When Lee Kuan Yew died a couple of years ago, it was very sad here in Singapore. You could see it on the faces of colleagues, friends and people we encounter every day like taxi or bus drivers. You could hear it on the radio, see it on the TV, and feel it on the streets. When I passed the gleaming skyline of the city on the way to the office, or ran the pathway at East Coast Park, one can know that what Singapore became was the vision and implementation of one man, Lee Kuan Yew. Mr. Lee passed away on a Monday and his state funeral was a week later. During those last days, people had been queuing for up to eight hours or more to pay respect to him, whether at his beloved Community Centers or at the Parliament House, where he laid in state.
Everyone here knows his story, but not so for many Westerners. During the course of the week in conversations I would ask people “what did Mr. Lee mean to you?” This was of course a very personal question and folks would tell me they cried for hours, but also what it meant to them or their parents and family. Their responses weren’t ideological, they were facts about how one man had changed a nation – really created a nation – and built it with his mission, vision and strategy for the possibility of what it could be.
Mr. Lee was a great fan of athletics and competition, whether it be running or hosting the F1 here or the upcoming SEA games. While Michelle and I were running/biking last night, lightning started hitting the water from afar and we thought that was his spirit giving one last salute to the city state he loved. When I run in the 100km two-man Singapore Relay in mid-June and in the Sundown Marathon here on Fourth of July this year, we’ll all be saluting his athletic vision.
As prime minister for its first three decades, Lee Kuan Yew raised a poor port known for its mudflats from the bottom rungs of the third world to the first world in a single generation. As it prepares to mark its 50th anniversary as a nation in August of this year, Singapore is today an ultra-modern metropolis of almost six million people with higher per capita GDP than the United States. It is one of the cleanest, greenest, safest city-states in the world; a magnet for multinational corporations where multiculturalism and equality are the norm and where racism or ethnic or gender prejudice is just not permitted. Singapore’s remarkable performance has less to do with miraculous conditions or luck than with Mr. Lee’s model of disciplined, visionary leadership.
Graham Allison, a co-author of the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, published an article where he highlights five of Mr. Lee’s lessons. All of this has made me think about the impact of ourselves and our executives in leading the organizations and corporations that we are part of. Leaders of organizations can take pages from Lee Kuan Yew’s playbook to address current challenges. This post is adapted from Mr. Allison’s article.
“Lee Insisted that Governance was First and Foremost About Results”
Just change the word “governance” for leadership and the lesson is the same. As the saying goes, “Hope is not a strategy”. A company’s goals are just that, goals. An executable plan that takes into account an organization’s strengths, its place in the market, the trends around them that are creating opportunities or challenges, is what will generate the measurable results in line with its goals.
In the same way that companies are measured on quarterly performance, share prices and market caps are determined by the future worth. In other words, yes, we have to make our numbers for this quarter and the year, but we also have to be placing big bets – with conviction and investment – for the future five to ten years ahead.
To paraphrase his words, “the acid test of any company is not the greatness or the grandeur of its ideal concepts, but whether, in fact, it is able to produce long-term results”.
“Superior Performance Requires Superior Moral Leadership”
Lee demanded of leaders both intellectual and moral superiority. Great companies demand of all leaders that they put the greater good of the company above their own personal or career interests.
Leaders set the gold standard and set an example for everyone in their country or organization. This shows up not just in their words but in their deeds and how they interact and make decisions each and every day. Like our parents, we learn from our leaders on how to be. As parent’s ourselves, our own legacy for our children and grandchildren are the values that they live and practice. In every company and in every country, there are a set of rights and wrongs that are cross boundary and cross levels. One of the key areas that Mr. Lee focused on was eliminating corruption in the government. He saw that this would lead to a stratified country where the super-rich gained a continuing advantage based on their wealth, often gained at the expense of the poor and underpaid who lived a substandard existence through in effect, paying tithes to corrupt leaders.
Superior moral leadership shows up in every single thing a leader does, every single day in every single decision that they take. Like our children and grandchildren carrying on our values, so do our employees through our actions and how we behave in an honest, unwavering allegiance to doing what’s right and just.
“Equal Opportunity For All”
Third, successful companies guarantee strict equality of opportunity for all individuals, but are realistic about the fact that there will be both individual contributors and senior vice presidents.
“For Lee, the essence of a successful society was intense competition on a level playing field that allows each individual to achieve his or her maximum. Few things offended him more than denial of equality of opportunity on the basis of caste (India), class (Europe), race (the U.S. during segregation), sex, or other irrelevant attributes.”
We might call this a meritocracy – where each and every person has the opportunity to move up or around an organization based on what they do (results) and how they do it (style) – in line with the goals and values and culture prevalent in any given company.
As he put it, the leader’s objective was to “build up a society in which people will be rewarded not according to the amount of property they own, but according to their active contribution to society in physical or mental labour.”
I would rephrase it to say “the leader’s objective is to build up a organization in which people will be rewarded not according to the amount of political capital they possess, but according to their active contribution towards meeting company, employees, partners and customers results and success.”
“Discipline and Democracy”
In part, this attitude stemmed from his own experience, but it also reflected a deeper philosophical aversion to ideologies.
As he liked to say, “The acid test is performance, not promises. The millions dispossessed in Asia care not and know not of theory. They want a better life. They want a more equal, just society.”
Discipline and democracy co-exist in any successful company. In the end, all companies, from the smallest start-up to the largest MNC, have to have a semi-autocratic way of governing and leading. Employees want and need to understand and get behind the greater good of the company, to believe and to be committed and inspired by the cause, whatever it is. Employees want their voices heard, their ideas lifted up, to be part of the solution, not in blind allegiance to any one CEO, but to what the company wants to achieve and how they are going to go about it.
“Leadership Admiration and Emulation”
“Fifth, which leaders did he most admire? From the recent past, he focused on three: Charles de Gaulle, Deng Xiaoping, and Winston Churchill.”
“De Gaulle, because he had tremendous guts; Deng, because he changed China from a broken-backed state, which would have imploded like the Soviet Union, into what it is today; and “Churchill, because any other person would have given up.”
On the current scene, the leader who impressed him most was the new president of China, Xi Jinping. As he said just before Xi took office: “I would put him in Nelson Mandela’s class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In a word, he is impressive.”
We can reflect on business leaders in the past who have single-handedly made their mark on their company such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Thomas J. Watson or Henry Ford – what were their own leadership qualities? They had long-term vision and were unwavering as to the purpose of the company and the mark they wanted to leave on society. They were at times semi-autocratic, and led with a disciplined approach. They created a meritocracy in their firms that would enable both thousands of skilled workers to have good-paying, satisfying jobs, but also allow successors to rise and lead the company for years and decades to come. They all had a strong moral and ethical compass with zero toleration for deviations. And, they were all human. They made mistakes, took missteps, but they owned up to their faults or bad decisions and made adjustments accordingly and learned from their mistakes.
The acid test of leadership is your legacy. Will people in your organization mourn your leaving the company or will they cheer? Will they say that he/she built a foundation, a team, a direction, that left its imprint? Will they talk about your moral compass and focus on enabling everyone in the organization to do their best work, behind a strong work-ethic and good humor in times of stress?
As we said a formal goodbye to Lee Kuan Yew, let us continue to celebrate the mark he made on Singapore, it’s people and the region. His legacy is that the country continued on without missing a beat, focused on success and the greater good of the people and that leaders that will carry on his vision.