Sunday 5 August 2012

Good leadership in fast-changing times

By Laurence Lien, Published The Straits Times, 4 Aug 2012

WE ACCEPT as a truism that good leadership is critical for the long-term success of any company, non-profit organisation or government. Our political leaders have certainly emphasised this, and most of us would agree. But what we often diverge on is what constitutes good leadership.

Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has strong views on this. In his Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, he expressed that talented leaders form a very small percentage of the population and consequently, Singapore with its small base would face a dearth of good leaders.

To him, a leader must have the basic qualities of high IQ, EQ, leadership stamina, determination and resourcefulness. Seventy to 80 per cent is the result of genetically attained traits. "Twenty to 30 per cent is nurturing. That's life."

I do not agree with this point of view. A trait-based theory of leadership is of limited value, because the usefulness of a particular trait is situational. The qualities that help a person lead well in one context may be fatal flaws in another. Consider Sir Winston Churchill, who was an outstanding wartime leader but became less exceptional during peacetime.

There are usually few common characteristics among good leaders. Charisma, ability to engender followership and intelligence are over-rated. These qualities are often double-edged swords. Many bank chiefs today have these traits in excess, yet we see plainly a leadership crisis in the global financial sector.

Likewise, good leadership does not seem well-correlated with good academic results. That many from good schools take on top management positions does not make them good leaders. They may simply be good managers, fortunate to be given early opportunities. Along the way, their bosses would often become guilty of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, availability bias and halo effects, in accelerating their career progression.

Instead, I believe in leadership values. The most important among these include a high sense of purpose, integrity, humility, moral courage and a willingness to listen. Leaders need a high sense of purpose as the job is never done, with new opportunities and threats always emerging. Purpose, more than vision, shapes us in the present. You can be top dog one day, and a disaster the next. Ask photo giant Kodak, which recently filed for bankruptcy.

Humility is critical. A good leader accepts that he cannot be good at everything or have all the answers. Integrity and moral courage are also essential because leadership invariably encounters people's resistance and perceived losses, and these values help you stay the course through the heat of the conflict generated.

The willingness to listen to the diverse positions and concerns of people helps to ascertain what people are resonating to so that these are incorporated into the problem-solving process.

The difference between traits and values is that you are born with the former while the latter is nurtured. I would say leadership is two-thirds nurture and only one-third genetic. This gives us hope that good leaders are not a narrow and predestined group, and that more candidates can be trained and developed to be more effective leaders.

What then is leadership? According to Dr Dean Williams, who teaches leadership at Harvard University, most leadership models are more about gaining and exercising authority than enacting real leadership. They focus primarily on leading in unsophisticated environments and unduly emphasise the role of the leader in "articulating a vision", "showing the way", and generating "loyal followers".

Fundamentally, leadership is a process of mobilising people to confront and deal with problematic realities for the purpose of making progress in improving the human condition. This often requires getting the people to change their values, habits, practices and priorities.

Counterfeit leadership, on the other hand, provides false solutions and allows the group to bypass tough problems and pursue the easy path. Leadership is a complex activity of challenge and engagement. It is a journey, not a destination.

What is the state of leadership in Singapore? Certainly, our national leaders pass muster as people with aspiration, integrity, and drive. They generally look long term, sense opportunities and threats in the environment and engage citizens on these issues.

Mr Lee himself has often displayed his ability at getting Singaporeans to confront challenges, and shift their values and mindsets and accept new policies. A good example was how he got Singaporeans to accept the bilingual policy. The learning journey was well-paced and resulted in a shared understanding of the problem and the policy.

However, the global and domestic environments are changing rapidly. We face complex social issues, which the Government has limited direct control over. Citizens have widening interests and values, and are much more expressive of their opinions and desires. It is hence an illusion that technical fixes, developed by an elite small group, can resolve the messy and interconnected problems we face today.

Yet, because it has served us well in the past, we still embrace the "great man" idea of leadership. The expectation is that a carefully selected cadre of national leaders with supreme intelligence and deep commitment to Singapore would have the most accurate diagnosis of reality and the best answers, even when that is an unrealistic burden to place on any man, no matter how talented.

The danger here is that when a "great man" fails to deliver or cannot feed the people's hungers, he can be swiftly deauthorised by the group. The sudden surge in citizens' anger online in the wake of last year's general election is evidence of this.

There is also a danger of choosing a group of leaders with traits and backgrounds that are too similar. When I was a young bureaucrat attending a course for administrative officers, 10 out of the 12 participants, when tested, had the same personality profile! The limited cognitive and personality diversity of a leadership group may be good for producing loyalty and common thinking, but it can be a serious impediment when dealing with complex challenges.

The Government's belief seems to be that they mainly need to improve their communication and persuasion techniques. But the bigger problem is the increasing dependency on Government to solve all problems, big and small. That dependency is perpetuated both by the Government and by citizens who demand that the Government "fixes" every problem.

Citizens need to be stirred to take greater responsibility for the problem solving and creative work in the community. The Government needs to involve and entrust citizens more proactively in the hard and messy (but creative, solution-making and opportunity-enhancing) work that produces societal progress. Apart from developing a sense of agency, this ensures increased commitment to the implementation of the solutions and policies adopted.

Sometimes, members of the establishment are too quick to judge those who passionately espouse differing views as being against the interests of Singapore. This often disenfranchises the very people who may be their best partners, because they bring a piece of the complexity of the problem to the table and care deeply about the problem. Specifically, non-profits should become valued partners and co-creators in the problem solving process.

In short, the Government needs to encourage the expression of real leadership at all levels of society in order to ensure that we, as a nation, can more swiftly adapt and respond to the demanding challenges confronting us in these fast-changing times. This is particularly important while the Government still has a strong political mandate.

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament who is the chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. He is also acting CEO of the Community Foundation of Singapore and chairman of the Lien Foundation.

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