Beware of ‘chameleons’

I RECALL reading a book on business that encourages board members to be "chameleons" referring to the reptile of the Old World that changes its skin colour to suit the environment. Although this is regarded as positive in the context of "natural protection" by using the mechanism of camouflage, in the governance sense it may not be so. Indeed it could be the opposite.

While most people are familiar with "charismatic" leaders, few are aware of the "chameleon" type. The former are endowed with various traits involving the persona (public face), so central that such leaders exert widespread influence through the principle that they believe in and upholding them uncompromisingly. So much so the followers are attracted to the persona and begin to emulate them. Leaders like Mandela, Gandhi and Castro are still universal icons including to impressionable young people. In parts this is because most charismatic leaders went through gruelling experiences in advocating their worldview displaying strict discipline in a principled way. In contrast, to those in power such personalities are perceived as "threats" that must be neutralised before the charismatic impact becomes overwhelming. The GE14 demonstrated this in an absurd way.

Like charisma, most of us do have the tendency to be "chameleons" in terms of our social behaviour. But this is not considered detrimental compared to those who are dubbed "chameleon leaders" because they are unprincipled and indisciplined. In fact, they tend to "play it safe" to protect themselves and their positions by "adopting" or "adjusting" to the situation and/or environment that they are thrown into. Chameleon leaders often behave "erratically" and "inconsistently" leaving hints of a "weak" if not "spineless" persona, to be exploited. They do not walk the talk – saying one thing and doing another depending primarily on what they could benefit from most, and often betray the "trust" of many.

Examples could be cited from the GE-related activities creating unfavourable or negative consequences. Cases allegedly involved corporate leaders who "buckled" when pressured for support against their principle sparking anger all round from those who felt cheated by such "spineless" submission. As this came to light after the election, it would be interesting to speculate what would be the case if the result was the reverse. Will they opt to remain "buckled" while keeping the "truth" under the lid as part of the camouflage (read business strategy)? There will be no public apology to continue propping the regime, justifying it as a "heroic" act to serve the people's interest by saving jobs. In short, we will never know the difference, the "sly" and all. A superb "chameleon" act indeed.

Thus one fatal characteristic of "chameleon" leadership is not just not walking the talk, but like the real creature effectively camouflaging it with unsuspecting "lies" and "dishonesty". According to the book referred to at the start, this is not unexpected in businesses where the CEOs are wired to survive by forsaking values and ethics to "change colour" when convenient. It is textbook strategy in the ruthless world of profits before people. It reaffirms the business cliché: there is no such thing as a free-lunch. Not to a chameleon anyway.

In the world of politics, bolstered by the media-biased companies, "frog" is the favourite metaphor. "Frog" is more direct to illustrate how people "leap" from one organisation to another to survive. "Frog" also gives the notion that news items can "jump" from "fake" to "true" and vice-versa, thanks to media spin doctors. The consideration is less of principles and beliefs but more of self-preservation and political expediency where the "chameleon" characteristics subtly play a vital role. Due to this damaging impact, it is not surprising that of late organisations are more reluctant to accept the "frogs" as bona fide members.

Of particular relevance were statements on "collective responsibility" by leaders from the main party in the losing coalition. Namely, the blame should not be pinned on any person especially the (ex) leader but everyone in the leadership team. While this is laudable, the reality is that the leaders have yet to resign as part of "collective responsibility" following in the footsteps of the party leader. Adding insult to injury was when one of the officials confided to a foreign correspondent of how he failed to bell the cat! Especially after seeing how his colleagues were cut down in attempting to do so. Playing the "chameleon" game was then the option resulting in the tragedy for the party. Again if there was no change in government we would never know of such hypocrisy.

Unfortunately events of this nature are making inroads in the academic world as it is increasingly being pushed into politics (think Majlis Professor Negara, initially set up to be an impartial think-tank) as well as businesses at the expense of the academic (human) governance versus corporate (economic) governance. In other words, the "chameleon" habits are beginning to take root in the academe and insidiously colouring "knowledge".

In summary, unless we are more critical of "dishonest" behaviour and tendencies, not only will the organisation suffer, eventually society as a whole can be wrecked by "chameleon" leaders who are essentially self-centred and selfish.

Just as the chameleons belong to the Old World, chameleon leaders have no place in the "new" world that we are shaping for beloved Malaysia! So be aware.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: