John Davis looks at five timeless leadership characteristics – and picks five business leaders who embody them today
For all the advances made by modern medicine, the Fountain of Eternal Youth has proved elusive. The Fountain of Eternal Leadership remains similarly out of reach. But we’ve achieved a lot in trying to reach them, and – in leadership as in medicine – discovered some timeless truths of benefit to us all.
When it comes to our pursuit of youth, humanity has made incredible strides in delaying the onset of old age and ill health. Research has identified behaviours and routines – regular exercise, a balanced diet, a healthy lifestyle, mindfulness – that can help us enjoy a better quality of life as we age.
When it comes to leadership, it often seems that leaders reflect their times: the qualities we admire change depending on context. But it is increasingly clear this isn’t the full story. A growing body of social science shows that there are certain practices and behaviours that are consistently exemplified by top-performing leaders. One is a strong ethical and moral compass, which has underscored the most admired leaders throughout history: let’s assume that this is the minimum cost of entry.
What, then, are the other behaviours that define today’s best leaders?
It’s a question that I’ve examined closely, drawing on experiences over my career – throughout which I have been fortunate enough to work with many exemplary leaders – and the study of top performers in 300-plus organizations worldwide, including for-profit companies, non-profits and government agencies. The definition of a top performer can be distilled down to this:
A person who consistently exceeds expectations, leads by example, and whose behaviours are admirable and worthy of emulation, thereby representing the very best of society.
That definition is built upon hundreds of identifiable characteristics, but analysis has revealed five common meta-behaviour themes. I have called these the ‘Five Ambassadors’.
Real-world ambassadors are tasked with positively representing specific entities – countries, for example – and actions, and that is exactly what these five characteristics do for leadership as a whole.
For individuals to be considered a top performer in the research, they had to demonstrate all five Ambassador behaviours consistently over time.
Around 10% made this cut-off. They are a fascinating and diverse group: sales people in hi-tech, NGO country heads, government leaders, entrepreneurs, and a category of professionals I call ‘the re-inventionists’, who have thrived by pursuing a varied portfolio of interests.
When the headlines are full of attention-grabbing ‘leaders’ with questionable, even deplorable, qualities, my studies are reassuring. They are a reminder that the world has a huge number of admirable, exemplary people who are truly leaders and worthy of emulation. I remain convinced that opportunities abound for such people to succeed, willing as they are to practice the timeless behaviours of the Five Ambassadors.
So, what are the Five Ambassadors and how are they demonstrated?
1 Brand Ambassador
The behaviour that top performers exhibit as representatives of their organization’s culture and image.
2 Imagination Ambassador
Exemplified by combining resources in novel ways to benefit stakeholders.
3 Relationship Ambassador
An approach to relationships that sees them as people-centred not numbers-driven, and as life-time, not one-time.
4 Insight Ambassador
Perpetual curiosity leading to deeper understanding of markets and trends, and knowledge which is integrated in their work.
5 Experience Ambassador
Demonstrated by sharing lessons from experience, inviting input and advice, and inspiring collective action to create meaningful impact for stakeholders.
Looking for inspiration? Let’s look at some exemplary leaders who bring the Five Ambassadors to life today.
Nadda Buranasiri, group CEO of AirAsia X
Nadda Buranasiri epitomizes the Brand Ambassador. Whenever Buranasiri gives presentations he is polished and deliberate, integrating relevant evidence-based insights that convey the AirAsia X story.
He links the brand narrative to specific metrics, reinforcing the value connection between intangible perception and tangible performance. He exudes passion for the company: he avoids succumbing to corporate-speak and is refreshingly agile in tailoring his message to his audiences.
The Brand Ambassador behaviour is also evident in Buranasiri’s thoughtful use of visual and verbal imagery. Visual media are obviously powerful aids to story-telling, but verbal imagery is equally important, if more abstract. Word choices, narrative arc and the speaker’s presence all make a difference.
Buranasiri is exceedingly clear on why and how the AirAsia X approach benefits customers. The entire group of operating companies put customers at the heart of their operations and this drives measurable performance gains: over 114 million passengers flown since 2001, a 25% people growth rate, 87% load factors, and the Best Low-Cost Airline Premium Cabin prize in the 2018 Skytrax industry awards.
Brand runs through the company internally, as well as in its external communications. Buranasiri emphasizes the need to bring to life the company’s values, mission and behaviours, aligning business operations accordingly. His behaviour, and that of his management team, are critical. As he puts it, “We are still running like a start-up, with very few layers and all feet on the ground. Employees are actively encouraged to be vocal, sharing their ideas with management and me.”
