Rafidah: Whether I am a leader or not, it is not for me to judge

THIS week we get thoughts and views from AirAsia X Chairman and Malaysia's longest serving Minister of International Trade and Industry, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz.

1) How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
First of all, I do not want to say that I am a leader because leadership is not for a person to judge, just because somebody has a position it doesn't mean that he or she is a leader. We make a terrible mistake, when the moment someone has a position we call that person a leader, it is not true. That person may be dumb, a crook or maybe even useless, because he or she lacks leadership qualities.

Whether I am a leader or not, it is not for me to judge, it is for others to judge. What I have done in my life was whenever I am given something that I have to be responsible for I've tried to do the best I can maybe my best is not at the same level as somebody else's, but it is the best (to me), which means when I left I had no regrets at all.

If there were mistakes it was my mistakes .., maybe I was ill-advised, maybe I was not very careful in some statistics … they were not anything that made me regret, they were just human errors that I find … it is quite normal …. because I have done to the best of my ability but most importantly I held on very strongly to my oath of office, which is invoking god's name three times and that is a very heavy oath of office, and to me when you recite that and you hold office whatever it is, that sense of responsibility and accountability is very strong.

Either you commit or you bear the wrath of being untrue to that oath. That is my belief in life, and I speak my mind. To me if you want to be a leader of any group meaning you really want to lead people, it is important for you to speak your mind from the heart. If you are appointed leader of a group, you must have the quality in you to listen to others, to get input from others so that there will be teamwork, and in that way you can get the best output possible from your team and from yourself.

2) What traits do you look for in your talent or how do you decide who is right for a job?
To me the word talent has been very much abused. People don't even define what is talent. To me I don't want to use the word talent but qualities. You may be the best in an area but you don't have integrity and sense of responsibility, there's no point.

You can be the best accountant, engineer or whatever .., that is talent, but you don't have the character to show the responsibility that comes with the job. So I look for a person with a high sense of integrity and honesty because from there everything flows. He or she will do their job properly and we don't have to suspect anything.

3) How has mentorship made a difference in your professional life?
Nobody mentored me. I don't believe in mentoring anybody or being mentored, being guided yes, but not mentored. Once you need mentoring that means you don't have those qualities already in you. What you need is experience and guidance. I look at my elders, whether in politics or in government, to see how they performed, behaved and carry their responsibilities, from which I learnt, observed and absorbed.

While nobody mentored me, there have been people who guided me. I asked for opinions and guidance throughout my life, I have no icons, mentors or idols because to me each person is different but you can learn from others. You meet people of some stature in terms of leadership, so you observe and talk to them.

I am so lucky that I had this opportunity throughout my life, with the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela. I was in Davos with him for the leadership forum. When you interact with people like that, who have so much experience behind them and there is so much they have gone through in life, you learn and pick up the best of them.

You can't make yourself be like them but you can learn from their experience. It is lifelong learning and of course, you also learn lessons on what not to do. There are some so-called leaders who tell you the worst things not to do, from which you learn that that is not the way to govern and lead. I am 74 plus now, so you can imagine all these so-called leaders of the world I've met in international forums and personally having talked to them. When you come face to face and interact with them, then you will really know the real person. Some do have leadership qualities that people want to emulate but some you would want to avoid with a 100-foot pole.

4) What advice can you offer those looking to start their career/own business?
First of all, be the best person that you are. If you're starting to be an entrepreneur, be the best entrepreneur you can and do not ever start the first step by saying I want to make my first million or I want to be a CEO or chairman or whatever, because that is a wrong footing. Once you do that you're thinking about yourself and you will begin to strategise.

Human nature is such that you will begin to think of things that only pertain to achieving what you want rather than doing the best which benefit not only you but the company and whatever it is you are in charge of.

"How do I become a leader?" is a question I often get while talking at leadership forum. You don't aim to become a leader, as I said if you want to be a leader fighting for a post, that is when they contest and topple other people etc.

