As you might have known, the great statesman of Asia, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had passed away on 23 Mar 2015 at the age of 91.
While more than 450,000 people in Singapore had turned up to pay their last respects, detractors ranging from the Western Media to former political detainees and other Opposition members that had voiced their criticisms of him. Indeed, Mr. Lee is a complex person, and his passing had invoked the feelings of sadness, gratitude, fear, rejoice and anger all at the same time, and at times within the same person.
However, what we would like to do here is NOT to discuss about Mr. Lee's achievements or mistakes, and we are definitely NOT making any political comments or opinions. Rather, before Mr. Lee can be a great statesman, he is at his core a great leader. And perhaps there could be a lesson or two that mere mortals like us could seek to emulate his strengths, while seeking to mitigate potential pitfalls or mistakes that one should be aware of.
Hence, this month's topics:
This issue's main article is on "Leadership Lessons of Lee Kuan Yew", and we explore what are some of Lee Kuan Yew's strengths as a leader that we can emulate, and what are some potential pitfalls that we would have to watch out.
Leadership Lessons of Lee Kuan Yew
by c.j. Ng
Singapore and Asia's great statesman, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away on 23 March 2015. Regardless if you are an admirer or a detractor, I believe no one will dispute the fact that he had great leadership skills.
While the world may ponder over what will be Mr. Lee's
lasting legacy, and scrutinise if certain decisions are
made correctly, perhaps what each one of us could learn
from how Mr. Lee led his team and his nation through
good times and bad.
If there is ever mentioning of Mr. Lee's previous policies, it will be for the sake of illustration purposes, so that mere mortals like myself can find practical ways to apply some of Mr. Lee's leadership qualities to our everyday lives.
Lee Kuan Yew's 5 Key Leadership Qualities
Since Mr. Lee is a highly complex leader, different observers and leadership
authors will have different views as to which are the leadership qualities that
gave Mr. Lee the competitive advantage, and helped him lead his team and nation
through many ups and downs.
If there's a prioritised ranking of what made Lee Kuan Yew succeed as a leader,
I would choose the one on him being totally resolved and focused to achieve some
hard and challenging goals, come what may. No matter what Mr. Lee's
critics might say, bringing a small country from 3rd world to 1st within one
generation is a very challenging goal in all aspects. Being able to be
respected and sought after as a nation to partner with by larger and more
powerful nations such as USA and China is an even greater achievement.
IF one does not have the right acumen and clear insight to make good decisions, then merely having a great attitude and work ethic might just make one work hard in the wrong direction. Whether it's dealing with British Colonialists to obtain independence, or making the decision to encourage Foreign Direct Investment, or even balancing international relations, Mr. Lee had the acumen to see through the clutter and gain an insight with such clarity that even world leaders actively seek him for advice.
Even Margaret Thatcher once remarked that "he was never wrong." This is not to say that Mr. Lee had never made mistakes, but in the context of reading between the lines of international relations, it seemed like the advice Mr. Lee gave to Mrs. Thatcher "was never wrong".
Having achieved clear insights, Lee Kuan Yew did not merely work alone. It is a myth and also misleading to say that Mr. Lee built and developed Modern Singapore single-handedly. On a broader scale, Mr. Lee was able to galvanise the population to work real hard to achieve his goals and vision. On a narrower scale, Mr. Lee would have never succeeded if he didn't have a core team to support him.
These core team members were not mere supporters to "carry the bags" of Lee Kuan Yew. Rather, they were cabinet ministers with different specialisations and team roles, and were great leaders in their own right. They would challenge Mr. Lee when they thought there was a better solution, and would complement him when he lagged the required skill sets. For instance, the successful economic development of Singapore was based on the blueprint set by Dutch economist Dr. Albert Winsemius, and implemented through then-Finance Minister Dr. Goh Keng Swee who set up the Economic Development Board.
Lee Kuan Yew set extremely high standards, both for himself as well as for his team and government. Besides ensuring that there is clean government with no (or very little) corruption in his administration, Mr. Lee demanded results from everyone. For instance, when Changi Airport opened its Terminal 2 in 1990, Mr. Lee lamented that there were no flowered plants on the road leading to the terminal. Now, the planting of flowers en route to the airport did not belong to the jurisdiction of the Airport, but Mr. Lee didn't care. He wanted it done, and held the airport management accountable to work with the relevant departments to get the plants planted.
Ultimately, Lee Kuan Yew was very direct and straight-to-the-point in his communication. He is someone who spoke his mind, and his team members or subordinates did not have to second-guess what he was thinking. He was "hated empty-talking because he thought time was precious and there were too many things to do"
How Too Much of a Good Thing can be Bad
Now if Lee Kuan Yew mastered the above leadership qualities, why then would there be drawbacks or when someone were to emulate him? Well, for 3 reasons:
Sometimes, the same success factors can also lead to mistakes or mis-steps. As mentioned above, Mr. Lee tend to make right decisions and have strong resolve and conviction towards his goals and ideas. While he does listen to feedback from his team members, there are times he simply decide to stick to his own ideas.
For instance, Mr. Lee proposed for better pay and salaries for cabinet ministers, because Cabinet Ministsers are also people who need to provide for their families, and will have material needs. He proposed that only good pay, these Ministers will then NOT be tempted by corruption. And only with competitive pay could the government lure key talents from the private sector to join the public one.
