Three leadership lessons from Lee Kuan Yew

by HCA31 Mar 2015
On Sunday Singapore buried the man credited with transforming the city-state from a small colonial outpost to the financial powerhouse it is today.

Thousands attended the funeral of former prime minister and founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, highlighting one key thing: Lee will be remembered.

And with a 30-year tenure as prime minister, and life-long commitment to various roles in the governance of Singapore, arguably one of the most important aspects he will be remembered for is his leadership.

Jeremy Schwarz, an Ernest May Fellow in history and policy with the International Security Programme at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, identified three vital lessons in leadership people could learn from Lee, which appeared in the international affairs and diplomacy journal The National Interest.

The first lesson was to “see people, not racial groups”, Schwarz said.

“Mr Lee respected racial identity but would not be intimidated by it. He acknowledged race as a dimension of one's identity but sought to secure Singapore's national identity as a multiracial society.”

Lee’s ways of combatting racism included addressing access to education, employment and social integration, he said.

“The commitment to meritocracy and a commitment to addressing the underlying economic and social challenges remain as consistent parts of Singapore's approach towards maintaining a cohesive society.”

The second lesson was to “invest in people, not axioms”.

“Mr Lee based his entire economic development plan on a simple question: Does it work? If something worked, it was continued or improved upon.”

If something failed, it was scrapped and a new idea was employed.

“As such, he invested in infrastructure and national institutions, ranging from building Changi International Airport and the world's largest container port to establishing the Biopolis and Fusionopolis parks, and the research hubs at the National University of Singapore."

The third lesson was to “lead people from the front, don’t follow them from behind”.

“Mr Lee was fundamentally shaped by the brutality of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. For Mr Lee, politics was about ensuring the survival of his country – his home and family – in an uncertain world.

“Simply put: You adapt or become irrelevant.”

Schwarz said Lee chose his battles wisely. “But once chosen, he broke his opponents before they could break him.”


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