In Malaysia, Still Leading Strong at 92

Korn Ferry’s Mike Distefano looks at an election for prime minister that defied the odds—and speaks to adroit acts of leadership.


In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, Korn Ferry’s Asia Pacific president, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

Astounding. Bewildering. Surprising. Stunning. Shocking. Those are some words the media used to describe opposition party leader Mahathir Mohamad’s defeat of incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak in last week’s election in Malaysia. But I’d venture to say it was something else, as well: an adroit act of leadership reinvention. 

Don’t get me wrong—Mahathir’s victory is certainly monumental in a political and historical context. Though a democracy, the United Malays National Organization had ruled the country since its independence from Britain in 1957, a span that covered 60 years and 13 general elections. The fact that Mahathir previously led Malaysia as prime minister for the UMNO party, only to break away and, at 92 years old, be nominated to run again as the candidate of a coalition of opposing parties under the Pakatan Harapan umbrella, are details for political history and record books. 

The election’s results are a microcosm of a dynamic playing out in business and politics around the world. Citizens and consumers want change, and leaders who are agile enough to adapt and respond to those demands are being lifted up, while those who continue along the same path with the same approach and expect to see the same results are rapidly losing appeal. Mahathir—more efficiently than his former protégé—was able to adjust his platform to respond to the demographic, economic, and social changes that have been taking hold in Malaysia. Hearing local concerns, he ran on a “clean government” campaign that drew large numbers of votes to the polls. 

But, as we all know, running a successful campaign is different than being a successful leader. The question now is whether or not Mahathir can lead in a way that both aligns with his coalition partners and keeps Malaysia growing. With 32 million citizens, Malaysia is among the most populous Southeast Asian countries, but it is split between extremely isolated wilderness and crowded digital hubs like Kuala Lumpur. The majority of its population is younger than 35, with most in their teens and 20s, and the nation has a healthy economy, with a GDP expected to grow 5.2% this year. 

In Malaysia, as in other places throughout the world, the younger generation is pushing for social reform more than ever before, aided by social media to organize around environmental concerns, gender equality, diversity, press freedom, and other issues, raising tensions in the moderately Muslim country whose leaders are accustomed to strong, unquestioned rule (Mahathir included).

At 92 years old, Mahathir is a wonder of energy and vitality. His victory shows he has the diplomacy and tenacity to keep Malaysia on a growth path. His first tenure as prime minister kicked off Malaysia’s modernization through massive infrastructure and business development projects. This time around, he will face unprecedented disruption in every facet of his leadership remit, from the political to the economic arena. Mahathir will also need to find additional common ground to keep his coalition partners together now that it achieved its primary objective of ousting the ruling party. 

It remains to be seen how Mahathir will govern and change the country this term. One thing we know for sure, though, is that he has the agility to anticipate and adapt to what the situation dictates.