Lee Kuan's Leadership Traits That Turned a Fishing Village Into a Rich Country

Lee Kuan's Leadership Traits That Turned a Fishing Village Into a Rich Country

This is the second post of the Leadership Series, where we break down traits and styles of leaders who've had a significant impact on the world we live in today.


We are inspired by Asia's most respected and controversial leader who transformed a fishing village into one of the ultra-modern, cosmopolitan countries of the world -- Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore.

And in this post, we'll explore how his leadership style helped him achieve this economic miracle. Stay open-minded to his approach, and I am sure you'll have a lot of takeaways for your own business.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world,” said Archimedes, a Greek mathematician.

And if you interpret it from the point of view of running a company or a country, he can pass as a business or economic advisor too.

This physics lesson is used by top leaders who leverage something they have to create a significant impact instead of crying about lack of resources.

And that’s what Lee Kuan did when he became the first Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959. He leveraged the small size of the country, the talent of its citizens, and his authoritative leadership in transforming Singapore completely.

Source

Singapore was a small country with no natural resources, a non-existent military and nothing to fall back on. Lee's leadership after Singapore's split from Malaysia helped it not just survive but thrive:

  1. Under Lee's leadership, Singapore was able to leave the Third World problem of poverty. Its GDP was $400 in 1959 when Lee took office as prime minister. It had increased 30x to $12,200 in 1990 when he stepped down. The fundamentals he had created helped the GDP reach $59,000 in 2021.

2. Singapore is one of Asia’s largest financial centres and is the world’s buzziest ship bunkering port.

3. It is one of the few countries that achieved 0% unemployment.

4. When Lee was in office, he directed spending to repair and improve infrastructure.

5. As a result of that, in 2019, Singapore's infrastructure was ranked the best in terms of quality, with a score of 95.4 out of 100.

6. Today it is one of the cleanest, greenest, safest city-states globally. Multinational corporations look forward to setting up their offices in Singapore because it offers a cosmopolitan environment that welcomes people from all ethnic groups.

Charlie Munger fondly called him the Warren Buffet of Singapore.

“It’s no accident that Singapore has a much better record, given where it started, than the United States. There, power was concentrated in one enormously talented person, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the Warren Buffett of Singapore.”   — Charlie Munger
Lee at the Singapore Day celebration near the Marina Bay Source.

This post aims to break down Lee Kuan Yew's leadership qualities. We hope it will inspire both experienced and upcoming leaders and especially those whose's businesses are going through a transition, downturn, or need error-free operations.

Traits of Lee Kuan Yew's Leadership Style


Stand on the shoulder of giants


Lee discovered that a few problems that his government was facing were already faced and solved by some other government. So he made a habit of finding out who else had met the problem Singapore faced, how they solved it and how successful were the results of their approach.

Whether it was building a new airport, introducing a new teaching system in schools, or reclaiming land from the sea, he would send a team of officers to visit and study the countries that had done it well. They would bring the report to him, and we would identify how to implement those solutions in the context of Singapore's geography and culture.

"I almost never made the same mistake twice, and I tried to learn from the mistakes others had made. I preferred to climb on the shoulders of others who had gone before us."

Takeaway:


Young leaders often think that they have to reinvent the wheel, do everything by themselves and be original thinkers. The truth is farther from this. Leaders should look at what their predecessors did right and wrong, get ideas, and adapt to their environment. That challenge is to find those leaders. You can learn about the top 12 leaders in our Leadership Series here.

Our species’ has the unique power to share, preserve, and produce knowledge over time. So if you are an experienced leader, you should mentor their successors and young leaders to continue the legacy of good work.

Keep your eyes and ears open to the world around you


Lee was passionate about Singapore's growth, and that was his priority and always on top of his mind, whether he was travelling or reading something. He was a sharp gentleman taking notes of things around him, watching how administrations, societies and people work. He would get curious about why they are good and how he could bring some of the lessons to Singapore. He knew the art of zooming out to solve problems rather than getting stuck in the weed and obsessing over irrelevant things.

"More than reading, it’s a frame of mind, it’s an interest in the things around you that matters, and taking note of the happenings in other countries when I travel" ~ From his book, From Third World to First: Singapore and the Asian Economic.
Lee Kuan with Indira Gandhi (former PM of India), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), Malcolm Fraser (Australia), and Pierre Trudeau (Canada). Source.

