Monthly Archives: February 2016


Photo: L

As is a tale, so is life
Not how long it is
But how good it is,
Is what matters
– Seneca

In her commencement address at Havard University in 2008;  JK Rowling spoke to the graduating class about:
(i) Benefits of failure and
(ii) Importance of imagination

Having failed at marriage and her job, what’s failure?

“Failure was a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.

Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.

I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom was the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means you are ever after secure in your ability to survive.”

The speech was recently published (2015) in a think book, beautifully illustrated in red, white and black.

If you have a chance to travel back in time to meet you at 21, what advice would you give you?


Recently, I did a mental count on how many young adult students I interact with, in a week, during my intense teaching period. Close to 600. In a year, it comes to 1,000.  Like many leaders, lecturers and people in the customer service business interact with different personalities.

In a book, GEN Y NOW, Millenials and the Evolution of Leadership by Buddy Hobart and Herb Sendek, the authors believe that most organisations are broken down into three types of folks: Teamers (20%), Fence-Sitters (60%), and Lottery Winners (20%).

“Teamers are loyal and dedicated employees who always give their best. They to be positive folks who trust their leaders and strive to do their best. Unfortunately, as they are low maintenance, managers and leaders tend to ignore them and not give them much time or energy.

Fence-sitters make up the majority and tend to be silent, neither overtly negative or positive. Managers also do not spend much time with them either.

The final group “Lottery Ticket winners” are the squeaky wheels. To them, nothing is ever right. They think (and say) they are smarter, more qualified and more talented than their bosses ( or anyone else).Seldom do they offer proactive ideas, but always first to point out the negatives. Usually, they are the most vocal and demanding of attention, and managers spend overwhelming  majority of their time and energy with this group.

Teamers tend to just shrug the lack of attention off, while the fence-sitters quickly learn that in order to be noticed, you need to be negative. Managers convince themselves, that, if they could just win over these negative folks, everyone else will follow.  Therefore, managers waste countless hours and enormous amounts of energy trying to motivate employees who are frequently a lost cause.”

Powerful. Do you have employees, volunteers or students like that?

The authors tell a “Lottery Ticket” Story. [Incidentally, the $13.9 million lottery ticket was claimed last night!]

A husband and wife woke up one Sunday morning, check the newspaper, and discovered that they have just won the lottery, a $45 million jackpot. The paper says there are two other winners, so their take will be $15 million.

The couple was overjoyed.  However, as they reflected further, both were afraid the windfall will change everything. But not for the better. They have read countless stories of how lives were ruined after just such a lottery windfall.  Already, happy and healthy, there’s nothing else they need.

So both decided, after hours of soul searching to give up the ticket. They decided who should bring the ticket to office, flipped a coin, and it was the husband who wins the toss. On Monday, the husband walks into work, and will have to hand the ticket to the first person he sees.

On Monday morning, our generous husband sees Joe, the office naysayer and cynic. True to the agreement, the husband approaches Joe, explains the situation, and hands him the one (of three) winning $45 million lottery ticket.

Joe takes the ticket, puts it in his pocket and says “Tough luck, you give me the ticket, but I have to split it with two other tickets” and walks away.

That’s a “Lottery Ticket Winner.

The authors’ advice is that, for some folks, even being given a winning lottery ticket is not enough. Yet it is just this type of person who demands our time and energy. The regrettable mistake is, we give it to them.  We are ignoring the “Teamers’ and teaching the “Fence-sitters” that inappropriate attitudes are rewarded with time and attention. Your goal for the Lottery Ticket winners is simple. They can:

  • start pretending to be positive
  • Start being positive
  • Shut up altogether or
  • Leave

Are there negative people you interact with?    If you interact with a lot of people, its natural.  Where do you focus your energy?   On the 5% negative ones or the rest?

Focus on the “Teamers”, the authors suggest. They deserve it and you will be teaching the “Fence-sitters” the correct leadership lesson.

I love to hear stories.

Before the arrival of Marvel comics, as children we read stories of “1001 nights” or Stories from Ancient China or Japan.

