Saturday September 15, 2012
AS we celebrate Malaysia Day, it is timely to reflect on what it is that makes Malaysia what it is. When attempting to answer what defines Malaysia – typically, the first thing that comes to mind (besides our love for food) is Malaysia’s diversity. You could say our racial diversity is Malaysia’s X-factor – it is at the root of our identity, it is what makes Malaysia special, its source of strength but at the same time, potentially its Achilles’ heel.
To better appreciate diversity as Malaysia’s X-factor, I would like to draw upon the wisdom offered by the X-Men. This is because from my extensive research (a.k.a googling), the phrase X-factor itself draws from the X-Men graphic novels. The mutants (the likes of Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm) are called X-Men because they possess an X-gene or X-factor (which normal humans lack), which allows them to naturally develop superhuman abilities.
Strength in diversity
The philosophy of X-Men is in line with Aristotle’s idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its individual parts. There is a synergy or something extra that comes about by forming a team of extraordinary individuals. In X-Men, Professor Xavier assembles together a team of mutant superheroes and by pooling their different powers (such as Wolverine’s strength, Cyclops’ beams and Storm’s power over weather) are then able to overcome the greatest of adversities. As Professor Xavier says, “Violence and destruction always seem to come so easily to even the best among us. But together, we found a better way.”
It is not dissimilar in real life. Team sports are about assembling a group with different and complementary talents. At a corporate level, studies have shown that diversity of employees supports high performance. Beyond diversity of ethnicity, a study by McKinsey advocates for gender diversity, as companies with more than 30% women in decision making positions outperformed companies with lower women representation. Professor Xavier may not have seen the study but key members of his team include Storm, Jean Grey and Kitty Pryde.
As Malaysia transforms towards a knowledge intensive economy, innovation and exchange of ideas will drive progress. Diversity supports a richness of perspectives, whether that diversity is reflected in terms of race, gender or age (generation X & Y). Further, our multicultural and multilingual capabilities provide a comparative advantage for businesses, such as in shared services to establish regional centres here in Malaysia.
Challenges of diversity
Whilst diversity offers advantages, it also presents challenges. Differences breed distrust. In the first X-Men film, Senator Robert Kelly is driven by fear of mutants and advocates for all mutants to be required to publicly reveal their identities and mutant powers. In the second film, William Stryker takes distrust of mutants to another level by attempting to kill all mutants. At the same time, there is Magneto, the powerful nemesis and old friend to Professor Xavier, who instead aspires to get rid of humans in order to safeguard mutants. Whilst coming from different directions, both Stryker and Magneto are taking the same position of removing diversity to achieve homogeneity and remove the source of conflict to safeguard their position.
Beyond conflict between groups, diversity within a group also creates challenges to manage. Even within the X-Men team, there are often conflicts between the strong personalities such as Wolverine and Storm. The inability to manage diverse talents itself offsets the potential gains of diversity. It is often suggested that football teams like Real Madrid are not achieving the full potential of their star galacticos because the individuals assert themselves as prima donnas unable to effectively collaborate as a team. Hence, just as diversity can be good, it can also be an Achilles’ heel, whether at a corporate level or at a country level, if different individual talents are unable to work together and complement each other’s strengths.
Given the potential tensions, in order to reap the advantages, diversity needs to be managed. A key lesson from X-Men is uniting a diverse team through purpose. In the first X-Men film, there is the following exchange;
Here, we have Storm affirming her choice to work as part of the X-Men, based on Professor Xavier’s vision to mediate a peaceful co-existence between human and mutants. Being part of an effective team requires alignment.
Different viewpoints from diversity could result in team members moving in potentially opposing directions. Hence, the efforts of a collection of top talent (and mutants) need to be channelled in the same direction. To safeguard a positive team dynamic, it may prove better to be without those who cannot align themselves to the collective mission than to have extra but disruptive team members.
In the second X-Men film, Pyro was not able to align himself with the ideals of the X-Men and therefore left the team. If differences are a source of distrust, then a team needs to invest in better understanding each other and in this respect the X-Mansion school provided a conducive environment for mutants to hone their abilities and interact with each other.
Especially with star talents in a team, managing diversity needs strong leadership, as demonstrated by Professor Xavier, particularly in understanding his team members (aided by telepathic abilities) and in providing a clear and consistent vision of peace, despite it seeming unattainable with no shortage of humans and mutants bent on war.
What the future holds…
At the end of the X-Men film, the two protagonists meet;
Beyond recognising the advantage, challenge and need to manage adversity, there is perhaps one last lesson to draw from X-Men. As we celebrate Malaysia Day, like Professor Xavier, we must keep our hope and faith in the future. Like the X-Men, we Malaysians are special and despite the odds we must do what we can for a better Malaysia.
Johan is the CEO of TalentCorp. He wishes for all to celebrate Malaysia Day full of hope and work towards a better future, like the X-Men.