Ubud, Indonesia - 9 April 2015. Meet Soemantri Widagdo, a leading innovation scientist, international art curator, and social change maker, affectionately known as Pak Tri. What steps does he recommend aspiring leaders in Asia to take? And in doing so, what strengths can they build on, and what leadership roles can they explore?
Discovering his passion
Born in Indonesia in 1956, Pak Tri grew up in Jakarta as the eldest of three children. As a high-school student, he developed a passion for serving the needy and the sick with a dream to be a medical doctor. He would have been the first in his family to do so, and after he failed to be admitted to medical school, he chose what he thought was a viable alternative. He started his undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at the renowned Institute of Technology in Bandung.
Once started on the path of his passion, he steadfastly pursued his course with a masters that took him to the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, followed by a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, all in his chosen track of chemical engineering.
After serving as a research professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology—now known as the Innovation University®—and working on polymer mixing technologies at the Polymer Processing Institute, he entered the giant 3M corporation, a global champion renowned for creating innovative high-quality products through outstanding R&D.
Leading others in innovation
As he advanced on his learning journey in 3M, Pak Tri took on senior R&D management responsibilities in strategic technology management and business incubation, before becoming the Head of R&D in the Southeast Asia region, where he built its R&D organization and led innovation in 3M’s subsidiaries in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
After completing 15 years of service at 3M in 2013, he decided to venture out again and founded a new company with his brother. Serving as Chief Innovation Officer of the new InnoSEA business, he expanded his passion for innovative technologies and new product development ‘for the masses’ in Southeast Asia, and also guided the company into 21st century human resources development and services for national policy and corporate strategy formulation.
Besides his corporate career, Pak Tri has also cultivated other passions in his life, including for the arts, for conservation of cultural heritage as a source of learning for future generations, and for social changes that help to advance these goals.
He is the Chief Curator and International Liaison of the Bali’s renowned Museum Puri Lukisan (Palace of Paintings) in Ubud, and has co-authored several books on the work of Bali’s most famous artists, including The Illuminating Line featuring the art works of I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (2014) and The Art of Devotion about the paintings of Ida Bagus Made Poleng (2008).
Pak Tri works tirelessly to conserve the artists’ work as cultural heritage to inform young leaders in next generations. Referring to his work as ‘cut out for a detective,’ the Wall Street Journal praised his effort to locate Balinese artworks in museums around the world and arrange for their travel to exhibitions he organizes at the Museum Puri Lukisan.
Going further to promote sustainable local art, he has started helping Balinese artists to organize themselves in new collectives where they can work together and connect with their client audience in modern ways that reduce the roles (and profits) of middlemen.
Listening to Pak Tri, I could see that his journey of learning is driven as much by his interest in innovative technologies as by his interest in the people and cultures he works with, and by his desire to contribute directly to the quality of life for people with low incomes.
Uppermost in his mind is how these people can be served by innovative, sustainable and affordably-priced products. InnoSEA, for example, is using high-tech R&D to develop an innovative mask that will protect the health of people who are spending countless hours on the street in the region’s vast megacities.
To attract staff with the right mindset and higher goals in life, applicants for a job at InnoSEA are asked to agree that the company will give 30% of their base salary to charities. This, Pak Tri explains, helps right away to filter out applicants who have yet to ‘master their egos’ in their personal leadership journey.
Three leading roles
Asked about his thoughts on human resources development in the 21st century, Pak Tri shares that his philosophy draws on the wisdom of Ki Hajar Dewantara, Indonesia’s first education minister, who distinguished 3 different leadership roles: leading by example at the front (Ing Ngarsa Sung Tulada in Javanese), leading by working together (Ing Madya Mangun Karsa), and leading to empower from behind. Dewantara’s maxim Tut Wuri Handayani—to empower from behind—has become Indonesia’s motto for education.
Pak Tri firmly believes that this empowering leadership role is key. “Once people have discovered their direction and passion, we should do whatever we can to inspire and motivate them, and give them the space they need to experiment and advance without much interference, and we can watch their progress.”