Hero with a thousand faces


Source of photo: Facebook of another George K.

This Year of the Monkey, the TV is replaying movies of our beloved Chinese mythology Journey to the West, starring the most famous Chinese monkey – Sunwukong. It is about a Chinese monk’s quest for wisdom to collect some sacred texts from India. To protect him on this perilous journey, are three protectors who agree to help him as an atonement for their sins. These disciples are Sun Wukong, Zhu Wuneng and Sha Wujing, together with a dragon prince who acts as Xuanzang’s steed, a white horse.

Along the way they met many trials but eventually obtained the texts and these disciples rewarded for their actions.

Consider another beloved Japanese tale. Momotarō who came to Earth inside a giant peach, was found floating down a river by an old, childless woman. The couple named him Momotarō, from momo (peach) and tarō(eldest son in the family).

Years later, Momotarō left his parents to fight a band of demons on a distant island. En route, Momotarō met and befriended a talking dog, monkey and pheasant, who agreed to help him in his quest. At the island, Momotarō and his friends penetrated the demons’ fort and defeated the demons. Momotarō and his new friends returned home with the demons’ plundered treasure and lived comfortably thereafter. (Wiki)’s_journey.htm
Joseph Campbell, in his influential work, Hero with a thousand faces, noted that all myths seem to have a common structure. In his book, he describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or”boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (thereturn to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon). Source: Wikipedia.

A fundamental difference then is who is responsible for the success? The hero individually or the group?

In collectivist cultures or group-focused cultures, people define themselves by affiliation with group, values and achievements. People look for consensus and group buy-in. The boy Momotarō succeeds, according to Solomon and Schell in their book “Managing across Cultures” , only with the help of the group. Not just his initiative or his ingenuity but his ability to enlist the community to cooperate in his success and the community’s well-being.

In collectivist cultures, seniority and years of experience are valued. Praising a young person in front of the rest will be the kiss of death as his/her in-group will surely put the person in place later.

I was told by a Japanese classmate from a top tier American management consulting firm, that Analysts, Associates and Partners carry different types of briefcases suitable for one’s rank even if the company policy is not to have the rank stated on the name card. Everyone knows their place and trained to detect the subtle nuances and signals.

Consider the Indian story of story of a group of blind men (or men in the dark) who touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. (Wikipedia)

In his retelling of “The Elephant in the Dark”, Rumi uses this story as an example of the limits of individual perception. We need the wisdom of the collective.

In contrast, the stories from an individualist culture, where children are raised on stories of Superman and Spiderman where the hero acts independently, disregards the accepted way of doing things and saves people with his superhuman strength. What does he do when he’s low on energy or super stressed? Solomon and Schell pointedly noted that Superman goes off to his icy retreat where he’s isolated and gets strength by hiding away.

In individualistic culture, individual freedom and achievements are very important and rewarded. Does it influence hiring and reward practices? An individual is expected to state his or her own role and contributions.

Not surprisingly, then some cultures pay their CEO – superstar salary. The wisdom of one man can change the group’s performance. In the US for example, salary differences between the CEO and the lowest rank can be as high as 160 times. European cultures such as Nordic cultures surprisingly have less inequality and the difference in pay scale is about 50 to 10 times.

So you think that Hofstede’s Cultural dimensions shed some light on the different ways we make decisions and our hiring/ human resources practices?

Increasingly in some firms we see collaborative behavior being celebrated. In describing the platform put under his charge, New Google CEO Pichai said

“I have to think about building a platform and bringing as many people along on this journey and getting it right. I believe that ultimately, it’s a more powerful approach, but it’s a lot more stressful as well.”

Note that here I’m not trying to evaluate the benefit of group decision making over individual but to acknowledge the cultural difference. At times, collective decision making gives way to the danger of compromise and group think. Individual decision making can be divisive.

Before starting work in a new organisation or a new country, it’s interesting to note the national and organisational cultural differences in the way we tell the story of a hero’s journey.

