3D man puzzled at signboard

by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

Sometime in May 2013, I came across a spontaneous but nonetheless thought-provoking Facebook posting by a Malaysian university professor based in Bangkok.

“Too many leaders are like travel agents. They send people to where they have never been themselves. Leaders should be tour guides instead of travel agents. Leaders should make themselves have more value and also to value people, to relate to what the people value.”

~ Professor Dr Tan Chai Ching

What’s the difference between travel agents and tour guides? Travel agents merely sell travel services to those who pay them, whereas tour guides personally take their group to where the action is, while practically guiding them every step along the way. Which kind of a leader would you prefer to have in your corporation or community?

The post also reminds me of one of the conversations I read about in an April 2013 blog entry1 concerning the mayoral race in Los Angeles (LA). The two remaining candidates, Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel, were asked whether they had the necessary leadership skills to take on the job they were vying for.

Declaring versus Demonstrating

3D man guiding another near signposts

Greul advocated standing up and speaking out on issues important to the public; being honest and truthful, and able to bring people together.” She backed her statement with a list of people who had endorsed her, including the former LA Mayor, a senator, and even a former US president.

On the other hand, Garcetti responded, “…what I want them to know about my leadership is that I’ve been No. 1 in job growth. I’ve tripled the number of parks in my district – not just from one to three, [but] from 16 to 47 – and brought Hollywood back.”

Though there was merit in what Greul said, leadership must go beyond honest affirmations. It has to be followed up with authentic action and real results. While Greul was declaring her honesty, Garcetti went a step further by demonstrating his honesty through the results of actual work done.

Expanding on Professor Dr Tan’s Facebook post, a leader must first of all, have value; second, value others; and third, relate to what others value. The value in you as a leader is your presence and availability to your followers, and not merely to be where they are, but also to pave the way before them.

By asking your followers to venture to places – especially to risky, unknown territory – where you yourself are willing to go, you are valuing them as highly as you value yourself, i.e. not counting them more dispensable than you. And finally, by being able to relate to what your people value, you can be involved in their growth and development process firsthand, helping them to unleash their full potential of becoming competent leaders in their own right.

An example that comes to mind is that of Alexander the Great2 who became king at the age of 19 after his father, Philip II, was assassinated. By the time Alexander was 30, he had conquered much of the known world. Yet, even at the height of his power, Alexander would still draw his sword and lead his men into the battlefield at the start of every battle. The warrior king did not expect his men to risk their lives unless he himself was first willing to enter the conflict zone.

Contrast this to current leadership trends – just read the barrage of criticism in the free press about state leaders who send their troops to war zones where the highest rank to face combat on the battlefront is most likely (though not always) a Lieutenant Colonel, while the Generals remain in their headquarters. 


In the corporate context

  • Are you an industry captain who rests in the relative comfort of your secure headquarters, unable to empathize with those who are directly in the line of fire at the corporate front lines? Or are you a hands-on leader who has the relevant ground experience which can add value to your people?
  • Do you treat your people as pawns to be used as stepping stones, or do you value them as partners of high worth to be co-beneficiaries of your success?
  • Are you oblivious to the values that your people cherish, or can you relate well to what they value most and help them attain what they aspire for?  

1. http://www.forbes.com/sites/drucker/2013/04/30/leaders-talk-leadership/

2. http://www.1000ventures.com/business_guide/crosscuttings/leadership_by_example.html

[Image 1 courtesy of David Castillo Dominici
Image 2 courtesy of Stuart Miles]