7 August 2013

Turning students into leaders

By Alex Ng Hou Hong

These days, most university students put too much weight on academic results and tend to neglect the importance of extra-curricular activities. Getting involved in activities such as sports, debates, forums, community service and charity work can give them the exposure in attaining leadership, communication, planning and organising skills, to name a few.

For the purpose of this article, I would like to stress the importance of leadership since it is a requirement in all aspects of life, be it in business, family or sports. But what exactly is a leader? Is one born for this role or can one be trained to lead? According to James MacGregor Burns, an authority on leadership, a leader is one who is capable of organising a group of people to achieve a common goal. A leader, let’s say a manager, has formal authority to reward and punish followers in order to manage the team’s performance. This leadership style was discussed by Burns in his book Leadership published in 1978. He termed this “Transactional leadership”. The “transaction” here is money: the staff are paid for their obedience and performance. This is commonly adopted by managers in the public and private sectors. It emphasizes the basic management process of controlling, organizing, and short-term planning. It has worked quite well so far.

“Transformational leadership” is another concept introduced by Burns in the same book. Transformational leaders motivate their teams to be effective and efficient. Communication is the basis for goal achievement. These leaders are normally prominent figures and they know how to make use of the chain of command to get the job done. They only focus on the big picture so they need to be surrounded by people who can work on the details. The transformational leader is always looking for ideas to move the organisation closer to its vision.

In my opinion, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as the Sarawak Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Junior Chamber International Youth Swinburne Sarawak, are some of the best places to acquire leadership skills. However, the leadership concepts brought forth by Burns might not work well as most leaders in NGOs lack the power to reward or punish subordinates. It is therefore a challenge for these leaders to get the right people to work on operational details. In this context, we need to reconsider the definition of leadership introduced by Martin M. Chemers in his book, An Integrative Theory of Leadership, published in 1997. It proposes that “Leadership is the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” According to Chemers, effective leaders should focus on:

1. Image Management – Leadership is a process of social influence. Therefore a leader-follower relationship in the early stages is based on images and impressions of individuals but as time goes by, they are based on experience and evaluation.

2. Relationship Development – A key leadership function is building a motivated and capable team through coaching and guidance. The leader must understand follower needs and goals. Effective coaching is different for each individual and must meet subordinates where they are. Understanding can only be achieved if the leader is able to overcome ego-defensiveness, i.e. avoid distorted judgments and perceptions that protect the leader’s self-esteem. Finally, effective leadership must exist in an atmosphere of justice and fairness. When leaders listen to followers and explain the basis for their decisions, a foundation is laid for mutual trust and respect.

3. Resource Deployment – Once a leader has built a motivated and skilled team, capacity must be coordinated and applied to achieve success. Two processes are involved: firstly, high levels of leadership and collective efficacy help to maintain energy and attention through difficult stages of mission accomplishment; secondly, the strategies chosen for deployment (e.g. status and authority structures, decision-making processes) must be matched to the nature of the organisational environment (i.e. pace of technological change, accuracy and availability of information, and competition).

Based on Chemers’ integrative theory of leadership, leaders in NGOs must project an image of self-confidence, conviction and integrity in order to influence its members to serve voluntarily. In addition, they must guide and train members to carry out tasks effectively. It may sound like a huge challenge but we have to start somewhere and it is never too late to embark on a leadership quest.

As a senior lecturer and advisor of a student society, I have seen many students turn into capable leaders through various co-curricular activities. They lead by good example and are as committed in accomplishing tasks as they are passionate about training junior members. I strongly encourage students to get involved with NGOs as the exposure will definitely serve them well. The experience may even open up avenues for employment after they graduate.

Alex Ng Hou Hong is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at hng@swinburne.edu.my