Leadership & Lessons From My Curry Leaf Tree

krista goon
From left, Anita who was a speaker and Gina, my friend and client and me.

This week has been very eventful. I started it by attending a John Maxwell conference on leadership at G Hotel and these days, leadership is a big topic. It’s classic. It’s evergreen. Leadership never goes out of style.

I had debated with myself whether I should go. After all, I had been reading his books for a while now. His books were insightful and full of good reminders that the key to leadership is always self-leadership.

john maxwell seminar penang
With friends at the John Maxwell conference.

I have been struggling with this for a while too.

Leadership isn’t always about a position or a title. I remember attending Robin Sharma’s workshop years and years ago in KL and he kept hammering this point over and over. All of us can lead even if we’re not the CEO or the COO. Even the tea lady can be a leader if she decided to do so.

john maxwell seminar penang
The ticket wasn’t cheap but sometimes we have to invest in ourselves especially these days.

In business, I have had to lead alongside Nic. While he takes care of the strategy, design and what-not, I usually take care of the communications which include everything from emails to what we say on our Facebook, website and WhatsApp. It also includes designing programmes, following up with potential partners and collaborators and ensuring things are done and on time.

In the community, Nic leads as the chairman of our residents’ committee. He ended up being voted in as the chairman because we were once so upset that the previous committee wanted to cut down trees within our resident compound.

I have a curry leaf tree that’s 12 feet tall in my garden. I grew it from a sapling when I moved into my ground floor apartment. So imagine our indignation when a bunch of hired workers came around one morning and started looking at our tree. They were speaking in Tamil and wondering why they were asked to cut down a perfectly healthy tree!

We stopped them. And after we stopped them, Nic and I went around knocking on residents’ doors and asking them to join us at the upcoming AGM to protest such crazy decisions. That was the start of our crusade to keep our tree. The reason given was that our tree might fall during a storm and damage cars. This does not hold water as our tree is far away from the secondary car park lot.

So that was really how we ended up being the overzealous couple who walked up flights of stairs in each block and knocking on doors and talking to people! We just wanted them to attend the AGM with us (because each AGM, there will never be enough quorum and residents all shy away from attending and voicing what they thought!).

When the AGM rolled around, there was such a huge turnout of residents that we even shocked ourselves.

And we asked the then committee why in the world would anyone want to cut down perfectly healthy trees? I shall spare you the illogical answer.

Long story short, my tree is still standing. (Yay!) But not the shrubs and plants of other residents. One lady had her soursop tree chopped down; another had her fir tree lopped off! (This is also why I am so glad I work from home and I stopped the men from hacking my tree. We have to speak up when it matters.)

It is always a storm that makes us want to take up a strong position. A strong position can turn into leadership. A strong position can also transform how things are done.

In a way, my curry leaf tree propelled Nic to the chairmanship! In the past, no one knew who the chairman was (he was so afraid that other residents would come knocking on his door!). In the past, we had no communication with each other as residents.

I said to Nic that things have got to change when he agreed to become chairman. For one, we started a Facebook group and later, a WhatsApp chat group.

It has been 2 years since he held the position. And I think things have become so much better and I don’t think I’m biased.

Neighbours know each other better now and we’re more open and transparent about communications (yes, me being the communications freak). We started having residents’ gatherings – a catered buffet is a great way to get people to come out of their apartments and start saying hello to one another.

One elderly lady said that it was such a lovely way to bring together people who would normally never even know each other’s names!

So that’s leadership for you. It doesn’t need to come clothed in regal robes. It just needs someone to say, “I’m going to step up and do my best.”

It’s hard, of course. It’s hard when residents come knocking on our glass doors at 3am and 5am and 10pm. It’s hard when people get upset that they cannot park 3 of their cars inside the compound. It’s hard when people write poison letters and circulate them (and I thought only politicians get ‘surat layang’) saying nasty things about Nic when he is doing work that no one wants to do, on a voluntary basis.

He had to wake up at 3am once when water pipes burst and water came cascading down the stairs like a waterfall. He woke up at 5am once when two elderly men on their way out to their morning walk found an unconscious man on the road inside the apartment compound! He also had to go to Komtar’s Lembaga Rayuan 6 times just to attend the hearing as a representative of our apartments – we were protesting the use of our residential roads by a developer.

I had to a miss an important appointment just this week too because of Nic’s role. We were just about to go out for a quick lunch and my appointment when my neighbour came to call for Nic. It was a little after 2pm and a ground floor apartment unit was on fire! Luckily many people came around to help and we called the fire engines and the police.

apartment after a fire
What’s left of the apartment after the fire

I expected nasty flames (like the movies) but this was a lot of smoke and heat. By the time the firemen came and put out the fire, I had already missed my appointment! Dang.

And I was hungry as hell.

(Later, we went and grabbed McD and decided to spend whatever’s left of the day at a friend’s tea shop. All in a day’s work…NOT!)

chinese tea shop penang
Decided to get some pu-erh tea!

So leadership is a tough calling.

I underwent all that jazz when I was called upon to be the president of WomenBizSENSE. I had to expel a member a few years ago because she was simply not fit to be in our association. I had to sit down with her and tell her why our association could no longer have her as a member. That’s as bad as firing people (which I have also done before, and I fired someone much older than me which is unpleasant by all accounts).

Then again, I’ve also squared up to a hefty guy with a beer belly and looked him in the eye when his friends said they would like to fight with Nic. Being female can be a strength at times. He’d probably hit a guy but to hit a woman? That’s got to be lower than low. So I stood in front of him and dared him to. But I also had hit ‘record’ on the audio of my phone so that I had audio evidence just in case.

Most people think of leadership as countless photo opps with the creme de la creme of society, rubbing shoulders with the popular.

It’s really not.

It’s about facing the heat, the brickbats, the complaints, the grouses, the shit that hits the fan sort of thing. The stuff that everyone runs away from but the stuff that you have to do because you’re the leader.

Leadership is about doing all the challenging things that are full of consequences. It’s having to be brave when everyone else isn’t or doesn’t want to.

And sometimes, it starts with something as simple as wanting to prevent my curry leaf tree from being chopped down.

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