Leadership is about more than just winning power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2011, 12:00am


Afew weeks ago, I attended a conference on leadership with a particular focus on Hong Kong's next generation of leaders. It offered an interesting look at the sort of people who might be taking senior positions in the community in roughly the next 10 years or so. It was also a good opportunity to ask serious questions about the meaning of leadership.

The conference started off with a few words from Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Almost as soon as he had left, the keynote speaker, Professor Dean Williams of Harvard Kennedy School, delivered his address.

He said we must distinguish leaders from managers; the former mobilise a group of people to confront problems and find answers, while the latter simply maintain order and give directions in accordance with the authority they have. And he said we must not confuse real leaders with fake ones; the former get people to face hard truths and take ownership of problems, while the latter are mainly concerned with status and dominance and believe one person can have all the answers.

In case you are thinking what some people in the hall were thinking, these comments are Professor Williams' core themes. He has expressed them many times before around the world, and he had no one particular in mind.

They were thought-provoking ideas because they remind us how rare a truly talented leader is. People may complain about the quality of leadership in government (or other areas) in Hong Kong. But just how many people are there who could do better? Maybe some, but the number must be small.

Convincing people to accept something they dislike is difficult. I think most people who have been in leadership positions can think of times when they have wanted to get something done but failed to achieve it because other people did not want to follow. There is no shortage of examples from our government; attempts to reform the tax and health-care-financing systems have flopped after the community did not buy the ideas.

Of course, it could be that the reality leaders want others to accept is flawed. Some would say that about the government's proposed fiscal reforms, which were criticised essentially for trying to solve problems that did not exist. That leads us to the question of how we choose our leaders and make sure they are up to the job.

Professor Williams had some interesting comments about electoral politics, describing getting elected as a sort of seduction, and even defining politics as the art of getting and holding onto power. It is easy to see how 'fake' leaders, who stress their own authority as an end in itself, can win elections more easily than the real thing.

The good news is that most successful political leaders are not simply driven by a desire for status. The successful ones, the professor believes, have to be driven by a passion to make things better. People who do not passionately want to change things - whether it is schools, the environment or public finances - should, as he puts it, get out of the way.

The conference featured a lot of new-generation leaders. Interestingly, the ones who displayed passion were from outside politics. They included people who had started up a vibrant, creative business or - in a couple of cases - helped set up social enterprises that make a profit as well as help disadvantaged parts of the community.

The young politicians present seemed more concerned with rising up their respective party ladders. One, from a pro-democracy party, noted the challenges of an environment with too many high-profile leaders. Another, from a pro-Beijing party, spoke of having to use stealth to rise up in a largely older grass-roots organisation. They are both very smart, but I couldn't help thinking that the main thing they have a passion to change is the number of votes they get.

It has occurred to me before: many of the new generation of leaders in Hong Kong may not come from a political background.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils