Leadership lesson from Brunei

“Hajah” had us mesmerized during her 2-minute presentation.

So much so that I didn’t call time when her two minutes were up.

She was part of my 5-day “Leadership, Communication and Presentations Skills” seminar for 25 senior managers. But the group was nothing like any other I’d trained in my previous 30 years as a seminar leader.

These managers were from the largest bank in the tiny sultanate of Brunei. The only reason you might have heard of this country before is because the Sultan of Brunei is one of the richest men in the world and has thrown lavish parties for his subjects, including one where Michael Jackson performed. Brunei is in SE Asia, east of Singapore and north of Bali, sharing the large island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia.

My participants were instructed to talk for two minutes about a leader who has inspired them. Hajah, a middle-aged, demure woman packed a lot in her brief time.

She stood before us cloaked in traditional garb, including a tunic and full-length skirt, topped with a scarf exposing only her face. She began in a soft voice, so we had to be still to hear her.

Her story began with how much she admired her husband and his leadership in the family and community. She calmly described his many feats that showed his caring for others. Then she shared how they’d come to add another member of their family.

A young boy began hanging around their neighborhood, playing with her four other children. Soon they learned his parents had died and he knew of no other relatives. They fed him and allowed him to sleep on their couch while they worked with authorities to find his kin.

The search was futile as no relatives could be found. After consulting with Hajah, her husband decided they would take this boy into their family and raise him as their own. She began to cry as she shared her deep respect and love for her husband to take in a child in need and provide for him.

She shared from the deepest place in her heart. Her love and respect for him touched us all. After she finished and her long ovation subsided, I embraced her at the front of the room. I saw tears on  everyone’s cheeks, even the stoic men.

Hajah’s example showed not only the power of her husband’s actions to change the life of their newest son, but the power of her passion and vulnerability to touch the rest of us. She showed by example how unapologetically being who you are and sharing from your heart has more power to lead than any academic formula outlining leadership principles.

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