Anna Gong, CEO and founder of Perx Technologies Pte Ltd
As chief executive and founder of Singapore-based Perx Technologies – a rapidly growing technology start-up in loyalty marketing and mobile customer engagement – Anna Gong is expected to create outsized value for her stakeholders and investors.
She has faced significant challenges. Limited funding has demanded that capital inflows are invested with immense precision. The company lacks the luxury of investing heavily in R&D with an inherently uncertain pay-off and has not been able to easily acquire all the capabilities it needs to fulfil her vision. So Gong imaginatively upended Perx’s business model.
It has not been an easy journey: the company transitioned from a failing B2C mobile app to a successful B2B, Software as a Service (SaaS) model, with an artificial intelligence enabled platform. That approach has found Perx a market among companies wrestling with the fast-changing digital economy. Gong and her team now co-create with their customers, blending their scarce resources. The result has been the development of new revenue streams for Perx and its customers simultaneously.
The company is also helping large enterprises – including banks, insurance companies, telcos, retail and manufacturing conglomerates – to monetize their growing data insights by creating lifestyle solutions tuned to customers’ ever-evolving needs. In effect, Perx is helping its B2B businesses create their own social networks, built around each enterprise’s deep understanding of its customers and an imaginative approach to creating value.
Pakpoom Vallisuta, chairman, The QuantGroup
The QuantGroup is an M&A advisory firm in Southeast Asia that executes several billion dollars’ worth of business every year.
Although a self-described introvert, founder Pakpoom Vallisuta displays a natural enthusiasm for talking to people. Over the last 25 years, he has built an extensive network of relationships with leaders from around the world in business, government and education – even among royalty.
It’s a network that extends to every continent and has been cemented through board seats with numerous organizations.
As Vallisuta says, with a blend of self-awareness and self-deprecation – a mix consistently found with top performers: “I develop my relationships based on very strong product consistency with technical specification.
“I work hard to ensure people know what to expect from me in terms of the quality and precision of my work.”
That consistency, he points out, builds a brand: “When customers have this ‘type of problem’ they think of ‘this particular brand’.”
Dr Eddy Lee, managing partner, Coffee Ventures
As managing partner of Coffee Ventures, a Singapore-based venture capital firm, Eddy Lee is directly involved in dynamic high-tech markets. He has invested in over 50 start-ups, providing capital and expertise alike.
Lee’s specialism is helping entrepreneurs build dynamic and successful marketplaces, which requires a dedicated understanding of technology developments, customer needs and market trends.
Coffee Ventures invests when the early signs of product-market fit are still weak, and signals would often be overlooked by others. Lee is clear that waiting for perfect knowledge, product-market fit, or proof of significant revenue leads to lost opportunities. Acting quickly on incomplete and often contradictory signals is critical. That is only possible when insights are developed and shared with others.
Lee’s status as an Insight Ambassador – like his business success – is built on his success in education. He has an interdisciplinary background in semiconductor and medical imaging which has given him a deep understanding of emerging technologies, and has informed investments in a range of technologies including artificial intelligence, blockchain and digital health.
Building and sharing knowledge have been key to success: he taught at Stanford University, and worked in Silicon Valley, before returning to Singapore.
Coffee Ventures now has a wide range of primary market data, generated by documenting and analysing hundreds of start-ups.
Synthesized insights help to interpret infrastructure readiness and track emerging consumer behaviour changes, identifying gaps and the potential for new products over the next three to five years. And the process is highly interactive, allowing Coffee Ventures to regularly re-calibrate.
Pauline Sahetapy, vice president, Visa School of Public Policy
The Visa School of Public Policy is an education entity within Visa Inc that aims to be a “trusted partner and thought leader to governments and policymakers around the world on digital payments”. The pace of technological transformation often runs ahead of the response from countries and organizations, so the school devotes significant time and resources to nurturing understanding of the latest advances. It helps governments to create informed and enabling regulatory environments that can drive innovation for the benefit of business and citizens.
As an Experience Ambassador, Singapore-based Pauline Sahetapy is purposeful in convening policymakers from vastly different political, economic and cultural environments to establish an open dialogue on the opportunities that come with new technology and the importance of appropriate policies. She creates forums for stakeholders to share their experiences, and it’s an approach that also marks her leadership style: she is quick to emphasize the collective effort of her team and colleagues. Together, they have carefully cultivated trust with governments and policymakers, facilitated through multi-day programmes around the world.
Practice makes perfect
The Five Ambassadors describe timeless leadership qualities and high performance. Each of the five leaders identified here are top performers: unique in how they demonstrate their identified Ambassador behaviours, they also all excel across the other four Ambassador areas.
The good news is that the Five Ambassadors can be learned and developed. No preternatural gifts are required: you simply need to practice the behaviours.
It’s time to make a start.