Deal and Kennedy categorise 4 corporate cultures according to appetite for risk and speed of feedback:

  1. Tough Guy, Macho Culture

Individualists who frequently take high risks and receive quick feedback on the right or wrong of their actions. Financial stakes are high and focus on speed. The intense pressure and frenetic pace often results in early ‘burnout’. Internal competition and conflict are normal, stars are temperamental but tolerated. A high staff turnover can create difficulties in building a strong cohesive culture. Examples include trading floor, management consulting and the entertainment industry.

2. Work-hard/Play-hard Culture

Internal organisational environment characterised by fun and action, where employees take few risks, all with quick feedback. There is a high level of relatively low-risk activity.  Organisations tend to be highly dynamic and centers on customers needs. It is the team who produce the volume, and the culture encourages games, meetings, promotions and conventions to help maintain motivation. However, although a lot gets done, volume can be at the expense of quality. Examples include mass consumer companies such as McDonald’s and retail industry.

 3. Bet-your-company Culture

This type of culture sees large stake decisions with a high risk but slow feedback so that it may be years before employees know if decisions were successful. The focus is on the future and the importance of investing in it. There is a sense of deliberateness throughout the organisation typified by the ritual of the business meeting. There is a hierarchical system of authority with decision making from the top down. The culture leads to high-quality inventions and scientific breakthroughs, but moves only very slowly and is vulnerable to short-term fluctuations. Examples include oil companies, investment banks, architectural firms, and the military.

4. Process Culture

This is a low-risk, slow-feedback culture where employees find difficult in measuring what they do. The individual financial stakes are low and employees get very little feedback on their effectiveness. Their memos and reports seem to disappear into a void. Lack of feedback force employees to focus on how they do something, not what they do. People tend to develop a ‘cover-your-back’ mentality. Bureaucracy results with attention to trivial events, minor detail, formality and technical perfection. Process cultures can be effective when there is a need for order and predictability. Typical examples include banks, insurance companies, financial services, and the civil service.

Charles Handy uses another typology to describe culture.

  • Power Culture

Handy uses the analogy of a spider’s web to depict a power culture. It is typified by an absence of bureaucracy and few rules and procedures. Control is exercised from a central power base (the spider), radiating influence through key individuals. They are political organisations with decisions taken largely on the basis of influence.

  • Role Culture

Strong organisational “pillars” such as functions, specialisation, rules and procedures. The work of, and interaction between, the pillars is controlled by procedures and rules, and coordinated by a small band of managers. Role or job description is often more important than the individual and position is the main source of power.

  • Person Culture

Such cultures, viewed by Handy as clusters, focus on individuals. The organisation exists to serve the purposes of the individuals within it; the organisation itself is secondary to individual self-fulfilment. When a group of people decide that it is in their own interests to band together to do their own thing and share office space, equipment or support staff, then the resulting organisation would be a person culture.

Examples of person culture are groups of barristers, architects, doctors or consultants. Such a culture is attractive to many people who would like to operate as ‘free agents’ within the security of an organisation.

This is not always possible and conflict often arises when individuals attempt to operate according to a person culture within an organisation that is essentially a role culture. Such as an academic focusing on goaIs of personal research within a university, increasingly operating as a classic role culture.

Different people enjoy working in different types of organisation culture and they are more likely to be satisfied and happy at work if their attributes and personalities are consistent with the culture of that part of the organisation in which they are employed.


Today is the first day of Chinese New Year. I’ve just returned from paying respects to my mother in law. Later I’ll be visiting my mom with my siblings. Tomorrow I’ll be visiting her siblings. When my dad returns from Malaysia, we’ll be having another reunion dinner on the 7th day of CNY, and we will be having lion dance.  I’ve prepared red packets of money into pretty envelopes to be given to children and people who are working for us these years. For friends and colleagues, I have given them gifts of pineapple tarts and received similar food goodies in return.

