Hannah Nazri is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of The Kalsom Movement, an Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society, and 2015 Finalist of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award. Outside her Trustee role, she is a medical doctor and DPhil candidate at University of Oxford. Her speech during the United Kingdom & Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC)’s 2018 Impact Stories, inspired from her reflections on leadership during her time in The Kalsom Movement, is captured in this essay.
My mother was my teacher. She was persistent and patient in teaching me mathematics, science and English when I was a child. She is a perfectionist and that shaped my view of the world. A tough perfectionist – an Asian tiger mum, if you like! But I understood that she had my best interests at heart. The idea of education being important to my success later in life was very much instilled to the core of my being. At 9, I told my mother that I will do my own studying and at that age, I was already doing subjects a few years above me. In fact, I recalled telling myself that if I don’t study, I would be putting my future generation at a disadvantaged – I must be a weird child! She allowed me the freedom to study on my own and at 11, I won a full scholarship to a private boarding school in Malaysia. My parents insisted I was too young to be away from home, but I still wanted to go because I know great education is hard to come by.
Years passed, and in 2004, after SPM, the Malaysian equivalent of GCSEs, I returned home not quite finding home to be the same. I came to appreciate that while I was in boarding school I was spared from the troubles that had burdened my family. But I think we have always overlooked “hidden”, “covert” poverty in Kuala Lumpur. A recent UNICEF study has uncovered that children living in low-cost housing or People’s Housing Projects (PPRs) in Kuala Lumpur face high rates of poverty, and as a result, suffer from malnutrition and have lesser educational opportunities compared to the national average. But why is this surprising? Of course, education inequality also exists within the subpopulations of urban cities such as Kuala Lumpur and should not be overlooked. Another important aspect to remember is how fragile and impermanent life is – one moment you are bathed in luxury, and the next in abject, “hidden” poverty which feels like a huge slap to the face. Do you know of family members or friends in such situations? You probably don’t, because they won’t tell you out of shame, and yet these people find it hard to even fulfil the bottom most of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I digress.
I came to realise how invaluable and how privileged the experiences I had in my boarding school. I had a tremendous amount of guilt towards my family and was determined to push everyone to do well. I somewhat became my mother, the third parent, pushing my siblings to do well academically, while also pushing myself to do well to get into medical school. I made it to medical school and so did my siblings, doing courses of their interests in university. They had done extremely well in their universities, but I was also determined for them to aware of the sufferings of others in far more disadvantageous situations. Being grateful, staying humble is important.
So, when I heard of (Projek) Kalsom and of the work that they had done to combat educational inequality in 2009, I was intrigued and inspired. The premise of The Kalsom Movement is to develop Malaysia’s future leaders by empowering university students to share their knowledge and skills to help younger economically-disadvantaged Malaysian students achieve their ambitions. In turn, these Malaysian university students also benefit from discovering their own leadership potentials and organisational skills and becoming more perceptive of issues surrounding education inequality in Malaysia. That is what Kalsom is precisely about – a training ground whether you are part of the committee, facilitators, or the younger students receiving mentorship.
But it was in 2010 that I decided to take the big step and convinced Sabrina, my sister, to join Projek Kalsom and since then we haven’t looked back. To be honest, I initially could not find the time in 2010 but then decided to cancel all my other plans during the summer to sign up, so I could convince Sabrina to do the same. To spend a few days in a village in rural Terengganu was frightening to me and I bet it was for my sister as well, because we didn’t know what to expect! We do not have a kampung (a Malaysian village) as most of my friends who live in Kuala Lumpur do, and they return to their kampungs during festive seasons, so this idea of a kampung was completely alien to me. I recalled the toilet being outside of the house and a huge toad in the bathroom. My foster mother bought a lot of bread because she was told that I did not eat rice since I am from Kuala Lumpur and had spent years in the UK – so that was funny…So, this is the first lesson in leadership: To lead by example. Don’t ask others to do things that you are not willing to do.
When I became Director in 2011, I was amazed with the rich history that Kalsom had throughout the 17 years. But there was always room for improvement. So, I had led my team to register Projek Kalsom under the Registrar of Youth Societies by the Ministry of Youth and Sports Malaysia. In 2012, Projek Kalsom became Kelab Belia Kalsom and this had led to recognition after recognition by companies, GLCs, foundations which became our sponsors and supporters, which led to better modules and programmes for our beneficiaries.