Takeaway:


Often, learnings can happen outside the board room and in spreadsheets. If you are trying to solve a complex problem, try zooming out a bit, look at your situation in terms of the larger industry, or break it down into parts. May you think counter-intuitively, and you might find a solution.

Learn from your surrounding. You might find a lot of ideas and some of them might be good ideas. To do that, you have to be receptive to everything around you, and you should be passionate about your mission.

Invest in your own learning


Lee Kuan was a lifelong learner. He didn't want to just rely on his subordinates to provide him with reports or summaries. He realised that he would have to continue learning as situations in Singapore kept changing due to rapid growth, and they had to adjust their policies for new scenarios.


In his book, Lee recounts his learning journey along with his trusted ministers.

"I had the advantage of several ministers who read widely and were attracted to new ideas – Keng Swee, Raja, Sui Sen.

We passed interesting books and articles we had read to each other. We were ignorant and innocent when we started, but we were saved by being careful to probe and test ideas before we implemented them."

Takeaway:


Learning is a quality that every leader should embrace, no matter what industry they are from, which style of leadership they relate to or what goals they want to achieve. We've highlighted this quality in Indra Nooy's leadership breakdown post as well. Check it out here.

In this constantly changing world, learning can be your leverage to stand out. You can also invest in coaching yourself to set your goals, work with a coach to keep you on track and overcome any obstacles. If you would like to know more, explore Pearkperformer.


Invest in upskilling your people


Singapore was not a self-sufficient country. It even imported water from Malaysia. Lee knew that the one resource he has is -- country's people. He focused on upskilling them for not just current but future needs too.

Investors from advanced countries had objections about the quality of workers in Singapore. They feared if they would be able to meet the standards of the west. To overcome that, Lee asked the Japanese, Germans, French and Dutch to set up centres in Singapore with their own instructors to train technicians. These centres were either financed by the government or jointly formed by companies like Philips, Rollei, and Tata.

The results were fantastic. After 4-5months, workers trained in high quality, factory-like environment, learned the systems and cultures of the different nations, and thus became desirable for employees. Later on, investors validated the standards of Singapore workers by comparing them with their workers.

He first undertook an extensive exercise to test and grade all students. There was an expectation that we were all to perform at our varying abilities. Failure was not in our thinking. It was about what we could do for the strategic objectives—the country.

Takeaway:


People want to work with other smart people. So if your workforce is talented, up to date, they will attract more talented people. To upskill people, offer a learning and development budget, set a personal and professional learning goal for them, and motivate them with examples around you. This is one of the smartest moves you can make as a leader.


Ignore the sceptics and let your work speak for yourself


In 1965, when Singapore split from Malaysia, everyone predicted doom for the independent nation.

Sydney Morning Herald published, “An independent Singapore was not regarded as viable three years ago. Nothing in the current situation suggests that it is more viable today.” In the London Sunday Times, Richard Hughes wrote, “Singapore’s economy would collapse if the British bases – costing more than 100 million pounds sterling – were closed.”

Lee heard the sceptics and even mentioned that he shared those fears. But he was intelligent enough to know let down the morale of his people. He was aware that his duty was to give the people hope, and not demoralise them.

Takeaway


It's easy to get distracted and demotivated when people don't trust your skills or vision.


A healthy dose of scepticism is okay to keep you on your toes but don't let it change your mindset. Let your work speak for itself.


Lead with an iron-fist, whenever required


“I have spent a lifetime building this [Singapore], and as long as I am in charge, no one is going to knock it down.” -- This was Lee's infamous comment in a press conference on the airline pilot strike of Singapore Air. Surprisingly, it took him just 65 minutes to end the strike.

Lee was unashamed about his authoritative leadership style and saw it a necessity to uplift Singapore from just being a British Raj outpost to one of the prosperous countries in the world.

In a 1986 National Day Rally, Lee gave a speech justifying his authoritative rule. He said,

"I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress if we had not intervened on very personal matters—who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think."

He was authoritative but not murderous, not unreasonable, and was regarded relatively benevolent. His was a matter-of-the-fact approach, and the fact was that Singapore was in dire need of leadership that could set the tone for how the public should act in this newly separated country that was aiming to shoot for the stars.

