Inspiring people with purpose

September 12, 2011 11:03 am 0 comments

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In 2008, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) invited the Chief Secretary to deliver a lecture on “Challenging Status Quo”. On Thursday, he returned to the university to open its Centre of Chemical Biology and deliver a lecture to remind USM on the importance of making those changes. The following are excerpts of his speech.

WHY do some people, some companies and institutions and countries do much better when compared with their peers with similar resources, strength and capabilities?

Why was Mark Zuckerberg able to stand out with Facebook? There are so many other individuals as good, if not better, than him in Silicon Valley.

Great minds: Zuckerberg stood out with Facebook.
Why is Facebook worth US$100bil (RM297.4bil) today versus its other social media competitors?

What did Zuckerberg and Facebook do differently?

Apple was on the verge of bankruptcy just 13 years ago.

Today, it is said to have more cash than the Government of the United States of America. What did Steve Jobs do differently?

Apple, in the final analysis, is just another computer company. It had the same access to ideas, people, resources, capital and opportunities as the other computer companies in the many Silicon Valleys of the world.

The Wright brothers, Wilbur (left) and Orville who had none of the ingredients for success.
But why is it that Apple is able to innovate, year after year, as compared with its competitions?

Why did Dr Martin Luther King lead the Civil Rights Movement in America? Why was Gandhi able to inspire a following?

Great leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr and Bill Gates had no managerial experience at all when they assumed positions of leadership.

But why were they successful?

Have you heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley? No? In the early 20th century (1903), the development of “flying machines” was akin to our craze of “dot com” today.

Everyone was at it so to speak. Langley was said to have had all that it would take to succeed – the capital, the material, the people, the access.

Langley was given US$50,000 (RM148,724) by the War Department to figure out this flying machine.

Money was not a problem. He had a seat at Harvard and was extremely well-connected. He knew many great minds and thinkers of the day. With what he was given, he hired the best minds money could buy.

Market was on his side and the press tailed him like a hog.

But we have never heard of Samuel Pierpont Langley!

During the same period, in Dayton Ohio, Orville and Wilbur Wright had none of the ingredients for success. No money. No resources. No access. No press tailing them definitely.

They only had some proceeds from their bicycle shop.

Not a single person on the Wright brothers’ team had a college education, not even Orville or Wilbur.

The press took no notice of them. But we have all heard of them. How come?

Apple, Facebook, Gandhi, Bill Gates, Wright Brothers, Martin Luther King and the many who have shaped our world and markets have a common cutting value when decodified. They act, think and communicate similarly.

Simon Sinek, best known for his theory of the “Golden Triangle” explains this idea in the simple form of the Why? How? What?

Sinek explains why some organisations and leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t.

In essence – he argues – people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

Leaders who inspire, companies that prosper where most don’t, and individuals who succeed where many falter align their vision to the WHY we do what we do.

This is how status quo is challenged, new frontiers are broken.

Dr King was not the only American who suffered in a pre-civil rights America. But he inspired thousands and is remembered to this day.

Many have said his ideas weren’t all that great, even as he was a great orator.

His speeches were not about what Americans needed to do. His speeches were all about “I believe. I believe”.

As Sinek puts it, he gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

Inspiring change takes effect when the purpose of an action is clear. The Wright brothers were driven by a purpose, by a belief.

They believed that if they figured out how to fly machines, this would change the world.

Langley wanted to be rich. He wanted to be famous.

He thus focused his efforts on these outcomes. As a result his efforts never made to the books of memorable history.

Isaac Merritt Singer invented the first commercially successful sewing machine in 1851.

The innovation he brought to the market was not the sewing machine – rather he was the first person to sell to women because at that time it was assumed that women couldn’t operate machinery.

He brought to the market something that changed lives.

Many decades on, when we are asked about the sewing machine, the first thing that comes to mind is Singer.

In these times of much abundance and severe competing forces, doing things differently alone doesn’t guarantee success.

It’s about knowing why exactly we do what we do and how it serves our customers.

Organisations often get trapped in how they operate. Managers and decision makers are trapped by status quo and the tiers and lines of silos.

Innovation cannot survive in these environments. What will survive in these environments is the same old, same old doings and outcome.

What will prevail in the long run in these limiting environments is simply mediocrity.

We live in a world where employers are not looking at your degree simply, but rather your future potential. Can this person add value every hour, every day more than a worker in India, or China, or a computer?

We can no longer say “I have a college degree, I have a right to a job, and someone should figure out how to train me and sort my career path.”

This world no longer owes any of us that. I come from the public sector, a sector of the market often credited, alas, maybe discredited, for preserving status quo.

Walk through our corridors and you would have heard any one of these statements uttered:

> “That will never work.”

> “Can you show me some working paper that demonstrates that this will work?”

> “There are government regulations and this won’t be permitted.”

> “This might work for other people, but I think we’ll stick with what we have.”

> “We’ll let someone else prove it works… it won’t take long to catch up.”

> “It’s been done before.”

> “It’s never been done before.”

> “We’ll get back to you on this.”

> “We’re already doing it.”

I call these statements “sanctifying the status quo outreach plan”.

People will do whatever it takes to preserve that which is familiar.

For that which is familiar feels safe, albeit false safety sometimes, often times maybe.

Post World War II, we saw Germany, Japan and the US rise.

The British Empire, which in effect won World War II, did not prosper like the rest. Why? Great powers become divas! We learn this from the decline of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires.

Once at the pinnacles of success, divas often believe they own success. Complacency sets in. Rot presides. Decline begins.

This model can be applied to great leaders, nations, civilisations and organisations that have in the recent past been cradled by failure and downfalls.

The British Empire once ruled a quarter of this earth and its population. Britain led the first industrial revolution in the 18th century. It saw great success and power as a result.

But it was this very success that is said to have made Britain rigid.

It was not as agile to responding to the second industrial revolution, also known as the technology revolution in the late 19th century.

Whilst many theories have been debated on the decline of the British Empire, most concur that the decline of British capitalism came when it remained old and rigid.

The writs of history show that when organisations and nations become fat and lazy on the gains of success, they slip.

What naturally happens is those leaner and hungrier will rise to take that space called OPPORTUNITY and GROWTH. Change often comes from a sense of anxiety. A sense where we can do more than stick to the knitting.

Change must especially happen when we are at the top of our game, for it is here when we see two paths of choice. The road to being a diva. And the path to new standard setting.

The many headlines that grace our papers today tell a pattern. The changes in the Middle East, the attack in Norway, the downgrade of US credit rating, the riots in London.

All these events have unique reasons to its trigger and occurrences. But cutting across them is a denominator that echoes a common language.

Human beings are made to grow to experience balance – physically, mentally and emotionally. Growing demands that we move away from our comfort zones.

We each grow when we see hope in our future.

When we do not see sight of hope and a future, the music in us stops. We feel inconsequential. These emotions manifest in various outcomes.

Challenging any form of status quo must be done with clarity of purpose.

We must know why we do what we do. Else, we may fall prey to doing for the sake of doing.

Change is not about the “ME”, rather it is about the “US”.

We can choose to remain the same and simply say we are the way we are, much like Lady Gaga’s song Born This Way. Or we can each do the Bob Dylan, a singer from the 60s who made many great songs including one titled I Feel A Change Comin’ On.

We each define the writs of our lives. In the final analysis, our lives will one day be remembered in one sentence.

It will be remembered long after our candles stop burning. It is up to us to decide what that sentence will be!


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