Leadership Lessons Ripped From The Front Pages

You could not have been a regular news reader/watcher in the past 30 days here in Singapore without reading of the politics, drama, and tussle for the leadership of AWARE ( Association of Women for Action and Research). For years, AWARE was well known for its outreach programmes to a variety of women from all walks of life, and pursued advocacy in Parliament for certain women-related issues. But as membership dwindled, and with some of it’s programmes viewed as ‘gay-neutral’ by conservatives, a group with no previous affiliation quietly joined AWARE (together with a group of supporters), legally took over the association at the annual general meeting in April.

The reaction to this perceived ‘ infiltration’ of a seemingly conservative all-Christian (many of the new committee were from the same church) group into a secular organisation created a storm in a teacup. As more details slowly leaked out, it seemed that the group had been egged on by a conservative senior ex-university dean unhappy with AWARE’s liberal slant. The controversy commandeered major media coverage like never before. An Extraordinary General Meeting was called last weekend where over 3000 people attended, and a vote of no confidence successfully tabled against the so-dubbed ‘ usurpers’, who then resigned.

Having held leadership positions in two non-governmental organisations since 1993, here’s my take on what went totally wrong for the group that took over AWARE in April:

1) Lack of Clarity of Goals:
A key attribute of strong leadership is clarity of goals in the short and longer term. From media reports, the ‘new guard’ that conducted the dawn raid on control for AWARE eventually made clear that that one of reasons to spur them into action was their self-righteous belief of what was going wrong in the group. However, they did not seem to have a well-articulated vision for the organisation’s future. Though not wanting something can be strong motivator, to inspire the organisation, you need a clear positive, opportunity-seeking goal. When under pressure, the committee failed to lend clarity to future goals.

2) Lack of Communication:

There was no lack of this from the new guard, just a glaring lack of specifics, intentions and transparency, key components of effective leadership communications. Eventually, their real intentions were known, and this made their whole platform for gaining control of AWARE suspect. Had they made intentions clearer, created an internal platform for change of modification within AWARE, they may have, over time, won members over.

3) Leadership is about Influence:
On two separate occasions, the new committee and its septuagenarian mentor alluded to their legitimacy by emphasising a) the legality of their position, and b) the increasingly rowdy meeting attendees should ‘respect their elders’. What a sorry state of affairs when leaders have to press-gang the law to emphasise their legitimacy, and that age alone conferred respect. In short, they failed collectively to understand that leadership is about influence and substance, not legal technicalities (irrespective of the ‘ correctness’ of the law). By failing to engage the membership before the general meeting, and by failing to earn their respect, little wonder why they lost the no-confidence vote by a 2/3rds majority Leaders lead by influence, not by titles or technicalities

4) Play nice:
Nothing, I repeat, nothing, undermines your ability to lead if you are perceived to be a manipulative, with possibly self-serving intentions.  The committee, no matter how well-meaning they were in terms of bringing segments of AWARE’s public programmes more in-line with their own conservative, pro-Christian slant, were viewed as sneaky. Sneaky isn’t nice.

Now it should be interesting to see to what extent the present committee of long-standing stalwarts can subscribe to these leadership skills