Coaching and mentoring fit well into this philosophy for education and leadership development. “The main role of a leader and mentor is to bring about the talents of each team member to the fullest; for everyone to achieve their entitlement. Matching their talent to the tasks, and pairing them with others to compensate their weaknesses, are essential to building a winning team.”
He goes on to explain how aspiring leaders can take the lead in their development. "What drives people, and who they really are, should be explained clearly at the top of their resume,” he explains. “Creating your personal brand early is a key for success. People who haven’t developed their personal brand yet can ask their friends for help, because they often know our brand before we do.”
“Your personal brand should reflect your higher-level goals, the impact you want to see from your work, and the legacy that you want to be remembered for,” he advises. Leaders will usually mention accomplishments in the context of the impact they want to see, and single out the 3 most important ones in their resume, reports and talks.
Three steps for aspiring leaders
“In the eastern philosophy and belief system” explains Pak Tri, “Asians are trained and encouraged to have good thinking, to only speak good about others and to do good things. It is the second code of conduct that often makes Asians less assertive. This must be overcome.”
So what is Pak Tri’s advice for aspiring leaders in Asia? What steps does he recommend them to take? After a brief reflection, he firmly comes out with three.
“I remember how I began myself,” he said. “It starts with being more open. In Asia we still value being introverted, not speaking up, not risking to upset harmony. Thereby we stay at our level when there is a great need for change and advancement. Step one for young leaders is therefore to be willing to open yourself, to speak up, to engage in open conversation, and to listen carefully to the feedback from others.”
What about the second step? "After opening yourself to change,” Pak Tri says, “Step two is to venture out. Deliberately seek out new challenges, new jobs and assignments, and new experience. It used to be that if you were in an assignment for longer than 6 months, it was an indicator of your success. Increasingly, the opposite is true nowadays. If you stay around in one assignment, it is seen as a lack of success.
If you do well in your assignment and take yourself out of it, you are in fact ready to advance to the next level and you make place for others to advance behind you. Your first and most important job at the beginning of a new assignment is to eliminate your job, that is, to eliminate the need for you to do that job, so that you can give yourself the next level of experience.”
How about the third step? “The third step I see,” Pak Tri says, “depends on your passion and purpose in life. It is to grow and adapt through your experience. To increase your knowledge, situational awareness, and to develop new skills, and keep doing that.” In this step, he continues, “Young leaders will advance more rapidly when they are in a supportive environment where they are encouraged to grow and enjoy the trust of their supervisors, peers, and supports. This, in turn, depends to a large extent on how they have practiced being open, trusting, and trustworthy. Co-creating that environment of trust and support will help.”
Pak Tri summarizes “So, the three key steps I recommend aspiring leaders in Asia to take are first to be open, second to venture out, and third to grow in an environment of trust."
Three strengths to build on
Pursuing the three steps, I asked him what strengths aspiring leaders in Asia can build on as they begin?
Explains Pak Tri, “In Asia, we have several advantages when we start out on our leadership journey. First, in most of our cultures, we have already learned from an early age that happiness is a choice, a state of mind, rather than the result of getting more possessions.”
“Second, because we value our collective well-being, unselfishness is encouraged, and we tend to recognize our selfishness when it does arise in us, so we can deal with it. “
"And third, the impulse for working together is built-in to our minds early on. Taken together, these are three great advantages and sound foundations to build on as we venture out."
As the rice bends low
Time passed quickly as we discussed concepts and practice for aspiring leaders in Asia, illustrated by examples from with Pak Tri’s own career experience. His vision and lessons are clearly articulated, and he willingly shares his experience to benefit younger leaders.
As I was reminded of the epithet accorded to his educational role model Ki Hajar Dewantara—that of a renaissance creator—I saw how that creative spirit is reflected in Pak Tri’s three-pronged career as innovation scientist, art curator, and social change maker. An inspiring example, with his advice about three steps to take and three roles to master.
What touched me most is his passion that shines through, to dedicate his knowledge and experience to improve the lives of people in all walks of life—especially those with low incomes. It called up for me the ancient Indonesian saying that the taller and richer the rice plant grows, the deeper it can bend.
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