principled pragmatism

September 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

I had just attended a very inspiring talk from the CEO of CapitalLand, Liew Mun Leong.  I took a lot of notes during the seminar only to find out that I actually didn’t save it. T_T I did it on my phone because I forgot my ballpen.  (and I have once again failed to be the master of technology).  Anyway, I need to write this down now before I forget it.  Liew Mun Leong is both an engineer and a businessman; and a very successful one at that.  CapitalLand is the largest real estate company in Asia and it will take an entire article to introduce the man himself so if you don’t believe his credentials, feel free to google him.  His talk tonight was about “Principled Pragmatism as a key to successful leadership in the corporate world”.  Honestly, when I first read the title of his seminar, it barely rang a bell.  I’ve been so absorbed with scientific terms lately that business jargon is almost unrecognizable in my system.  But I’ll tell you about coming to the decision of attending this seminar later on as an example of principled pragmatism.

Principled Pragmatism, as Liew Mun Leong explained, is being practical yet not sacrificing your core values.  In a powerful analogy, he cited Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew as an astounding example of how principled pragmatism steered an organization to success.  From a third world country, Lee Kuan Yew used pragmatism (or “practicality” as many of us better understand) to make unpopular but successful decisions that has now made what Singapore is today.  Just the other day, I was wondering how Singapore could be so rich yet have no natural resources whatsoever.  The idea itself seems counter-intuitive and illogical, yet here is Singapore standing among the first world countries.  But I will not go into a political dissertation of how principled pragmatism can build a nation, I am not the best person to do that.  But what I would like to emphasize now are the powerful points Liew Mun Leong brought up during the 1-hour talk that I think are keys to success not only in business but in our everyday life as well.

Pragmatism can be quite a radical idea, especially for societies and organizations standing on deep-seated cultures.  Everyone values cultures and traditions, and basically what has been done for such a long time…even if it can sometimes be obviously flawed.  There are a lot of reasons why we may be resistant to change: sloth, uncertainty, fear of criticism, and the list goes on as long as you keep finding excuses.  The distinction however of a pragmatic person is being willing to change and decide on something (even if it may go against a 500 year old tradition) if it is what’s practical to do at that moment.  It is the willingness to change a policy if the situation calls for it.  Liew Mun Leong cited China’s Deng Xiaoping as an example, of how he held back communism that has existed for so many years and decided to open China’s market to capitalism.  It was because communism was holding back China’s growth and joining the world market was the practical thing to do.  Deng Xiaoping had this famous quote “it doesn’t matter whether it’s a white cat or a black cat, as long as it catches the mouse” that illustrates his pragmatic approach towards things.  But Liew Mun Leong stressed that in order to be successful in using pragmatism, one must be aware of the core values of the organization.  These are the values that you should not go against no matter what decision you are making.  And the moment you drop a core value, pragmatism may lead to a pitfall.  What is tricky here though is choosing the right core values.  How do you maintain flexibility yet be grounded by your principles?  In defining one’s personal core values, one must formulate carefully the scope of each value.  From Liew’s example in CapitalLand’s policy in philanthropy, they have chosen to help only poor children in 3 areas, namely: education, health and housing.  Beyond this, they will not because according to him, they cannot help the entire world, so they have to take a practical approach to it.  And I guess this is where arguments against pragmatism can stem from.  Clearly there will be a lot of situations wherein practicality and existing core values may clash against each other.  But this is where the skill of being a successful leader lies.  One must be able to hold two opposing ideas and be able to make a decision and stand by it.  Liew stressed that successful leaders need to make fast decisions rather than concentrating on making the best ones.  It will take you forever to make the best decision if you analyze every gritty detail.  Instead, in making fast decisions, if you make a wrong one, you can also make a fast u-turn.  If we look at the core values of CapitalLand: focus, balance and scale, we can see that there is flexibility in its core values.  It does not restrict what it should focus on, a different situation should give way to a different balance, and the scale is also a responsive value to specific situations.  In effect, your core values should not dictate what to do in every given moment, but guide you in making every decision.  Liew also emphasized how EQ (emotional quotient) is far more important than IQ in becoming a successful leader.  While IQ is useful, it takes a high EQ to be able to successfully manage people.  EQ emphasizes on 5 key areas: namely self-awareness, self-regulation, social skill, empathy and motivation.  Each skill drives the others and a lack of the proper attitude can spell the difference between successful and unsuccessful leadership.  Aside from these, Liew drew importance to values that have been time and again upheld in all management books: communication, people, delegation and direction.

