Yes, I’m the leader. No, I don’t have all the answers.

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“I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader

In the West, it seems we want to worship leaders who are invincible. Leaders who are all knowing, all wise and can do anything. In my experience, these leaders don’t exist.

The leader is the person who starts with a broad vision, then gets the right types of people around them to take this vision and improve on it.

Here’s how my experience as the leader of OIC Cambodia involves getting people better than me on board.

Previously on this blog, I described how, after coming to Cambodia, I discovered a huge gap in basic health care services. I was amazed that so many people could be left behind by the system of international development.

I felt isolated and hopeless.

If organisations with million dollar budgets weren’t addressing the urgent need for speech therapy, what could I do?

One thing was clear: walking away simply wasn’t an option. I had seen the progress that children like Srey Ran had made through basic speech therapy. If we could change her life, then we could change many more.

But how exactly would we do this? I wasn’t too sure.

I started out with these basic principles:

We would not start an NGO.

We would push for maximum Cambodian government ownership from the beginning.

We would create an exit strategy to ensure we got out of Cambodia.

But working out this strategy was something that I couldn’t do by myself. I needed a group of people to help me get OIC there. I needed to get the right people on the bus.

Let me explain.

Almost every journey begins with a rickety old bus. Photo credit: Flickr.
Almost every journey begins with a rickety old bus. Photo credit: Flickr.

Let’s say that OIC is a bus, and as the person who started the bus moving, I’m driving towards a destination. This destination could be as broad as speech therapy for everyone who needs it in Cambodia. I know roughly where that end point is, but I don’t know the specifics of how to get there.

To get there, I need to find people who are better than me.

We need people who can survey the road ahead of us, to tell us what is coming up ahead. We need people to track where we are in relation to the beginning and end of our journey. We also need people to maintain the bus itself – so that internally everything is in working order.

How do you get these people on the bus?

Conventional wisdom suggests you map out the path to the destination, and inspire people to come along with you.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins and his research team found this to be untrue.

They analysed common characteristics of American companies who went from being just “good” to then becoming “great”, over a period of 15 years.

Unsurprisingly, leadership played a big role. Collins and team didn’t find leaders who were great visionaries, able to articulate the pathway to glory.

These great leaders focussed on first who, then what.

In other words, they got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off it!) before deciding exactly where they were going.

After reading this, I thought about how to apply this idea to our work in Cambodia. Getting the right people on the bus was crucial.

OIC Cambodia's first staff member, Allison Smith, who specialises in communications. Photo credit: Hugo Sharp.
OIC Cambodia’s first staff member, Allison Smith, who specialises in communications. Photo credit: Hugo Sharp.

But how could we determine who the “right people” were?

One thing was for sure, we would have to think about it differently. For instance, we couldn’t hire on the basis of experience, since the more experienced candidates tended to flock to the UN or other large organisations, where pay checks were larger.

Instead, we hire on the basis of attitude, team fit and emotional intelligence.

In terms of attitude, the most important thing we seek is a heavy interest in learning. Someone may not have all they need to do the job right now, but if they are keen learners, they can pick it up quickly.

So far, OIC’s team is the best that I’ve worked with (of course I’m biased!) and this approach is paying off.

The people that are on the bus are surveying what is ahead and changing the course of where we’re going. They’re making sure that we’re sticking to what we said we would do, and living out our values. And, they are making sure the bus itself runs smoothly.

When the time comes for me to step back as OIC’s leader next year, I’m sure that the bus will be in better hands than what it started with.

By first focussing on who, not what, we’ve got the best possible people on board.

Hopefully, at the end of our journey, this will mean a better result for people like Srey Ran. And for the hundreds and thousands of other Cambodians who need speech therapy.


2 thoughts on “Yes, I’m the leader. No, I don’t have all the answers.

  1. Insightful Post Weh Yeoh – your bus metaphor is fun with the picture you have chosen too. I too lead a team of people who are smarter, better than me. We do and achieve things that no one has thought of. It might be my big idea in the beginning, but the team, well they take up the idea implement it and make it even better. Great to see how this principle applies to leading people – not matter if you are for profit, NFP or a project!

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