by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

“Many so-called leaders seem great from afar, but are far from great when seen closer.”  

~ V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Businessman looking upwardsDo you know any rich, famous and successful people who are captains of their trade? More importantly, do you know what they are really like, especially up close and personal? Surely, you think, these leaders get to where they are now because of their solid, enduring leadership traits such as considerateness, flexibility and generosity.

Great from afar, far from great

Unfortunately, many so-called leaders seem great from afar but are far from great when seen closer. Granted, no leader is perfect. A good leader might have a few vices, while a bad leader might even have a few virtues!

However, some virtues have a greater far-reaching positive impact than others. Conversely, certain vices have a greater far-reaching negative impact than others. For example, a chain-smoking leader who relentlessly fights corruption might not be so harshly reproached as an equally capable leader who spews racial slurs.

Trademark of a lesser leader

So what are among these so-called vices or trademarks of less-than-great leaders that might undo the reputation of an otherwise-perceived-to-be-good leader? One trademark that immediately springs to mind is being cold and calculating; the thought of this trademark was inspired by a real-world incident that occurred recently, as follows:

Mr X is a leading expert in his industry, as well as an established trainer and practitioner in his specialized field. One of my associates had to meet Mr X a couple of times to discuss a one-off project. But twice had Mr X turned up late for those appointments. Now, the lack of punctuality itself was not an issue since, understandably, the traffic flow in Malaysia can be rather erratic, mainly due to the lack of well-planned infrastructure in some areas of the Klang Valley. Instead, the main gripe was that Mr X had come less punctually on purpose!

MicroscopeNow what strategy could Mr X have in mind by turning up late? Well, it was suspected that Mr X wanted to avoid buying – or at least, avoid offering to buy – drinks for the others at the meeting. You see, the venue was a rather fancy ca where you paid when you ordered your drink, and each drink could set you back by RM12 or so. And when Mr X came in late, he didn’t even need to buy himself a drink to sit inside the comfortable café.

One could claim that my associate was paranoid. But consider this: In this scenario, Mr X was the successful multi-multimillionaire whereas my associate and the others were working-class folks who collectively earned in a few months (or perhaps even a year!) LESS than Mr X’s most recent holiday budget (yes, they knew!).

Would it do any harm for a wealthy boss to motivate the members of his few newly-formed ad hoc project team with a teatime treat even once? Just because the team members were paid for the project doesn’t mean that Mr X could not buy them a drink. Perhaps he was unaware that the team members were not compensated for their travel and parking for those meetings, not to mention the unpaid time they took off – at least one member of the team need not have to be present but did so out of courtesy. (One suspects that Mr X would not have been interested to know anyway.) But the crux of the matter is not about buying drinks per se.

More evidence of Mr X’s suspected mindset: It was later revealed by another team member that Mr X had refused to pay a single cent extra for the project cost overrun although the project scope had expanded a little through no fault of the team members. Moreover, there was an extra item – not mentioned at the onset of the project – that Mr X requested to be included in the project but which he flatly expected to be thrown in for free as part of the package. Again, perhaps Mr X did not know that it would cost the project team a few hundred ringgit in hard cash, and not in kind, to acquire the item – a very unlikely possibility since ignorance is not one of Mr X’s vices.

Now if Mr X applied the cold and calculating approach of not wanting to pay a single extra cent, why should he expect the other party to give away something that cost a few hundred ringgit to him for free? You might also be interested to know that in terms of the project price, to Mr X it would be like Bill Gates buying a Ford. But in terms of the potential value that Mr X could receive from the project outcomes, it might be akin to what Mission Impossible did for Tom Cruise.


· What are the immediate emotions that you feel about the scenario?
· What are the initial thoughts that cross your mind?
· Was Mr X’s leadership approach justifiable?
· Should Mr X have been less “cold and calculating”, and be more flexible and generous instead?
· Is there a Mr X-type leader in your organization?
· If so, how should you respond to the Mr X-type leader (a) as a follower, and (b) as a fellow leader?

Photo Credit
Image 1 courtesy of Imagerymajestic; Image 2 courtesy of DDPavumba