What is the major festival you celebrate? How do you celebrate it? How do you give gifts? Chinese and Japanese give packets of money during new year. I know the Indians do too. I used to think this is such a practical and wise thing when I was a kid, because my mom would save the money for me and I get to spend it on something useful. Recently, at the celebration of my fifth year in the company, the university gave us money banked into our accounts instead of giving us a momento. Which I thought was so wise, until a fellow Irish lecturer sitting at the same dinner scoffed at the idea, thinking it so crass.  Its meaningless he said, and no one remembers money. Most western cultures would give a clock for long service award.  [Note: Giving clock is a “no-no” for Chinese, as it sounds like sending the person off to the other side of heaven.]


Hofstede defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another”. Today, despite the convergence of culture as expected with availability of information technology (the “global village culture”), cultural differences are still significant today and diversity tends to increase.


He identified the following main dimensions of culture that affect work practices in different countries:

  1. Individualism versus collectivism – loyalty to self and family or to the wider group. The extent to which people are expected to take care of themselves and to choose their own affiliations as opposed to showing a preference for a closely bonded social framework where people look after each other and organisations protect their members’ interests.
  2. Power distance – Members of high power distance cultures such as Malaysia accept status differences and are expected to show proper respect to their superiors.  Low power distance cultures such as Denmark are less comfortable with differences in organizational rank or social class and are characterized by more participation in decision-making and a frequent disregard of hierarchical level
  3. Uncertainty avoidance – High uncertainty avoidance cultures have clearly delineated structures, many written rules even if they don’t work, standardized procedures, promotions based on seniority or age, lack of tolerance for deviants, strong need for consensus. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures prefer risk taking, have a tolerance of differing behaviors and opinions, more flexibile although the flip side is that some may not have a sense of urgency.
  4. Masculinity verses femininity – or quantity of life versus quality of life – relates to the degree to which a culture values assertiveness, competition, and materialism (stereotypically associated with masculinity) versus the degree to which people value relationships and show concern for others (stereotypically associated with femininity). It is unfortunate that Hofstede used such sexist connotations and some later writers prefer to substitute the terms quantity of life versus quality of life.
  5. Long Term Orientation – Why do Chinese give red packets of money for weddings/ new year/ birthdays or any celebrations instead of a gift-giving culture as the West. Hofstede added to his Dimensions approach with this last one that Chinese generally have a strong propensity to save and invest, thriftiness, and perseverance in achieving results and in the way they build networks and relationships, rather than short-term.


Today, with globalisation, joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions and foreign entry into new markets, the world is no longer a melting pot. Do you believe that the world is flat as Thomas Friedman sounded?  Or do cultural distances between countries still matter as argued by Ghemawat? [Both are great thinkers.]

What do you think?

In the meantime, wish you a blooming success and a swinging good time this Golden year of the Monkey. May you swing from height to height步步高升  (bubugaosheng).

While I go to my mom’s place and fill myself with more good luck and goodies.


Root carvings along the streets of Hoi An, Vietnam

Yesterday, the Straits Times ran an article on the alarming increase in dementia among the young and old. I was naturally concerned both for my parents and myself. We had a former colleague who was diagnosed with dementia several years ago in his late thirties. With health care costs on the rise, I wonder if there’s anything we can do on our part to delay the onset.

My paternal grandmother suffered from dementia. This was something my father would bring up, possibly a subconscious worry that it’s hereditary.

What’s the cause and cure of dementia? Unfortunately as its a memory loss condition, I doubt it’ll be helpful to ask the “patient” about the onset of the condition.

Mental stimulation exercise

How to treat this condition? Some websites recommend mental stimulation, exercise and drugs. One study contradicted these claims and concluded that experiments using mental stimulation exercises alone did not abate dementia.

Reading, writing your blog and watching TV is not going to cut it.


Another ST article introduced an experiment by the National University of Singapore on joining the choir. Learning something new and making new friends. I hope this experiment succeeds as this means that joining the church praise and worship should help.

In the case of my grandmother, the onset of her dementia was linked to a period of great stress. She was moved to a different neighbourhood of big fenced in houses where she didn’t know any of her new neighbours. There was a family feud and my extended family didn’t allow us to visit. While the daughters who used to stay with her, got married and moved out.

