What makes a leader? Is it the disposition to act at once when there is something that is ought to be done? Is it the courage to stand by one’s principles in the face of a disagreeing majority? Or is it a combination of skill, intelligence and confidence?
Whether you agree or not, former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew embodied all these traits to become the revered (and at times, controversial) figure in the island-nation’s political and economic life. As its first prime minister, he turned what was once a former British colony devastated by war into a highly disciplined “Asian Tiger” known for its aggressive economic policies that rely less on domestic resources, and we all know that that takes more than tiger guts to achieve such a miracle.
But it was Lee’s wisdom and often unrelenting style of leadership that brought Singapore to where it is today in the global competitiveness index.
With his passing at the age of 91, we shall take time to understand how much of an influence he is to business management as he is to building an extremely efficient Southeast Asian society.
“I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.”
Simply put, there is nothing on Earth that can effectively gauge your performance but yourself. Instead of relying on some independent measure for success, a business should be able to draw and stick to its own performance indicators.
“If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind … you will go where the wind is blowing. And that’s not what I am in this for.”
Lee makes an excellent case against riding on trends, proving that the old adage “go with the flow” stands for nothing else other than mediocrity. A competitive business should thrive on its own means and terms and not on what others follow, because let’s face it: clients are too smart to react to the same marketing message over and over again. What they need is something different and original.
“(Singaporeans) are pragmatists… Does it work? Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamoured with any ideology.”
So many businesses today fail to realize results, often because they stick to plans because their guts tell them to. Still, there are businesses that were able to taste success because they are willing to view strategies objectively, firmly believing that “What works best” always trumps “What (we think) we want.”
Lee sure did leave a lasting legacy for business and political leaders around the world. But what he did to Singapore can’t be emulated anywhere else.
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