“We have created this out of nothingness, from 150 souls in a minor fishing village into the biggest metropolis two degrees north of the equator.” – Singapore founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.
Overcoming numerous challenges post-independence and moving the country forward amidst tumultuous times, the late founding father of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, devoted his entire lifetime to building what is now regarded as one of the world’s most economically strong and resilient nations.
In the weeks since Mr. Lee died, I’ve seen countless articles and reflections extolling his leadership attributes. He was respected by leaders from around the world and in business. He was loved as much as he was feared. From waking up in a cosy HDB, drinking water that runs straight from the tap, taking transportation that runs efficiently across the vibrant city state that house some of world’s most renowned brands, to walking in the streets in the dead of night without fear, Mr. Lee has indeed left a powerful legacy for generations to come.
It never ceases to amaze me at how an impactful leader can transform the city out my window from a mere developing nation that was wrecked by social divisions and poor living conditions just some decades back to one with shiny skyscrapers. What struck me as particularly significant for leaders to recognise and learn from was Mr. Lee’s extraordinary ability to lead through an era of change. After working with so many leaders in my 20+ year career, I discovered that the successful ones take the following winning approaches:
“Here we make the model multiracial society. This is not a country that belongs to any single community – it belongs to all of us. This was a mudflat, a swamp. Today, it is a modern city. And 10 years from now, it will be a metropolis – never fear!”
As a managing director of a company, I see the importance of how setting a clear vision can warrant for a great start, especially when facing unexpected changes or bracing my company for a planned change. Mr. Lee has definitely done a good job in this area. He saw the needs of fighting for self-rule from the British in 1959 and independence from Malaysia in 1965. He also saw the potential of Singapore being a business hub for worldwide investors by developing first-class infrastructure standards and recruiting worldwide talents. As a business leader, bringing the company to the next level is our key responsibility and also one of our key challenges. I always think about where I want to bring my business to a year or even a few years later. The vision of the future blueprint is what drives my action. During the transformational period, many challenges are there but we must be fearless and determined. Give confidence to employees that we are able to survive after going through all the changes.
2. Communicate the vision
“I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.”
Weeping before the national TV to deliver the news of the separation between Malaysia and Singapore represents the toughest time of Mr. Lee in his life. He knew that Singapore had a slim chance of survival. But soon he got rid of his despair and saw it as a moment to establish a deep connection with the people by communicating the connection between his party’s goal and their circumstance. Thinking back of those hard times in my leadership journey, c-suites often struggle a while before communicating the truth to the employees. We definitely don’t want to threaten the stability of the organisation. However, that’s how to get employees to be on the same page with us, by showing up honestly and conveying our plans during this difficult period. Employees may feel insecure of their jobs at that moment. Therefore, it’s also our job to motivate them to engage with us and go through the transitional period together.
3. Walk the talk
“I want to make sure every button works, and if it doesn’t when I happen to be around, then somebody is going to be in for a rough time, because I do not want sloppiness.”
As a resident here for over 4 years, I share the same resonance with my friends from around the world that Singapore has much to be envied for. Chief among which are a corrupt-free government, affordable healthcare, quality homes, efficient transportation and holistic education, for all. These might not have been possible if not for one who constantly kept his ears to the ground and implemented an uncompromising change mechanism that is scalable and adaptive to suit circumstantial needs.
To maintain its competitiveness and success, Singapore does not rest on its laurels. The government makes sure to constantly introduce and revise policies to seek new talents while retaining its local talents, as well as policies that can improve and change in line with current environments. They are unabashed when communicating their plans, and they stand ready to defend their plans when necessary. This should be the same for business. In order to sustain long-term business growth, businesses must be able to communicate and execute their goals with strong conviction.
4. Build commitment
“If you can select a population and they’re educated and they’re properly brought up, then you don’t have to use too much of the stick because they would already have been trained.”
In order to create a prosperous Singapore, a pragmatic Mr. Lee saw the importance of looking out of the country for talent to help develop the capability of this country, while educating the locals to be globally competitive. To keep his people happy, he also put focus on addressing people’s needs by providing well-developed education, welfare and healthcare standards for examples. I have always seen the importance of getting a pool of talented employees to help business growth, as business success can’t happen just by one person’s effort. Therefore, aside from cultivating talent to make sure our employees are well-equipped with the necessary skills to cope with challenges during a transformational period, addressing employees’ needs also can’t be overlooked. A happy workforce will be more willing to work for the company.
5. Pick the next better player
“If I were not the Prime Minister, he [Lee Hsien Loong] could have become Prime Minister several years earlier. It is against my interest to allow any family member, who’s incapable, to be holding an important job because that would be a disaster for Singapore and my legacy. That cannot be allowed.”
Mr. Lee recognised that he could not stay in the role forever. He sees the importance of raising up the next generation of leaders to lead the future of Singapore before he stepped down from the political stage. In an organisation, no one can sit on the business leader chair forever, including myself. And a new business leader will likely lead a transformation of the whole company. Therefore, while focusing on growing the business, we should also constantly seeking for potential candidates to be the “next top leader” who can help transform the current business success to the next legacy.