Anecdotal evidence from friends confirm such patterns of emotional stress, lack of social group and the isolation caused by a new and different environment which reinforced the feeling of isolation and lack of control.

Which may explain why mental stimulation alone doesn’t work. Retirement, leaving your work place and your friends may not be such a paradise after all. While you leave behind the stress of work, you leave behind the familiar and the routine which is necessary for the soul.

Wind back the clock -Mindfulness

In a social psychology experiment by Ellen Langer, she found that turning the clock backward seemed to help her participants behave younger and have improved dexterity.

Langer and her associates got a group of participants in a home decorated with memorabilia of their era. During the time they stayed in the home, they talked about the era as if it’s the present, and even the calendar was turned to reflect that time. Interestingly participants felt more energetic at the end of the experience.

Details of the experiment in the following websites:

Will the singing experiment by NUS work?
1. Very likely. Singing in a choir is very comforting for some people.
Songs have beats, rythum and tempo which provides the familiar and structure.
2. Having a regular social group to go to, gives you something to look forward to. Especially if you enjoy the company after a period of familiarisation.
3. Not to forget mental and physical stimulation of learning a song, and exerting your lungs – good for the emotional and creative soul.

However, it may be difficult to isolate which part of Singing then is helpful for delaying the full effects of dementia. What if you dislike singing or have physically immobile parents who need help getting to a choir practice but you are not able to regularly get them to the group?

Ellen Langer’s experiments suggest that another critical piece to the picture is the illusion of control. In an experiment where she gave a group of patients in a aging home, a plant to care for, they seemed to perform better than the control group.

Critics though point out that no other researcher has since been able to replicate the Rodin & Langer experiment.

What then should we conclude ? There’s no empirical evidence that giving someone responsibility to make decisions slow down the process of aging.

Human beings are complex creatures and we all attach different meaning and interpretation to certain events. Some of us do not like responsibility. Some of us know the stuff but lack the will to change.

As for me, I’ll continue the path of searching. We are unique and different. If an experiment doesn’t harm me or someone else and doesn’t involve consuming drugs, I’ll hold on to the hope of getting better and treating others especially those going through this condition with dignity.

Victor Frankl in his book “Man’s search for meaning” on life in the Auschwitz concentration camp says

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.

Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

What do you think?

If you remember me, then I don’t care if everyone else forgets. – Haruki Murakami


Painting by 10 yr old RK

Do you like me?
My worst enemy is not my critic. But myself. Today, anyone can appraise you. Not just your boss.

As news of the suicide of a top chef from the “world’s best restaurant” hit and stories of other Michelin starred chefs remind us of the double edged sword of feedback. I’m reminded of the words of author Murakami.

“Even when I ran my bar I followed the same policy. A lot of customers came to the bar. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and said he’d come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. … it didnt matter if nine out of ten didnt like my bar.

This realisation lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it.

… I continued to write with the same attitude I’d developed as a business owner. ”

Haruki Murakami, What I talk about when I talk about Running

As an adjunct lecturer, I face bi-monthly appraisals from my students. My contract renewal is dependent on that. Sometimes, the negative appraisal of a few students can dampen my day even if the silent majority were satisfied.

Focus on your audience of one.

Vincent van Gogh suffered from depression, biographers say because his works couldn’t sell during his lifetime. But he had then only been painting for 10 years before his suicide. Compare that with Chinese painter Qi Baishi who couldn’t sell his paintings in his forties and had to live in a temple because of his abject poverty but went on to become a famous painter in his 90s and outsold Picasso. Famous artists like Zhang Daqian, Picasso, Joan Miro, Dali and Monet lived till their late 80s and working on their craft. Perhaps Van Gogh was too impatient with himself. Consider what he could have created if he gave himself another 40 years to improve.

My lesson of the day:

Adopt the art of the long view. Take a twenty year perspective of your career.

Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be. – Robert Frost

“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.” – Rumi