Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great. Weak men wait for opportunities; strong men make them.’ - Orison Swett Marden
When Tony Fernandes started AirAsia, he didn’t have any airline industry experience. He had never been an entrepreneur. In fact, for a moment there, he didn’t even think he had the balls to become one. No one gave him permission. People thought he was joking when he told them he was starting an airline.
So where did he get the balls to do it?
Well, he always had it in him. You have it. I have it. We all have this powerful force within us. And that’s where the real power lies.
In the world today, the word POWER has a subversive, almost dangerous, connotation. We read about Donald Trump and Jho Low, and we say they are “power-hungry”. We say that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We believe the world is separated into two groups of people: You’re either at the table or on the menu. Eat, or be eaten. The winner takes all: the top job, the offshore bank accounts, the $40 million penthouse, the partying with celebrities. The power, sex and money are there for your taking, but only if you’re the predator.
I see power differently. Simply put, power is the capacity to do something. Power helps you achieve your goals. It turns dreams into reality. It makes things happen. With power, anything is possible. You can influence the behaviour of others or the course of events. It gives you a sense of control. You’re not a powerless victim at the complete mercy of what’s happening around you. No matter what comes at you, you know that you’ve got this. Having power means that you have choices - you can choose how you want to lead your life. You have freedom. If you have no power, you are forced to make decisions that you don’t want to make. How much can you achieve if you have no power?
I see two sides to power: extrinsic power and intrinsic power.
With extrinsic power, the source of power is external to you. It is given to you by others. Money is a source of extrinsic power. If you have a lot of money, more things are accessible to you. You can buy that Ferrari. You can have the Japanese A5 Wagyu steak cooked by a Michelin star chef. You have more choices about how you want to spend your time. You can be getting a suntan on the beach, G&T in hand, watching your smartphone as your money spontaneously multiplies in front of your eyes. You can be a hero like Jackie Chan and offer a 1 million yuan reward for a coronavirus antidote.
Formal titles and positions are another form of extrinsic power. Companies have CEOs. Governments have Prime Ministers. We create organizational structures and institutions, and entrust the power into the hands of a few people. It gives them the authority to make decisions and everyone else is expected to follow and execute their orders. This is a good thing, especially if you are leading a large complex organisation and things need to be done in an orderly and efficient manner. That’s how you achieve economies of scale. Without structures, the place will be chaotic, people won’t know what they’re meant to do, and things won’t get done.
With extrinsic power, the more tangible the better. That’s why universities issue degree certificates, police wear uniforms and companies have fancy executive floors. And why is the Birkin such a covetable item? Well, it’s an understated piece of arm accessory that screams, “Don’t f*ck with me”, which by the way, also carries my belongings around. it conveys power for everyone to see and behave accordingly.
Extrinsic power can be intangible, too. When I was working in the government, there was always the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of the CEO. You treated the person differently - they have the ears of the CEO. And never, ever make the mistake of under-estimating executive assistants. They are the gatekeepers and have incredible powers to promote or kill your projects. Ignore at your own peril. At home, power couples argue about who ‘wears the pants’ in the family: “You may get the final say on the important matters, but I get to decide what’s important.”
Extrinsic power is transferable. It can be acquired or lost, just like our jobs. CEOs come and go. Today, you’re in favour. The next day, you’re out. It fluctuates constantly, going up and down, like the stock market. Extrinsic power can be bought or stolen, making it highly susceptible to abuse.
Extrinsic power is a zero-sum game, one person’s gain is someone else’s loss. After all, there can only be one CEO. Only one person singled out and promoted over the rest. There are clear winners and losers. The world is split between those who have power and those who don’t. There is a clear hierarchy: top to bottom.
In contrast, intrinsic power comes from within. It compels you to take action even when everyone else says it can’t be done. It commands you to lead even when you don’t have the authority. By your gifts, and under the authority of a higher calling only discerned by you, you are compelled to move. You are moved. By a hidden force.
When things are f*cking hard at work, you wake up in the morning thinking, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m giving up”, a little voice in your head says, “Your work here is not done.” Even if you can’t yet articulate what that work is. It’s definitely not referring to the hundreds of unread emails in your Inbox. And so under immense pressure, when it is so tempting to call it quits, you discipline yourself to persevere. Questions of how long or how much are irrelevant. What is imperative is that you persevere.
When you exercise intrinsic power, people want to follow you, not because they have to, but because they want to. You act as a mirror, reflecting who they can be at their best. Gripped by their own intrinsic power, they are compelled to follow you.
This is the stuff of dreams. The Jedi calls it the Force. It’s hard to describe, largely because it is so limitless. The actual experience of touching our intrinsic power defies description. But it has not stopped people from trying: passion, purpose, calling, love, trust, faith.
Intrinsic power cannot be bought, transferred or hoarded. It comes from the deepest core of your being. Intrinsic power is intangible. It can’t be seen, it’s hard to describe, and doesn’t fit conveniently within a nice, tidy concept. So how will you know if you have it? The actual experience of intrinsic power is unmistakable - you’ll know. It could be gentle like a warm glow all over your body. Or pretty powerful stuff. Heaven opens and the light shines through. And you’re humbled because you’ve been called to something greater than yourself: Oh, that’s why I’m put on Earth. That’s how you know - the feeling is magic.
Unlike external power, intrinsic power is limitless. One person having power does not make another less powerful. Everyone’s powerful. No one can take it away from you. No one can touch you.
WHICH IS MORE POWERFUL?
So there are two types of power. But which is better? Which is more powerful?
I’ve since learnt that it’s not that simple. As with profound ideas, it’s better illustrated through a story.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
I grew up with a stoic, no-frills lifestyle. Ballet was out of the question: “It makes you vain”. Barbie dolls were frowned upon. Instead, I played with LEGO. And a lot of sports. Not quite made of sugar and spice, and everything nice. Well, if I can’t be pretty, then at least I shall be smart and successful: Study hard. Get a good job. Work your way to the top.
At 15, I arrived in Singapore on the ASEAN scholarship. After that, I studied harder and won the JTC Corporation scholarship, and joined them as an Accountant when I graduated. I then worked hard and rose through the ranks in JTC Corporation on the “scholar track”. I met a boy, got married and bought my first property. I was 25.
On the surface, my life looked like the quintessential fairytale ending: And she lived happily ever after. My life is sorted. I’m set up for life!
But why didn’t it feel great?
It’s not that life was bad. It was actually quite good. But there lies the problem: it was... good. I felt disconnected. Numb. I had a niggling feeling that there was something else. But I had no clue what “it” was. I really didn’t like the uncertainty. Filled me with anxiety. And I had worked so hard to build this life: This IS the model answer! This is perfect!
So I pushed that niggling feeling aside. Just stick to the path. Don’t get distracted. Focus.
But it didn’t work. That feeling kept coming back. Over time, it became clearer and clearer: This is not it. Even though I still didn’t know what “it” looked like, it was inevitable: I have to change. So I broke up my marriage, becoming the first divorcee in my family’s entire history. I stopped playing the yes-man to the CFO, unlike everyone else, and bore the brunt of his little-man syndrome. I left the scholar track.
I dived into the wild unknown. Make as much money as you can. Learn as much as you can. Grow as fast as you can. I experimented, did some crazy sh*t, met all sorts of people. I changed career four times. I did this insane thing called “entrepreneurship”. I made a lot of money. And lost a lot of money. I fell in love. And out of love. I had the best times of my life. And the worst.
SO WHAT’S THE MORAL OF THE STORY?
Am I suggesting you leave the corporate world and jump into entrepreneurship? It’s thrilling… but no.
For a very long time, I stuck to the model answers: Score the A’s. Climb the corporate ladder. Then that niggling feeling would come. That existential feeling of uncertainty: This is not it. I would then try to fill that gaping void… with another model answer. Become an entrepreneur.
It might feel exciting initially, but invariably the excitement would fade away, replaced by boredom, or worse, the stress and anxiety from the added responsibilities and expectations. I ended up chasing these “things”, yet I didn’t seem to come any closer to finding “it”. In fact, it did the opposite. I become more confused.
What I didn’t realise then, in my youthful delusional mind, is that the confusion IS the salvation. The confusion IS the journey. A wonderful journey. An inner journey.
The confusion IS the salvation.
The confusion IS the journey.
THE INNER JOURNEY
We all have an underlying sense of not being settled. I’m not there yet. It makes us very anxious. On the edge. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. It can be so unpleasant that some people block it off completely: Everything’s perfect. The braver ones dig deeper, peel away the layers of the onion. Only to be confronted with a gaping void. The vast darkness frightens us, and so we try to fill it. Unfortunately, we usually fill it with the wrong things. We chase fame, fortune and success. We focus externally. We think more money is going to make us happy. We work hard to make more money. When we get a pay raise, we’re happy. But only temporarily. It doesn’t keep us happy for long. Soon, we become dissatisfied again, and we want more. It becomes an uncontrollable desire. It doesn’t stop. It’s never enough.
When we don’t get what we want, we become angry. Not only do we harm ourselves, but we also harm others - we raise our voices, we blame others, we make life difficult for others (micro-manage), we fire people.
We do whatever it takes to get what we want. We look for quick-fixes. We manipulate and take short-cuts. We use extrinsic power to acquire more extrinsic power. Jho Low’s modus operandi was based on cultivating an image as a billionaire, giving the impression that he is super-rich and that he can make you super-rich. His family was definitely wealthy, but more in the millionaire class than the billionaire class that he projected himself to be in.
The thing is, we're being hoodwinked, blinded by all the glamour and glitz. I can't help it, it's so pretty... We’re looking at the wrong place, people. We’re barking up the wrong tree. It exacerbates the very problem we are trying to address.
Instead, shift your focus inwards and develop greater intrinsic power. When you’re chasing intrinsic power, the work itself brings a lot of fulfilment. You care deeply about the work and you do your best - even when no one is watching. Work becomes meaningful, you experience greater and greater joy. When things become challenging, instead of seeing it as a problem, you see it as an opportunity to transform yourself to become a better person. You stretch yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of, and discover hidden strengths you never knew you had. You become more innovative because you’re willing to put your “reputation” on the line and risk failure. And when you fail, you shrug off the failure and try again. You emerge victorious, simply because you took more shots at the goal. It’s plain mathematics.
When you look from the inner journey perspective, you can see that the void is actually a good thing. When you feel that deep sense of emptiness at the very bottom of your consciousness, which can’t be filled by any amount of money or fancy job titles, you’re starting to touch your infinite potential. It’s unlimited possibilities. Anything is possible.
When you feel that deep sense of emptiness at the very bottom of your consciousness, which can't be filled by any amount of money or fancy job titles, you're starting to touch your infinite potential.
I'm not saying extrinsic power is bad and intrinsic power is good. I’m not asking you to give up your dream to be featured on the cover of TIME. Or to become a billionaire. Well, I have not, anyway. The thing about extrinsic power is it's external. It's granted to you. That also means that it can be taken away from you. And you find all means to protect it, like Gollum and his precious. Instead of making you feel powerful, you start turning into a slimy, skinny creature living in an underground cave.
What I’m saying here: Start paying attention to increasing your intrinsic power - your leadership capacity. Tune in to the quiet voice within. Our intrinsic power at the moment is quite limited. Because we’re so singularly focused on extrinsic power. (In a recent survey, the top 3 motivators for employees are salary, work-life balance and job security.) And we’re fixated on it - we want it NOW. Instant gratification.
Just focusing on extrinsic power is like trying to win the hundred-metre race with just one leg. Why would you handicap yourself? Not when you’re barely scratching the surface of your true potential. Work out those inner muscles. Initially, it’s not so strong, but as we practise, it becomes stronger. Your experience becomes deeper and more profound. When you’re strong internally, you will be happy all the time, regardless of what’s happening externally, good or bad. You remain calm and mindful. During a crisis, where others cower, you act with godly calm. It will seem like a miracle. It’s like you’re protected by a very powerful force - no one can touch you. And as intrinsic power develops, extrinsic power follows. Like a shadow to a body. It’s inevitable.
15 years later, I’m a business owner, leadership expert and writer. I live in a testosterone-driven home with the love of my life and 3 young dashing boys, co-creating our dream beach villa at the Tip of Borneo with the local Rungus community.
It would have been safer to stick to the model answers. I knew how to play that game, but it rang hollow. Instead, I started to learn to rely on my own instinct. Rather than ignoring that niggling feeling, I paid attention to it. I looked within and asked: Does this feel like happily ever after?
The inner journey does not have to be as chaotic as mine. With guidance, it can be extremely effective to get you where you want to be faster. It'll enable you to reach for the stars from a very stable foundation. Build that legacy. In the next article, we’ll look deeper into the inner journey.
This article is part of a book I'm writing titled Dancing At The Edge Of Greatness: In Pursuit of the Joy of Leadership. I would love to hear your comments on what resonated with you and where I can make things better.
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