This premise is right in the sense that Cabinet Ministers need to be adequately compensated for their contributions. However, when the pay scale starts to be benchmarked against top corporate managers, Singapore suddenly found itself with the highest paid Cabinet many times over, which alienate part of the populace. This is despite the latest research studies that showed that salary will be important, BUT only until a certain point. There will be key talents who will remain in the private sector no matter how high you pay them, and there will be key talents who will join the public sector even if the pay is not comparatively as attractive. Still, Mr. Lee stuck to his own judgement.
In his drive to achieve results quickly and effectively, there are ties when Mr. Lee will over-react. In the early 1990's when there were instances that some chewing gum was the cause of subway train doors not shutting fully, resulting in disruption. Hence, the decision to ban chewing gum nationwide, and thus probably making Singapore the only country in the world to do so.
While this decision certainly was helpful in ensuring a sharp reduction in subway train disruption in the 1990's, it was in way an over-reaction. Yes, it was irritating to step on or sit on chewing gum, and the disruption to train services needed to be addressed. However, is there a need to enforce a nationwide ban?
Mr. Lee is known to be direct, straight-to-the-point and will dominate in conversations, unless you are well-prepared to give well-thought-out responses. While some people will take personal risk and accountability to give their opinions to Mr. Lee, others may simply choose to comply and keep their opinions to themselves. In a world that increasingly rely on brainpower much more than manual labour, we need to tap into the minds and ideas of our people as much as possible. It would prevent leaders from being blindsided by blind-spots.
In Mr. Lee's case, he compensated this trait by selecting only highly capable people on his team that will rise to the challenge if they think they had a better solution (some of them, at least). However, if the same leadership quality were to be implemented in a factory in China or other parts of Asia, it may result in team members deferring to the leader, and there could be insufficient feedback, suggestions and creative ideas. In fact, some of your best performers might be disengaged if they don't feel their ideas are part of your success.
Again, the above examples were sited NOT to comment on the policies, but rather to show that an over-exaggeration of the same leadership qualities could have drawbacks. This is also in no way finding fault with Mr. Lee. Just as with any leader, there is always room for improvement.
Getting the Balance Right
Even a great leader such as Lee Kuan Yew is not immune to making leadership mistakes. After all, leaders are human, and it is human to err.
The last point being the most important, for even with
the clearest of insights and the strongest of expertise,
ALL leaders need to have
feedback. In Mr. Lee's eulogy by his
main challenger, Opposition Leader Low Thia Khiang
mentioned, "From my dealings with Mr Lee in Parliament,
I don’t think he was an autocrat who didn’t listen.
If you have strong reasons and tight arguments, and can
win him over in a thought through policy debate, I think
he will consider your views."
Do you have your own thoughts or comments about Lee Kuan Yew's leadership qualities and attributes? Simply e-mail email@example.com or call +86-136 7190 2505 or WeChat: cydj001 and arrange to have a deeper discussion.
Power Breakfast Hour: 24 Apr 2015
Leadership Lessons of Lee Kuan Yew
VENUE: Crowne Plaza Shanghai • 400 Panyu Road (near Fahuazhen Road) • 上海银星皇冠酒店 • 番禺路 400 号 （靠法华镇路）
DATE: Friday, 24 Apr 2015
TIME: 08:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m.
PRICE: RMB 200 ONLY!
To make this a more conducive discussion, we are expecting a small group of about 15 people only. The room can only take in 18, so please register early to avoid disappointments. Please e-mail your registrations too firstname.lastname@example.org
Tips for Yuppies:
by c.j. Ng
So you work for a boss who is highly demanding,
opinionated, and does not take "no" for an answer.
On top of that s/he expects things to be done
quickly, and will check every minute detail for
mistakes. And s/he does not really care how
you feel, as long as you deliver the results.
1. Be Super On-the-Ball
You need to have all key facts and figures at your finger-tips, as well as the explanation hw such facts and figures are achieved (or under-achieved). If some unexpected situation happened, you need to know first and get the facts, figures and suggestions for the next steps ready BEFORE your boss get to know about the situation.
Earn the Respect
Tough bosses give tough criticisms and feedback. The reason they do so is merely so that the work gets done better. Some people take such criticisms way too personally, and leave prematurely. If the boss is tough AND capable, there perhaps could be a lot to learn from him/ her. Whatever harsh criticism you face, you can choose to just pick the parts that you need to change, and then move on. Regardless if your boss eventually appreciates your efforts, what is important is you grow and develop professionally.
4. Give Well-Thought-Out Feedback
If your demanding boss makes a decision that you think is flawed, and you feel compelled to give your counter views, here's what you need to do.
Most people working for challenging and demanding bosses would rather NOT give any form of differing views or opinions. However, if done appropriately, you could stand out and gain further trust and respect from your boss.
The only condition of course, is that your tough and challenging boss is demanding AND capable, similar in that sense to Lee Kuan Yew. The real distinction one needs to make is to make sure that the boss emulates ONLY the autocratic aspects of Lee Kuan Yew, but lack the capabilities whatsoever that justify his or her decisions.
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