Kalsom has definitely come a long way, and I cannot take credit for all of it. Firstly, we must acknowledge the founding members of Projek Kalsom – the late Adlan Benan Omar, who is also founding member of United Kingdom & Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC), Datuk Abdul Rahman Mohd Redza, current MP of Linggi, and Syahriman Baharom Shah. Secondly, a name that is familiar to all of you – Mohd Zulikhwan Ayub who transformed Kelab Belia Kalsom into The Kalsom Movement. Zulikhwan, was recently the 2017 Finalist of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award by the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust and Royal Commonwealth Society. So Projek Kalsom has transformed into The Kalsom Movement in 2014, a performance-driven entity with a huge focus on impact measurement. And I am happy to say we have great examples of our successes. We have Hajar Nur Asyiqin who is a Bank Negara Kijang Emas Scholar at Imperial College, Prakash Ramanathan who decided to volunteer back with Kalsom after previously being a beneficiary in Projek Kalsom in 2011 and currently a student at Universiti Teknikal Melaka Malaysia, Kevin Khun who is an engineering student under the Public Service Department Scholarship in France and many other students who have made me so proud.
Throughout the years, I was Director of Projek Kalsom, then founding President of Kelab Belia Kalsom and now the Chair of the Board of Trustees of The Kalsom Movement – I am no longer the 21-year-old Director grappling to understand my own leadership style and juggling medical exams, and it is sometimes difficult to remember this. I can be that perfectionist “mother” and will fail to see that many other people are not like me or share the same ideas as I do. What you don’t want your organisation to be, is one that is cowered in a culture of fear. The standards that we set in The Kalsom Movement were so high and very often we achieve this with no issues at all, that I sometimes forget (and the world forgets), that this charity is ran by students who volunteer their time and not paid full-time employees.
Be kind. It was my DPhil supervisor in Oxford who reminded me of this. Last month, I had a difficult problem that left me extremely emotionally drained. My supervisor told me to take the week off. He could be one of those people, who said, “Your work is key. I am not interested in your personal issues.” He didn’t. He responded to me in kindness in my hour of need. So, my second point, is compassionate leadership, with a caveat; of course, we must be professional and be accountable. I did take the week off, but I came back, worked harder than ever, and gave better results. Organisations that promote values above performance, see a phenomenal transformation in the work ethics of their employees which results in much, much better performance. So, promote compassion, understanding and transparency. Promote communication. Above all, be compassionate to yourself. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, “Done is better than perfect.” Try to let go of unattainable standards. Aiming for perfection causes frustration at best and paralysis at worst.
My third leadership lesson: To be a leader, you don’t need to the best at everything. You just need to be best at being a leader! As Chair of the Board of Trustees of The Kalsom Movement, I do not know everything. I do not want to know everything. I trust my executive committee, to run things day-to-day. I can still recall the first time I was trying to register Projek Kalsom in 2011 – it took me almost a year because getting the right people on board was difficult. Leaders are visionary, leaders set the strategic direction of the team. Unfortunately, at that time, not many shared my views about Kalsom so it was an extremely stressful time for me. Progress was stagnant until 2014. This brings to my fourth point: Be patient. The best things come to those who are purposeful and patient. Finding your team members, finding people who share your vision and values is essential to achieving the goals of your organisation.
This brings to my fifth and biggest leadership lesson: Leaders as hosts and not heroes, an idea by Margaret Wheatley and Debbie Frieze in 2010, which struck a chord in me so deeply. You do not want to be the hero with zero. You cannot do everything. The best leader is one that can recognise, develop, and motivate the talent to achieve the goals of the organisation. He or she knows which person is best at doing what and utilises this person appropriately. Do you think you might be a hero? Do you take on too many projects? Preferring noble causes to building relationships? The illusion of being a hero comes from the best intentions. But you think you’re special. You think you are the only person who can solve and fix things, and that no one will ever be able to step up to your level. That no one cares about the organisation.
So, these heroes with zero micromanage, give unconstructive feedback and are hostile and are striding down a one-way street to destruction. That street is a dead-end! They end up in that dead-end – alone, exhausted, and unappreciated. The problem is simple, if you do all the caring, why will anyone else care? People do not need saving. The organisation does not need leaders with saviour complex. Think about it, why do the members of your team want to work with you? It is because they share the same beliefs and goals, they want to contribute, and they believe that they have the ability to do so. Encourage them, walk at their level, understand what makes them tick. Take time to know them. Trust them. Allow some flexibility, allow your team members to make mistakes so long as it is not catastrophic, so they may learn from them. It is your job as a leader to think ahead, to control the learning environment, and make it a safe space for them to learn so that they grow. Support your team, and they will support you. Support your “family” before you go out trying to support others. Most of us are nicer to clients, guests, and other external people, but forget to be nice to the very people who will support you. We are less forgiving to those in our team. Learn how to give constructive feedback. Do not personalise mistakes, instead, personalise development and growth. Leadership is common sense. It is not about just your IQ, it is about emotional intelligence.
“Serve to lead” is the motto of Sandhurst Military Academy, which I believe describes what I am trying to convey very well. With that, I would like to invite you to think again – What makes effective leadership?