If you want to talk about leadership you should be asking how do you strengthen your capabilities, competence, knowledge, global view, better ICT skills and benefit from ICT and technology developments, which can actually enhance your competence and skills in whatever you do. If you optimise your skills, in no time you will find yourself rising in your career because people will notice you. You will be head and shoulders above everybody because you never plan to be but people see you.

But If you plan to be "the leader", trust me you will forget about enhancing capabilities and will only be concerned about ways to get the post, so that is when you get idiots holding posts they shouldn't have. You know who loses? The whole organisation. You have a square peg in a round hole.

5) What has been the biggest challenge you faced? What did you learn from it?
In the 52 years of my career since I started very young at 22, there is no one particular challenge but so many different types of challenges, one of which is my own self, as I try to keep up with developments around me. In those days, it is through reading that I used to get more information as there was no ICT so that as a person heading the team I should be well informed.

As we get older, learning anew is not something easy but I overcame that and I still continue to learn about anything at all, particularly that which is relevant to the job and another challenge is again the attitude of people. You will have those who are positive minded and then you'll have those who are negative minded, or apathetic.

When you have these types of attitude you have to then keep on explaining to them that we have to be positive, if not otherwise the whole team flounders. There are bound to be weaklings in a team, and if you cannot strengthen them out so that they can be retrained elsewhere and not demoralise the rest of the members.

It is important that the links are strong whether in politics or the workplace.

6) Most admired business leader? Why?

7) Malaysia's greatest brand.
I am not into that. I am a very practical and realistic person. I do not give praise and neither do I want to accept praise liberally because everybody is expected to do their best. I believe that we set our standards so low that the moment somebody achieves something unusual, we acclaim, whereas in other places it is normal. This is the wrong culture to have. We all should have high standards akin to the global level. In other words, it is a norm to be excellent. Set our standards high in terms of achievement in anything at all and we have to tell the young people this.

8) We all know about the industrial revolution, are we in for a technological revolution? Your thoughts.
It is so rapid, unless you keep up, you are not going to be aware of how it changes the way you live. We are talking about artificial intelligence which is going to replace human action very soon. If we are not aware of that then we are really far behind. For example in Malaysia, somebody should do a random study, on how smartphones are being used by students in school. We should ask students in a class on what they do with these phones; do they email, google news articles and what are the applications they use or is it just social media such as Instagram and Twitter.

9) How do you think the industry you are in will evolve in the future?
This aviation industry will have to keep ahead and abreast with every development in the area of technology and processes pertaining to it. First in terms of hardware and anything related to the planes. They are doing things to planes which we never thought of before. There are environmental friendly technological advances in terms of carbon emissions and footprints and these are all things that matter for now and the future. Not to mention our own use of IT within the company, going digital in a big way. This is something that is happening now.

Digitalisation is something that is massive actually because it cuts across everything we do and of course to do that the human being that will operate all these systems will have to be very knowledgeable and thus warrants the upgrading of skills. ICT is a challenge and if our education system doesn't address it now our next generation of Malaysians will be lagging behind very far.

10) What man-made innovation confounds you? Why?
Going to the moon. I watched this in the black and white television when it happened. From that day onwards I have never been able to fully grasp the full implication of it.

This goes to show the ingenuity of mankind, when they apply themselves to do something. Now they want to go Mars, they've sent the rover but we don't know how hostile is the environment for humans. There is no limit to humankind's ingenuity and complemented by ICT it has now become limitless. We thought going to the moon was something that can never happen but then again it was possible with the advancement in technology and the ingenuity of mankind.

11) A must-read for every business owner/manager is ...
I am not into such questions. I never read all those romance novels and fiction. Life experience is better. The textbook of life to me is the most relevant because every day is a new chapter that can be written, that is how I find it. For as long as you are alive, you are writing a chapter every day, if you care to actually see it that way. That is how I see life.