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Leadership In Turbulent Times

August 24, 2017
We live in a world where the only constant is change. Eight years ago, the financial crisis of 2008 shook the world. Then came September 11. More recently, aviation disasters, terror attacks, economic uncertainty, a shocking start to 2016 for China’s financial markets after three decades of double-digit growth, weakening of the Malaysian ringgit beyond 4 to the dollar (for the first time since 1998) and oil prices dropping to below $50 a barrel – all events which have seen businesses relook the way they operate, to adapt to the changing environment.
What do we do when times of growing volatility reign and crises dominate the headlines? Few industries are spared, even fewer businesses escape unscathed. What is it that can help a company stand the test of time, especially during a turbulent period?

Perhaps leadership – great leadership – is the difference between a company that makes it and a company that doesn’t.


Great Leadership – from the leaders themselves

At the Offshore Technology Conference Asia (OTC Asia) 2016, during the Achieving Excellence in Asia: Leadership Stories session, a panel of three leaders – from GEAirAsia Group and Iclif – discussed the significance of leadership and the crucial need for excellence in this area during times of uncertainty.


(L-R) Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, Founder & CEO of AirAsia Group;  John G. Rice, Vice Chairman of GE and President & CEO of GE Global Growth and Operations;  Rajeev Peshawaria, CEO & Executive Director of Iclif; and Satish Shankar, Managing Partner, Bain & Company, SEA.

All leaders are different in their values, their leadership style and their vision – just as all business have different values, approaches and goals. There’s no hard or fast rule when it comes to leadership, and it’s not one formula for success. But what sets a great leader apart from the pack, is perhaps the realisation that a leader is only as good as his or her team.

The notion that individuals run companies, make decisions, is wrong. It might have existed in the 70s and 80s a little bit, but I think that the work we do, whether supporting the oil & gas industry, the aviation industry, the healthcare industry… the most significant things we do as a company result from the teams that come together. It’s not one person. It’s not any of our business leaders working alone. It can’t be about one person. And we can’t lose sight of that,” said John G. Rice, Vice Chairman of GE and President & CEO of GE Global Growth and Operations.


With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

If a leader is only as good as the people he or she leads, then developing that talent becomes a leader’s most important job. “It’s a fantastic thing to get to be a leader. Leadership is about turning raw diamonds into diamonds,” said Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, Founder & CEO of AirAsia Group.

Effective leaders are good listeners, and willing to learn from anybody they interact with – be it a person on their leadership team, a junior member of the company or someone running the machinery in the R&D compound. The best leaders of our time are often not afraid to be in the front line and do the groundwork, to understand their people and the job on different levels.


Leading through the Storm

But perhaps the most challenging test of all, for all leaders, is the test of turbulent times. Global crises, economic volatility and uncertainty – these are all part and parcel of the world we operate in.

What can leaders to do to keep their businesses competitive through these times?

It’s all a cycle. Continue to invest in the business, with a long-term view. Work your way through the cycle and don’t just succumb to it. Communicate – it’s the most important time for a leader to be communicating,” said Rice.

With CEOs being viewed as less credible than peers and employees, it is more crucial than ever for leaders to be transparent and honest in their communication. Too many leaders are not transparent and are poor communicators. When challenging times come around, transparency and communication serve as the litmus test for leaders.

For Rajeev Peshawaria, CEO & Executive Director of Iclif, preparation is key. “How does a leader make difficult decisions? By being prepared at all times. By asking two questions – what is my purpose and what are my leadership values? That, is the essence of leadership, in difficult times, and in good times.

Many companies make the mistake of being underprepared. “Too many businesses live in the good times and are not prepared for the bad times. Manage consistently, whether it’s boom time or bust time. Too many companies ride the cycles,” said Fernandes.


Evolution and Recognising the Need for Change

You can’t predict cycles that easily. The current oil prices are proof of that – we still don’t really understand why it happened. That’s why we need leadership. We just have to get used to it and not worry so much about forecasting and predicting. We have to learn how to adapt and be resilient as leadership teams and as companies. If you want to be around 100 years from now it’s about how you adapt and respond, not how you forecast,” said Rice.

The constant in leadership then, is realising that successful companies evolve with its environment.