Leadership Fatalities – 5 Mistakes a Leader Must Never Make!


Image Courtesy of Channel NewsAsia
Image Courtesy of Channel NewsAsia




“The feeling in the room was electrifying. I still can’t get over the fact that we got Aware back. It is a great moral victory.”

– Constance Singam, past president of Aware




You would probably know the story by know. But I’d like to take the analysis of the Old Guard’s victory one step further and examine it under the microscope of communication and the fatal mistakes the New Guard made as leaders – for your benefit of course. (*winks*)

The following are 5 Leadership Fatalities that a leader must NEVER make:

1. Not Being Open and Transparent Enough

“You have not been open and honest with us from the beginning. I am concerned that if you remain in office, you will change the fundamental nature of Aware.”

– Former Aware president Zaibun Siraj, on Ms Josie Lau’s team


Like what Zaibun mentioned, and if you’ve read the newspaper articles that I uploaded, the New Guards had left lots of questions unanswered when the world began asking questions.

This naturally led to speculation which in turn led to more (tougher) questions being asked.

Eventually, there were more questions asked than answers tendered. Some questions tendered by the media weren’t even answered – and these led to an erosion of trust – which is the FUNDAMENTAL unit in ANY form of relationship – for the leaders.

You wouldn’t follow somebody you didn’t trust, would you?

Lesson #1: You can’t do anything with people who don’t trust you.




2. Legal Authority is not Enough

Questions were asked about the New Guard’s decisions to remove key sub-committee members who had been leading projects and volunteering for years in the organization.

Many times, replies were given along the lines of the Exco’s decision to restructure, reorganization and consolidate the organisation’s operations; or that personnel were removed because they had failed in certain aspects of their duties.

One individual was even removed from her post without reason.

Whilst it can be argued that authority may be bestowed and exercised, it is hard to exert one’s authority without real influence and winning the hearts of the people.

Hearts can’t be won without moral authority – and when people unite around what they perceive as a “just” cause and what they feel is right, the bonds of righteousness is hard to break (think terrorism and civil wars etc).

So, while legal authority may be bestowed – moral authority has be won. People do not submit themselves to people – they submit themselves to ideologies and “reason”.

Unfortunately, the reasons the New Guards gave were either weak or non-existent.

Lesson #2: Laws don’t make you right. Justifiable reasons do. Learn how to establish moral authority.

“I thought they had it rough but they could have handled the situation better. Josie appeared arrogant to me from her choice of words and demeanour. She kept calling for security and had to repeat it two or three times. You would expect better standards of organisation from the leadership. The team’s words were also not well thought out, whereas the old guard came very prepared.”

– Kamalam Suppiah, 50, a lawyer




3. Losing Moral Authority

Whilst the manner the New Guards came into power had raise a couple of eyebrows, their subsequent actions saw them lose moral authority.

From the lack of transparency and lack in responsiveness to questions and handling of personnel issues with mere legal authority – the New Guards lost lots of ground and opportunity to establish its moral authority.

And although some members of the public did support the New Guard’s position where sexuality education was concerned, they simply could not support the manner they came to power and attempts to effect change.

The principle that leaders need to rule with moral authority has stood the test of time. the most successful Emperors from Ancient China (from way before the time of Christ) were those who knew how to establish moral authority. Those who didn’t… were usually the casualties of turmoil and uprisings and credited for ending their dynasties.

Is it any wonder why the New Guards could not win popular support to push through their agenda?

Moral Authority is won through empathy, respect, and demeanor of a leader too. High-handedness seldom win respect though… as one panelists (New Guard Exco) demonstrates with her shelling of a member:

[By the way, office bearers were elected by members to lead and serve the best interest of members and the organisation they represent. I doubt the outburst did much to convince the audience of that the leader was for them. Notice how the crowd reacted after the shelling?]

Lesson #3: Moral Authority must be established through understanding the feelings and culture on the ground. Culture and perceptions on the ground must be actively shaped for one to establish influence.




4. Losing the Battle in the Media

And how does one shape culture and perceptions on the ground? The answer in the 21st Century lies in the Media – another area the New Guards lost… right from the start.

In an era when the information travels light and fast, concerted and repetitive reporting by the media WILL shape the perception of the people. This is especially true if there is no credible or powerful counter-arguments to defuse the intellectual weapons that bombard information recipients.

Think of it: People may feel doubtful about a certain piece of information the first time they hear it. But if a certain perception or line of thought is consistently repeated without refutation… wouldn’t it be perceived with a certain degree of truth?

Wouldn’t you be more susceptible to that particular train of thought too?

Think advertising and branding.

Also, because the media is selective in reporting issues, what is featured is generally perceived as something worth paying attention to… and the report “objective” and more readily accepted by people.

The media, thus, can really make or break you! Unfortunately… I doubt this was really understood by the New Guards. Observe the difference between the Old Guard and New Guard’s images of the media in the following video:

Did you notice the notice the difference in mannerisms, tone and willingness to respond? [Recap Lesson #1]. The irony here is that “No Comment” probably did them more harm than good. The unspoken and unconscious message that was probably picked up by people was: If you’ve nothing to hide, why do you need to meet and discuss for so long before breaking the silence?

Wouldn’t you agree?

Lesson #4: The media is a powerful tool. Public perception can be swayed by what’s reported in it… especially how consistently the messages are reported in it. Beware of what comes out of it!




5. Organisation and Moral Support

“I attended the AGM and it was heartbreaking when I stood up and asked if they understood the principles of AWARE and they did not answer.”

– Nancy Griffiths, mother of two and AWARE member since 2002




As an observer at the EGM, I witnessed first hand how organised the Old Guards were in mobilising and managing their “army”.

Not only had they seasoned “generals” (okay… I shall term them as leaders), they had a battle plan with clear objectives and a road map laid out before them.

They were ready to lose and set up a new organisation. But they weren’t leaving without a fight. And they did put one heck of an organised one!

Mobilizing over 900 supporters, they had

i. volunteers who acted as legal advisers for free

ii. volunteers who served as body guards to ensure the welfare of key “Old Guard” members

iii. volunteers who printed and prepared handouts to supporters

iv. volunteers who helped control the crowd

v. volunteers who helped prepare and move heave items and serve refreshments to other volunteers and members

vi. volunteers who were in charge of dealing with the media…

They even had volunteers who turned up early to reserve seats near the microphone to ensure that the “grilling” team would have the best seats to raise questions! (See article)

And by the way, in the midst of all the debate going on in the hall, they had another volunteer in charge of disseminating sms updates to all 900 volunteers to coordinate their actions. Not manually – but through a software one of the supporters owned.

I stood in awe with their level of preparedness. These women were really at war! And they were highly ready for battle!

The New Guards, in comparison, were understaffed and unprepared in more ways than one…

Was it any wonder that they lost?

“They were just out of their depth. They could not hold their own on any issues. What they demonstrated today was that they did not understand what Aware stood for and what it is all about. They are totally incapable of leading the organisation.”

– Seri Suriyani, 37, a client director at a branding consultancy firm

Lesson #5: Preparedness and organisation was the nail in the coffin and contributed a great deal to the Old Guard’s success. It enabled the Old Guard to portray a picture of calm and professionalism and helped them to even higher level of moral victory… which really did them no harm – at all!




* * *

The AWARE Saga has provided a learning opportunity for us all. In more ways than one really.

Whilst it would be out of my scope and ability to comment on the entire saga, I think we can all do much to learn from the Five Fatalities that Leader must not commit in order to succeed.

Rest assured this will not be my last post on leadership.

In the meantime, let’s learn from the mistakes made by others and use them as much as possible to our advantage.

It’s less painful that way.

Speak Up and Stand Out – The Right WAY!

*Disclaimer*This article was written for the purpose of education in the area of leadership and communication. Let it be known that the author does not expressly support or discount or discriminate against the integrity of the organisation or individuals involved in the events leading up to the writing of this article

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