Journal

Reflections: Learning from Leadership Experiences

National Service in Singapore (note: Singapore practices conscription), as irritating as many think it might seem to many because it locks down an able-bodied male for anywhere between five to 20 years to service, and this is after the initial two-year full-time service in the armed forces or home defense units.

For me, I have the privilege of serving in the Republic of Singapore Navy. I am not a commissioned officer nor do I get to sail. I’m not even a specialist. However, I am given the opportunity to run along side with the commissioned officers, helping them out in events and projects that were assigned to them. It’s a great experience see them work and working under them and it makes me proud to be a part of the Navy family. Come to think of it, I might have also learnt a thing or two about leadership from them.

Open communication with the team, whatever your rank is, is crucial to the success of the projects you are running. Sometimes, we do take things a bit far and say that there is “no rank” in the Navy.

Going Solo

Moving on to my varsity days, I’m famous in my faculty as an events person. When I walked into the lecture theater, it seems as though almost everyone recognised me although I may not know all of them. Among the events I ran is School Day, a one-day event hosting 700 to 900 students and staff. I chaired that event personally, it was a lot of stress but everything went miraculously well. I was at the peak of my confidence at that time in leading my team to victory, a team which I hand-picked through an interview, but more importantly, a team that was highly committed.

I’ve learnt that it is important to choose your people carefully. For me, I chose people who I think that has the potential to grow and I tried to groom them to the potential I thought that they are capable of.

 

Years past again and fast forward to 2011, where a great watershed election is taking place in Singapore, an election that got everyone around me to be passionate about politics. All over Facebook was a wall of election thoughts, people making critical comments about the government and the oppositions alike, people who suddenly can all become the government:

“If I was the government, I would have done this to keep my votes instead!”

“If I was the opposition, I would have done that and tell the government off!”

It is great! For once, I can really say that I feel that the people of Singapore are now more willing and daring to voice their thoughts and feelings for their country.

 

Then there was this line from one of my favourite books:

“…, it is easy to be critical of one’s commanders after the event and it is a game that all junior ranks enjoy playing. It is wrong to indulge in it too much.”

~ Roald Dahl, “Going Solo”

 

I’m probably one of those guilty one who also go “If I was the government; If I was the opposition”. If anything the Toastmasters has taught me about leadership, it was to refrain from making to many of such comments.

“Maybe he has his reasons,” my usual reply these days.

“I’m sure that he could see more than I do,” in my mind, I would be thinking.

 

With that, I would like to share bits and bytes of my personal thoughts and reflections regarding my term as a club president of a Toastmasters club. This open reflection to me is also a personal assignment I set for myself, as part of the learning process.

*****

For fellow Toastmasters who are reading this post, please read the following section carefully.

To those who are intending to take up leadership post: I’m not going to be nice in this post and share all the positive stuff about my experiences. I’m going to do quite the opposite in face and share with you all the “negative” stuff. Then again, is it really positive or negative, that depends on how you look at it.

This should not deter you from taking up a leadership position within your club because of two things: everyone is going to have a different leadership experience, and, without putting yourself in crisis mode, you are never going to learn. I encourage everyone to bite the bullet and take up a leadership position some day. You will see growth in yourself.

*****

A Lil’ of Background about Toastmasters and Running a Toastmasters Club

What is Toastmasters? Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. (From the Toastmasters.org website).

Toastmasters would always claim that there is a strong similarity between how a corporation is ran and how a Toastmasters club is ran. Instead of starting an argument over who is right about this, maybe let me just list down a selected few task of what a Toastmasters club has to take care of from the perspective of a single club:

Developing members’ communication and leadership abilities – This is the core work of a Toastmasters club.

Raising awareness about the benefits of the Toastmasters movement and attracting more people to join Toastmasters (ie. Marketing) – This is secondary but just as important. A Toastmasters club that is sincere and successful in developing its members would usually have no problems with this.

Managing the club finances to ensure that it is well-spent – This helps to fund for capability development (eg. extra educational materials for the members), welfare (ie. food) and morale (ie. prizes and gifts) for the members.

Once the above three is settled, the natural progression will be to:

Forming strategic relationships with other Toastmasters clubs for mutual growth and benefits – No man is an island, so are Toastmasters clubs.

The rest are really the details, like how to make the Toastmasters programme interesting so that members get a fun environment to study in.

 

What’s tough about Toastmasters that the corporate might not experience? In my opinion, it is the fact that everyone is a volunteer. Toastmasters is always second priority. Commitment levels among the members are going to fluctuate.

