I have been a manager all these years when all along I thought I was a leader.
The realisation came when I discovered I lacked vision.
As Michael Hyatt said in his book, The Vision Driven Leader, spelt out the differences between a leader and a manager,
Leaders create vision, while managers execute vision.
Leaders inspire and motivate, while managers maintain and administer.
Leaders take risks, while managers control risks.
Leaders stay focused on the horizon, while managers have their eye on short-term goals and objectives.
If I may add, leaders are idealistic and managers are realistic. Leaders set sight on the peak of the mountain while managers see the obstacles along the path to the mountain top.
I fit the descriptions of the manager on many counts.
I have no vision and no answer for anyone who asks me where is my company heading in the next few years.
I don’t inspire or motivate. I spend most of my time organising the team to solve one problem after another.
I don’t take risks. I avoid them if I can. I prioritise safety and survival over prosperity.
I plan one year at a time instead of having a multi-year goal.
I believe that it is important to be realistic about businesses. I dismiss entrepreneurs who have lofty and fluffy dreams. Indeed a number of them have started businesses and failed. I don’t want that. I want to figure out how to make money and survive.
Why am I like this?
I believe there are a few reasons and it is due to my life experiences thus far.
Firstly, I wasn’t born in a rich family and there are a lot of things I desire to have but my family would not be able to afford. I didn’t blame them but I learned not to want things or have desire so as to avoid disappointment.
Secondly, the Singapore culture at large has a part to play. We were thought to obey rules. To behave and not do anything funny or against what the society deem as acceptable or desirable. We were taught to prioritise group harmony over individual desires. This is inculcated while we were in schools.
Sim Wong Hoo coined the term NUTS (No U-Turn Syndrome) to describe our culture where we would only make a u-turn if there is a sign that allow us to do it, else don’t do it. We were taught to follow, not to lead.
When it comes to businesses in Singapore, there are those that specifically exists to serve the government or to help other businesses apply for government grants. The government becomes the leader to decide where to steer the economy (Jurong Island, Integrated Resorts, Smart Nation etc) and the private sector follows. They lack ambition and the dream to do bigger businesses. They resort to doing business with the government because it is more ‘realistic’.
Thirdly, I was trained as an officer in the armed forces. Our motto was to lead, to excel and to overcome. We were repeatedly told we were leaders. But the grander truth is that the armed forces is bestowed with a mission and not the responsibility of having a vision. The vision even if there is, is a localised one, like how the chiefs of the services dream of a future version of our armed forces. And the vision isn’t completely theirs, part of it is inherited from the predecessors and they will pass it on to the next person as their terms end in less than 4 years’ time.
At the more junior levels, officers are again more managers than leaders. We were bogged down by the daily grinds of missions and duties. We were busily following orders than having the time to dream about how we can change the concept of operations.
When we were tasked to write papers and proposals, we tend to guess what our bosses and their bosses want instead of writing what we really believe. That is just the reality of getting things to move in a big organisation. You don’t be the hero, you blend in. You manage the bosses, not lead them.
These experiences drummed the Singapore pragmatism in me and I forgot how to dream and how to desire.
There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic in running a business. In fact you must in order to get things done and deliver a product or service to a customer. It can’t be just dreams and no real substance.
But if you want to grow a business after a certain size, you need to have the idealism injected into the soul of the business. This is because any entrepreneur will require time and skill leverage from others in order to scale the business. To bring in a team means there must be something to bind them together and give them a common direction to move towards to. Else the team will feel lost and find the constant busyness meaningless – what is this about at the end of the day? They don’t know if they have achieved something or not. And the business goes no where – scrappy and don’t know which opportunities to take and which to say ‘no’ to. There is no adventure because there’s no destination.
There were 3 instances in the past where I got opportunities to bring CTOs onboard. All failed and I believe the lack of vision was one of the main reasons why these partnerships didn’t materialise. I didn’t know where I was going and even if I said something, I didn’t really believe in it.
Hence I take a hard look at myself and it is my responsibility for the business staying stagnant for the past 3 years. I think we have already maxed out on what we can achieve taking a ‘managerial’ approach thus far. To bring it to the next level we need to live and breathe a vision. I need to behave like a leader.
Even for sales, it is important that I lead the customers in achieving a better life or at least a better version of themselves. I need to paint a vision for them instead of telling them the reality of having to prepare for the obstacles ahead.
Looking back, the history would have been written differently if I started to dream and desire since I was young. If my parents cannot afford what I wanted, couldn’t I find ways to earn it? Schools, society and the SAF have rules, but what if I stood up to what I believe and take time and effort to sell my ideas to those in charge, wouldn’t I be able to change some things?
It took me 20 years to realise it. But better late than never. Most importantly I am going to make the change, from a manager to a leader, starting with a vision.
I don’t have anything concrete yet and vision isn’t something that can be created within a day. It takes dedicated time to think about crafting this vision and to iterate it. Moreover I need to unlearn a lot of the currently irrelevant mindsets in order to be more idealistic and having more pathos in my thoughts. It will take time.
Another piece of learning is for parenting: