Transformational leadership and sustainability projects: Learnings from Malaysia

by Preeti Aggarwal, Corporate Social Responsibility Lead, Viom Networks Limited, India

 “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” A quotation by John Quincy Adams simply summarises what my short trip to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (Malaysia) was all about. I was here to learn how to connect the principles of sustainability and leadership.

During the month of August, I was one of 21 young professionals attending the 2015 ProSPER.Net Leadership Programme on ‘Transformational Leadership in Implementing and Assessing Sustainability Projects’. This is a champion programme of ProSPER.Net, an alliance of leading Asia-Pacific universities committed to integrating sustainable development into postgraduate courses and curricula. All credit for its success goes to the ProSPER.Net team and the host organisers of the Higher Education Leadership Academy Malaysia (AKEPT), Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and University College of Technology Sarawak (UCTS).

On the first day of the workshop, we were introduced to the role of transformed leadership in successful implementation of sustainability projects, as emphasised by Prof. Yuji Suzuki (ProSPER.Net & Hosei University). According to Dr. Hezri Adnan  from the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia will gain competitive advantage if it embraces green growth now, thereby rethinking higher education by focussing on problem-solving approaches and developing leaders capable of systemic thinking, and with anticipatory, normative, strategic and interpersonal competence. This observation was supported by the 3+1 H model presented by Prof. Tan Sri Dato’ Dzulkifli Abdul Razak (International Association of Universities), where it was discussed how Universiti Sans Malaysia adopted the ‘transformational strategy’ of policy shift and mind-set change in order to continue to emerge as a sustainable leader in higher education. The three eminent academics and professionals were role models for all participants. We were inspired by their journey of integrating the principles of sustainable development during their research and leaderships.

Our first sustainability project visit was the recognised eco-friendly Palace Hotel in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, where all participants lodged during the programme. Under the leadership of Ms. Phang, the hotel adopted various green practices – ranging from sustainable food production, green marketing and customer awareness. Ms. Phang works with the local community, encouraging them to adopt green practices during farming and waste management. Our subsequent visit to Kota Kinabalu Industrial Park (KKIP), Organic Composting Project and Bundu Tuhan Organic farms described how primary stakeholders (industrial workers and farmers) integrate green concepts and at the same time transform society. For instance, 13 farmers were engaged in organic farming supported by the Palace Hotel in Bundu Tuhan and inspire their neighbouring farmers to adopt it. The members of the Palace Hotel worke closely with industrial partners to increase market demand for organic food to increase its production in Sabah. These leaders exemplified how adopting ‘sustainability principles’ can inspire and create a positive change in overall society.

On the third day, we met Mr. Simon Lee, Korea Food for the Hunger International, who has been working in Sabah for more than 15 years. He established the Numbak Vision Centre with an aim to educate Filipino and Indonesian immigrant children staying in the Numbak Village. His experience has been a challenging one – struggling for funds, regulatory approvals and sensitising immigrants about these issues. He is an inspiration for all team members working at the Centre who continue to impart basic hygiene, language and science education to these under-privileged kids. His work has transformed several lives in the region, and inspired young professionals from Sabah and Korea to join him on his mission.

The visit to Pulau Gaya presented us with a development paradox.  The close interaction of island inhabitants and immigrants (regular and irregular), has shown that all three aspects, environmental conservation, livelihood and community development have to be considered together. Locals dispose of their waste on the beaches and any unused land, while waste from the mainland and the neighbouring island continues to run up onto their beaches. Slum housing, sanitation, education and health issues are other problems the people face. The village mayors, government officials and other agencies have combined their efforts to solve these problems; but there is a long way to go.

On the last day of our programme, we visited UMS  to experience the concept of a green campus. The UMS Sabah’s Eco-Campus model makes it one of the champions of Education for Sustainable Development. A micro-ecosystem on an area of 999 acres with a natural beach, a water fall, hilly terrain and extensively built areas and roadways, this is great example of how  sustainability principles can be integrated in an higher education setting.

To summarize, it was a power packed programme, introducing us to the ‘champions’ of transformational leadership in sustainability across Malaysia. The major take-away messages from this leadership programme were how to identify sustainability key performance indicators and the importance of involving all stakeholders from the very beginning. The programme was a great opportunity to learn from leaders how to successfully manage sustainability and inspire others to do so.