity to perform.
The motivation to perform
Let’s look at the motivation to perform. As a leader, if you offer an individual financial
reward, praise and incentives for certain behaviours, you direct their investment of time and
talent towards your goals.
If you, however, fail to provide this clarity and your organization is void of sufficient
structural support, it would be left to other forces to determine how an individual invests
their time and effort.
The opportunity to perform
A good work environment does not necessarily mean that it’s an easy and comfortable
workplace which breeds complacency and leads to a culture of mediocrity.
When a performance-based culture is embraced, performance levels necessarily increase.
Individuals who are passionate about contributing their talent can then obtain the support
they need and work in an inspiring environment. Failing which, most high potential talent
would move to greener pastures. They would do this to get the opportunity to perform at a
higher level in order to meet their aspirations.
In most public sectors, the concept of lifelong employment exists. This is why the public
sector is called upon to review their policies. They need to pay special attention to policies
that relate to performance and the notion of providing ‘employment for life’ regardless of the
level of performance of its people.
Circling back to the theory of The Invisible Hand, it calls for leadership that is imbued with
intent and design. More importantly, it requires leaders to take charge and constantly
redefine their roles. This, in turn, requires execution and delegation down to the lowest
possible levels within an organization.
We see that leaders are still very much at the front-line, delegating only about 20 percent of
their decisions. It appears that it requires far more trust for leaders to move that
empowerment percentage upwards.
That said, there are other aspects of leadership that pass the test of time. Balancing the
People / Quality / Sustainability / Profits elements in their organization has always been a
juggling act for leaders. They work hard to keep a watchful eye on all the “balls” in the air
without dropping any of them.
As leaders, we want our people to channel all of their energy into this delicate balance. We
want our people to have the wherewithal to manage both the internal and external factors of
day to day leadership delivery.
Constants in leadership
In all my years facilitating leadership programs and engaging with leaders at multiple points,
certain trends in leadership have been constant. They have served many leaders in global
This is what I have compiled:
Courageous leadership matters.
It’s an age-old philosophy but the simple things like constantly looking for solutions and
championing them matter. Even when it could mean a 50 percent chance of failure, it
matters when it is something that you strongly believe in.
Great leaders always ask themselves: If I fail after trying, what are those consequences as
compared to the consequences if I don’t try?
Continuously engage. Do not leave a vacuum.
Leaders raise their hands and speak up even if it means that their ideas may go against
If your ideas are good and receive positive feedback, then all will be well. If not, you would
have at least tried. When you are courageous and speak up, you gain confidence. This
confidence (and respect) will hold you in good stead as you climb the corporate ladder.
Choose between the fixed vs growth mindset.
Successful leaders have extraordinary tenacity. They are able to extract something
worthwhile from their exploits and circumstances. They also seek the kind of experiences
that provide rich opportunities for growth.
If you want to become a better leader, seek worthwhile challenges and maximise all that you
can from any leadership situation or opportunity.
Embrace servant leadership.
As the phrase indicates, the goal here is for the leader to serve. It is different from traditional
leadership where the leader is focused on ensuring the company thrives.
Is it a radical idea? Yes, it turns the traditional notion completely on its head. But that is
simply because servant leaders are all about changing the mindset. From commanding to
serving. From flaunting power and authority to displaying empathy, humility and active
Don’t climb the leadership ladder in order to be served. Serve others, and in doing so, others
will serve you even better.
Embody the 3Vs of Vision, Vitality and Voice.
Vision – Envision where you would like to bring your organization, your team and yourself.
Have a clear picture in your mind of what this looks like. Then, communicate the vision
Vitality – Be positive and energised. Seek to influence your peers and supervisors wherever
possible to ensure that your vision is materialised.
Voice – Give every member of your team a voice. Empower, delegate, coach and teach.
Provide them with the tools they need. Track team performance. Ask yourself: What do I
need to do to make a difference? How can I create visible action plans for them?
Manage people with your heart (emotion) and not with your brains (head).
Ask yourself “Why” at least five times before deciding on an issue when it involves people.
They are there for a reason. Leaders need to consider this and the varied motivations at play.
Create opportunities to get feedback.
It may be difficult for leaders to get relevant feedback, particularly if they occupy powerful
positions in organizations. But, in reality, leaders require more feedback than subordinates.
If they do not get feedback on how they are doing, leaders may not learn much.
Start by asking the team for their perception of the leader’s behaviour and the impact it has
had on them.
Take a 10 percent stretch.
The stretch goal is often seen as the source of individual and organizational motivation. This
differs from the ordinary challenge because there is an element of the extreme within.
Leaders, I believe, need to stretch their targets by at least 10 percent from their previous
There are several positive outcomes associated with leaders who regularly practice the 10
percent stretch. First, their apprehension about doing something new or different gradually
decreases. Second, their repertoire of leadership skills begins to broaden. Third, their team
benefits from these changes.
Learn from others
Learn by asking questions and paying attention to everyday details. Ask for insights from
other leaders especially if they have gone through some of the tasks you are currently
undertaking. You can benefit from their experience.
Observe their insights not only in terms of how things were executed but also, about how
leadership skills were employed.
Understand your superiors.
Work to understand your superior’s personal and business objectives. Much like you can
help your subordinates to achieve their goals, you too can help achieve your superior’s goals
(if you know what these are). Understanding your superior’s values, preferences and
personality can also help you strengthen your relationship with them.
The business and the team are almost always top priorities for leaders. Leaders focus their
time and energy on taking care of business and then, on taking care of the team that carries
out the vision. Invariably, great leaders put themselves last. It is only once their key priorities
are met that they look within at their personal agenda and their own development needs.
Can a leader provide opportunity for growth, innovation and creativity while also focusing on
an alignment of corporate and individual goals? It is no easy feat but with practice, passion
and a desire to leverage combined insight, it is something leaders can indeed aspire to.
Lastly, remember to stay authentic as there is only one of you in this world.
In conclusion, as leaders, we are called to constantly reassess our values and the business
agenda. We understand that values, ultimately, are like rubber bands. They can only stretch
so much until they achieve a breaking point.
This requires us, then, to ask ourselves certain questions regularly:
● What is my own personal leadership philosophy?
● What does this philosophy look like?
● What are the key elements of this philosophy?
● How do I change over time?
Everyone needs to have their own leadership philosophy. The questions above can assist
you in ensuring mindfulness about your direction and values at all times.
Feel free to engage with the author or continue the dialogue here.
@Copyright TPCL (2021)