Takeaway:


Depending on the situation (such as crisis, change of strategy, dwindling performance), sometimes, being a strict leader is helpful for the business. It will lower your rating on the popularity polls but can save your business.

Ruling with an iron fist will attract rebellion, and a way to soften the blow is to build trust with your team. Trust is the foundation of why people follow leaders into the unknown. And that trust is created by leaders' incorruptibility and moral authority.


Communicate your vision and let people know what's in it for them
Under Lee's leadership, every government project or program had clear benefits listed on the website. Authorities, ministers, bureaucrats, policymakers, and even the general public knew why they were doing what they did.

For example, chewing is famously banned in Singapore. People and policymakers understand that liberal attitudes did not work in a country with a high-density population of 3,000 people per square kilometre. People were made to realise that they must forgo personal liberties for the collective good.

Takeaway:


As a leader, you can't make your company's vision a reality on your own. It's important to communicate that to your team, who will be on the ground working towards that. It helps say a polite bye to people who don't relate to your vision to make space for those who genuinely do. It also motivates people by showing them the big picture.

Lee addressing a rally - Source


Lee Kuan's Leadership Style: Authoritative


What is authoritative leadership?


Authoritative leadership means that leaders have complete control over setting the vision setting, listing down goals to be achieved, and detailing the process to achieve those goals. They rarely tolerate any deviation and have a clear vision of what success should look like.

Authoritative leaders are good at mobilising people to work towards their vision. People who are working for them have clarity on what they do and why they do it. They commit to the high standards of output required and know the rewards for success.

To be a successful authoritative leader, one has to develop emotional intelligence competencies of self-confidence and empathy. The leader has to be willing to explain the reasoning behind his decisions before implementing them.


What are the pros and cons of the authoritative style of leadership?


Advantages of authoritative leadership style:

  1. Brings clarity, set goals and steps to achieve a goal without wasting time
  2. Helps reduce error in high-stake situations
  3. Effective crisis handling
  4. Faster decision making


Disadvantages of authoritative leadership style:

  1. Develops dependence on the leader for every decision
  2. Creates resentment between rebellious teammates
  3. High churn due to standards of work required without any involvement in setting goals

When should you use authoritative leadership?


The authoritative style tends to sound negative. That's not entirely false. It can be negative when overused or applied to the wrong groups or situations. However, it can be beneficial in the following scenarios:

When the organisation changes, it can be a change of strategy, ownership, or products they make. During a change, there is uncertainty and varied opinions from everyone on how to handle it. At that time, a leader's assertiveness helps direct everyone to achieve a common goal.


When a department's goals are not being achieved, the team needs more than just motivating talks. At such times, control is vital to bring business on track.


When there is a high chance of error or danger, and any erroneous or dangerous situation can be detrimental, at that time, an organisation needs an authoritative leader who can implement rigid rules to reduce risks. That's the reason you will see authoritative leadership prevalent in manufacturing or the military.


When is authoritative leadership least helpful?


Scenarios when authoritative leadership is least effective:

When the leader themselves don't have clarity of vision, people don't understand why they are doing what they are being told. It will lead to scepticism within the team, and ultimately team members won't listen to the leader.


When innovation and creativity are more valued than hard work, an authoritative style won't work because it curtails people's opinions in the name of the greater good.


When a leader can be easily intimidated by peers or leaders above him. They would do things that please others, so they don't face any challenging questions. This can reduce their confidence to implement their vision.


Stick Them in Your Journal


As I sat on the 500-foot Ferris wheel in Singapore and looked at the beautiful city that is a miracle in itself, I could imagine people getting inspired to lead their company and their people in a way that lets you uplift them and make a long-lasting impact.

Until you visit Singapore (first time or again) and really ingrain these lessons, below are the key points you should remember from Lee's journey:

  1. Stand on the shoulder of giants. Learn from their mistakes and take ideas from their work
  2. Invest in your learning instead of depending on second-hand knowledge
  3. Design your system to upskill your team and provide incentives for that
  4. Don't get distracted by the sceptics and continue doing the work you believe in
  5. Don't be afraid to use the iron-fist approach for the greater good
  6. Communicate your vision effectively and clearly

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