Amid rising demands for national leaders to perform well, Dahlan Iskan may be quite a unique and interesting figure not because of his characteristic sneakers and jacket or because he takes the train and motorcycle taxi to work, but because of the “hope” people have that he can improve the country.
This all started from the way he criticized state-owned companies (SOEs) through the media. Then, the government challenged him to clean up the mess within the SOEs. His first “punishment” was his assignment as president director of state electricity company PT PLN, which he successfully led for less than two years.
The next test was more challenging and tougher. He was appointed as SOE minister in the latest Cabinet reshuffle. Of course, the purpose of this was to improve the performance of the more than 140 SOEs.
In the beginning, many people doubted his ability to lead a large and vital company like PLN. In fact, he was rejected by PLN senior officials, who threatened to resign en masse.
The company employees held a demonstration and locked him inside his room in a show of resistance, opacity and arrogance toward an outsider without electricity engineering background.
During his tenure at PLN, he often conducted field trips. The former journalist poured his observation into writings, which read like “CEO notes” that discussed the findings, improvement ideas, appreciation for human resources, succession in PLN and so on.
Thousands of PLN employees across the country could easily read the notes, which showed that he was neither full of hot air, nor boasting.
Perhaps, the CEO notes helped reduce the resistance against him and change this into acceptance.
Doubt was against cast on his stint at the SOE Ministry. Dahlan was not supposed to do much because the ministry only deals with coordination, not action.
As SOE Minister Dahlan was very likely to issue improvement policy through ministerial regulations or decrees, but it would be difficult for him to monitor their implementation. Each SOE holds the authority to manage its own business. Even though a reform is initiated, execution rests with them.
However, he was out to prove the doubts wrong as soon as he took office. He was quick to produce a shock alert effect, wasting no time for fine-tuning.
He introduced two simple and sensible to-do lists, which was easy to do and to measure the accomplishments. It was a management style that promoted a firm, clear and concise attitude.
Halving meetings and correspondence, the effect can be seen in the concentration and focus of work in order to be more effective and productive. Relying too much on verbal and written reports, let alone formal meetings, may not necessarily touch the heart of matter. For him, leaders must be able to single out the most pressing problems.
These are two lessons we can learn from Dahlan.
First, he is able to see the problems in depth through direct field observation. There, Dahlan is able to see the problems sharply and clearly. He proved that his visits were not without purpose.
He can interact without formality or much fanfare, even with the lowest ranked employees. Operational problems sometimes can be found at the lower level.
Many leaders frequently go down to the field, but are unable to see opportunities to make improvement. Searching for problems directly on the ground does not mean distrust in subordinates, but it shows the ability of a leader to master the problems.
Second, Dahlan is able to explain and convey ideas and thoughts through writing, thanks perhaps to his ample journalism experience. Initially, many people booed him.
With the advancement of the Internet, it was not a problem at all for him to write and spread his ideas and have them read by many people. For open-minded people, surely this will motivate them.
There is no need for seminars or on-site coordination meetings in luxurious places that will save time and money. It is rather true example of efficiency and effectiveness, without straying from the objective, that will create real improvements.
Writing is essentially mixing together ideas, a vision, mission and actions. A leader must be able to explain them to his or her subordinates. Actually, Dahlan’s ideas are sometimes quite simple, yet operable. Maybe, this way of thinking is rarely found in Indonesia at this moment.
Informal communication can break the formal boundaries and Dahlan has proved this.
There are, however, three things that Dahlan must take into account.
First, he should never overstep the limits of neighbors’ authority. Dahlan may succeed in boosting the performance of all SOEs, but bureaucratic boundaries should be respected. He holds a broad authority over PLN, but as a minister he shall coordinate with other ministers related to electricity affairs.
Second, consistency matters. Dahlan has expressed a plan to halve the number of SOEs, but on other occasions he said he would set up new SOEs dealing with rice fields, properties, etc.
These somewhat contradictory statements need clarification otherwise the public will perceive it as
Third, he should avoid higher political ambitions, even if he is nominated. It’s better that he prove his credentials with results. People and time will reveal his eligibility for the presidential and vice presidential race.
Fourth, Dahlan needs to be more cautious in responding to current issues in order to avoid misperception. For example, concerning the Kiat-Esemka car produced by vocational school students in Surakarta, Dahlan said the car was purported for education, not production despite the fact that a local automotive industry had started mass production of the car.
Anyway, Indonesia needs ministers with a reform spirit who promote effectiveness and productivity in bureaucracy and support corruption eradication. Can we pin our hopes on Dahlan? Only time will tell.
The writer, an industrial management and energy consultant, currently works as a researcher with Solar Energy Research Group at Kanagawa Institute of Technology, Japan.