 

About Manuals (aka Textbook)

In Toastmasters, we are given manuals to guide us through our task. In terms of training a person to be good in public speaking, there are clear instructions, guidelines and suggestions as to how one can make his speech a good one. However, when it comes to training a person to be a leader, the manual gets a bit blurry.

While the leadership “manual” defines the terms of reference (ie. what you are supposed to do) of the position you are holding, there is little about how to carried out the task. That is almost left as a blank. And the terms of reference, not surprisingly, defers from club to club, depending on the practices and the culture.

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Quick Thoughts and Flashbacks

It always looked simple when I see how the past presidents managed the club. But I knew it is not going to be easy. I’ve seen a bit on how tough things can get before but I didn’t realise that it is going to be a slugfest.

The first job for me was to put together a trusted team. This started before I got appointed as president. I chosen a largely inexperience team to help me. It was done on purpose for three things:

  1. I believe an inexperience team is capable of making big changes and has less baggage to carry along with them when they one to implement daring changes.
  2. I believe it is important to groom a new batch of leaders to take over some day.
  3. I also like the idea of everyone feeling their way and slog through the process with one another.

I also relied on my past experiences in the Navy and varsity for this. I try to encourage open communication and I had a picture in my mind of how to groom and guide everyone.

However, it was an extremely shaky start when I few Exco officers told me that they are unable to put in the minimal time for Toastmasters. Reiterating, Toastmasters is always second priority in everyone’s eyes.

A single officer is alright but a few is going to be problematic. Ultimately, this will affect the morale of the team if not handled properly. I think it did.

Then there were other panics as well. A huge part was spent firefighting.

Of course, thinking back, there could be a thousand and one things which I think I can do better.

Key Takeaway 1: Ask More and Don’t Assume

I am always asking my team if they need any help for tasks which they are assigned. Their replies to me were always that they can managed and I took their word for it. Sometimes, I really felt that they were just being kind. I am quite convinced that some of them aren’t coping well.

If I have to think about what I can do to get a better sensing, is perhaps to ask for a more detailed update on what they have done to understand the situation they are in a bit better, including how they are managing their primary commitments in their work and family together with their Toastmasters commitments.

Key Takeaway 2: Big Picture

I think that it is always really simple to say that we need to think of the big picture. However, when you are the decision maker, the added stress is going to make thinking with a clear head a tougher task than you think it is.

A single decision, no matter how small it is will somehow affect the other parts of your strategies. Sometimes, these may even affect other people. Sometimes, the effects of a single wrong decision will come back to haunt you for years and it is really not something that you can run away from.

If you want to know if you are really indeed a strategic planner, be a leader. It can be for an event or you can walk the journey that I walked. Take up a term as President in the Toastmasters club or some other committee that you might know of.  Firstly, you get to test yourself. Secondly, you can gain experience to become a better big picture person. Either way, you will stand to benefit. At least I did.

Key Takeaway3: Getting Others to Empower Others

I think I have quite a tough time trying to get the more responsible group of Exco to empower their peers to do the job. I believe that workload should be shared, as a learning experience for the entire Exco. Three reasons: allow those who are more capable not to be overtaxed by the workload, allow the rest to learn from the experience better and overall, getting more people groomed and developed by giving equal opportunities for them to shine.

I still believe this is a workable model and I wonder if I should be more pushy in my ideas. Then again, I believed that people should be persuaded rather than directed. I think I need to brush up my tact and persuasion skills more.

The Major Takeaway: Balance between The Work and The People

“Leadership is a process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” ~Chermers M~

This seems to be a definition for leadership widely accepted by the majority of theorists and researchers. This definition tells us something important about leadership to me. I may have a vision that I want to accomplish for the club. At the end of the day, it is really about working with people.

People are not going to be very focused at work. If they have family problems, they will bring it along with them. If they are unhappy about something in their personal life, they will bring it along with them. It is unfair to say that work is work and personal life is personal life. It is just being human that we will be affected by influences all around us.

I believe that a leader also has a tough job to be genuinely interested in his peers’ personal lives. Only then, will the leader be able to listen and act with empathy and hence more tact. Trust will be built and this will get done in better time.

*****

Epilogue

There is a lot more that I think I can share about if I want to. But really, this article is turning into a TL;DR. Let me  end off now by thanking the people who have given this precious opportunity to lead the club. It is a slugfest but I learnt a lot.

 

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