Leadership Lessons of Lee Kuan Yew

LKYSingapore 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.

Hence, the spirit of this article isn’t so much as to praise nor criticise Mr. Lee as a politicians, nor would it be in scrutinising his policies. Rather, it is to distill some of those leadership qualities that whether you are a CEO of a large company, or a department head, or even an informal leader of work groups with no formal authority, you can learn or emulate some of these qualities.

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.

Based on my observations and reading of the many anecdotes of the people that have worked with and challenged him, here are my pick:

  1. Being totally resolved and focused to achieve hard goals
  2. Having the acumen and clarity of insight to make the right decisions
  3. Working with a team of highly competent members
  4. Setting extremely high standards for himself and others
  5. Direct and straight-to-the-point communication

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 very 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.

Not only that, Mr. Lee is also able to get buy-in from his team, such that they believe that they can succeed together with him, despite seeming insurmountable odds. In the words of his son, current Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, “with Mr Lee you always knew you were on a winning team. That whatever happened you were with someone who would always find a way and we would be alright”.

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 are 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 “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:

  1. Over self-confidence;
  2. Over-reaction; and
  3. Over-dominant

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 times 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 question is then, if we seek to emulate Mr. Lee so that we can be can be better leaders ourselves, how could we then achieve a right balance and not be carried away? Here are some tips:

  • Find out what worked for Mr. Lee, AND then find out if it’s also going to work for you.
  • Find out if you have the abilities or skill-sets to emulate a certain quality, and if not, get your team to compensate for the weakness.
  • Get someone to be your coach, who will be honest enough to tell you if you have applied these leadership qualities in the right balance.

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.”

If a great leader such as Lee Kuan Yew, for all his achievements and mis-steps, strive hard to get quality feedback, perhaps that itself will be the most important and foundational leadership quality for us to emulate.

 By C.J. Ng

Executive Director, Directions Consulting