I do not think I was able to summarize all the wonderful insights that Mr. Liew shared this evening but I did try my best (if only I didn’t lose my freaking notes).  While listening to his speech, I couldn’t help but remember a lot of times during my service in our organization’s executive committee where practicality clashed with traditions.  Or how we would discuss issues far too long in an effort to cover a lot of details.  But as much as listening to him helped me realize areas that I need to improve on, it also reaffirmed areas which I have been trying to focus on.  Reinforcement that you’re doing the right thing is also an important drive in building one’s character (although internal drives will always be better than external ones).  Just attending the seminar was an example of how principled pragmatism helped me make a right decision.  I signed up for this seminar because at the back of my mind, there was this little voice telling me that I cannot merely focus on learning bioengineering during my stay here.  I need to go out there and learn something else, regardless if it meant listening to one of my dreaded topics: business.  And right before walking 15minutes to EA, I almost decided not to go.  I was in the middle of finishing reading a journal and I have a long lineup of other journals to go over through.  It was almost impractical to stop reading and I thought about the wasted time of spending it there when I might just end up falling asleep, like I often do in most seminars.  I’m even possibly “wasting” a few hours writing this.  But I thankfully decided that my list of journals to read will never end and I might as well attend this seminar because I have to improve myself in other aspects.  It was clearly more practical to learn something new rather than just focus on my study area.  And I am not wasting my time writing this because although I hope that this post might at least help someone on how to improve their character, I know it will help me become more aware of the many decisions I will have to go through for the rest of my life.  To be honest, the thought of leading a corporation scares me.  And it is this fear that drives me to want to learn more.  I may not be able to use principled pragmatism in any corporate organization right now, but I think there were a lot of points Mr. Liew made that are readily translatable to life.  So over all, I think I’ll be attending more of these random things.  I signed up for this other opportunity to join social organizations on Thursday – another seemingly impractical thing to do, but actually it’s practical! I need a social life (a relevant one at that) lest PhD will drive me mad.  Although I do welcome fun/romantic socializing too. :D

As a resolution to this talk, I am taking an EQ test and I resolve to improve it accordingly. :D Also, I had really better start writing my core values in life. Okay, I’m spent. I’m going to take a bath and revert back to bioengineering mode for the moment. :D

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§ 2 Responses to principled pragmatism

  • more people deserve to see this post (or hear mr leong talk). pang-ted talk siya! hehe. thank you for posting your notes here :)

    sobrang rich itong post na ito with wisdom, ang galing. i admire idealists and visionaries, but at the end of the day what gets things done would be pragmatism.

    my personal takeaway comes from this part:
    “they have chosen to help only poor children in 3 areas, namely: education, health and housing. Beyond this, they will not because according to him, they cannot help the entire world, so they have to take a practical approach to it.”

    personally i genuinely want to help the world become a better place (ang lofty, kainis haha) pero kailangan kong i-accept na with my time and resources, i cannot start a revolution. marginal revolution nalang. pero kelangan parin isipin yung priorities and think of baby steps to really make it happen. (nagrant nalang ako haha)

    • I agree with you czar, the pragmatists (is there such a word? haha) are really the people who get things done. I hate it when I get to become too much of a visionary/idealist too but forever rethinking things that it never gets done. haha nagrant din ako. oonga, though a revolution really sounds amazing, it can’t be done at once. but all those small marginal revolutions will eventually become a big revolution if done regularly! :) i think by just being a great friend to me, you’ve already started to make the world a better place. :) everything pays forward. :D

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