Opinion: Australia, look to Lee Kuan Yew for lessons in change leadership

by External27 Apr 2015
Cynthia Stuckey suggests that Australia's C-suite leaders could learn a thing or two from Singapore's late leader, Lee Kuan Yew.

On 23 March, Singapore and the broader Asia-Pacific lost a great leader, with the passing of Lee Kuan Yew. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott put it in his official condolence, “we mourn the passing of a giant of our region”. Although a small man, who lead a tiny nation, Singapore’s founding father had an immense impact that expanded beyond the Straits of Singapore and influenced leaders in Australia and around the world.

Singapore celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and in that time much of the great change she has undergone is thanks to Mr. Lee’s strong leadership. Under his direction, Singapore has transformed from a former British colony, devastated by war, with few natural resources and little neighbouring support, into one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

Mr. Lee was respected by political and business leaders from around the world. He was loved as much as he was feared for his dogmatic approach to getting things done that left little room for discussion, but enabled Singapore and its people as a whole to flourish. Mr. Lee has indeed left a powerful legacy for generations to come.

It never ceases to amaze me how one impactful leader was able transform the city outside my window from a mere developing nation that was debilitated by social division and poor living conditions just some decades back to one of opportunity, efficiency and prosperity. What strikes me as particularly significant for leaders to recognise and learn from was Mr. Lee’s extraordinary ability to lead through an era of change. After working with so many leaders over a career spanning more than 20 years, I have found that the Lee Kuan Yews of the world take the following winning approach:
  1. Have a clear vision
“Here we make the model multiracial society. This is not a country that belongs to any single community - it belongs to all of us. This was a mudflat, a swamp. Today, it is a modern city. And 10 years from now, it will be a metropolis – never fear!” Lee Kuan Yew.

I always see the importance of setting a clear vision to provide direction when starting off, especially when facing expected changes or bracing for a planned change. Mr. Lee definitely did a good job in this area. He saw the need to fight for self-rule from the British in 1959 and independence from Malaysia in 1965. He also saw great potential in Singapore becoming a business hub for international investors by developing first-class infrastructure and recruiting talent from abroad.

As business leaders, bringing the company to the next level is our key responsibility and also one of our key challenges. I always think about where I want to take the business in the short and long-term. The overall vision is what drives my strategy and action. During transformational periods, many challenges are faced but strong leaders are determined, persist and find a way through, even if having to deviate or take an alternate route.
  1. Communicate the vision
“I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.” Lee Kuan Yew.
Weeping before national television to deliver the news of the separation between Malaysia and Singapore represented one of the toughest times for Mr. Lee in his life. He knew that Singapore had a slim chance of survival. But rather than focusing on the negatives, he saw the situation as a chance to establish a deep connection with Singapore’s people by communicating the link between his party’s goal and their circumstance.

During times of turbulence it can be difficult for the c-suite to communicate the truth to employees, not wanting to threaten the stability of the organisation. However, a key skill of any great leader is being able to speak honestly and directly with peers to ensure everyone is on the same track and travelling toward the same vision. This is particularly important during times of difficulty and change.
  1. Walk the talk
“I want to make sure every button works, and if it doesn’t when I happen to be around, then somebody is going to be in for a rough time, because I do not want sloppiness.” Lee Kuan Yew.

Sharing the majority of my time between Singapore and Sydney, I believe that city-state has much to be envied including; a largely corrupt-free government, affordable healthcare, quality homes, efficient transportation and holistic education, for all. This standard of life may not have been achieved without Mr. Lee keeping his ear to the ground and implementing an uncompromising change mechanism that is scalable and adaptable to suit circumstantial needs.

To maintain its competitiveness and success, Singapore does not rest on its laurels. The government makes sure to introduce new policies to seek fresh talent while retaining its local workforce, as well as revising existing policies to adapt to global influences. Lee Kuan Yew was, and the current government is, unabashed when communicating their plans, and stand ready to defend them when necessary. This should be the same for business. In order to sustain long-term business growth, businesses must be able to communicate and execute their goals with strong conviction.
  1. Build commitment
“If you can select a population and they’re educated and they’re properly brought up, then you don’t have to use too much of the stick because they would already have been trained.” Lee Kuan Yew.

In order to create a prosperous Singapore, a pragmatic Lee Kuan Yew saw the importance of looking beyond geographical borders for talent. This enabled Singapore to develop the skills and capabilities of her people, while also exposing them to global competition. Mr. Lee had a strong focus on training, and understood the need to look elsewhere to build up the internal workforce until she was able to take the lead. But at the same time, Mr. Lee did not forget about local Singaporeans. Aside from cultivating talent, he also addressed his people’s needs, ensuring tangible change occurred in healthcare, education and infrastructure.

The same should be done in business. In times of difficulty and change, talent development through learning and training activities will do little if basic wants and needs are not being met. By addressing these fundamental requirements employee engagement will improve, in turn increasing productivity. To put it simply, a happy workforce will be more willing to put in the extra effort for the company.
  1. Pick the next better player
“If I were not the Prime Minister, he [Lee Hsien Loong] could have become Prime Minister several years earlier. It is against my interest to allow any family member, who’s incapable, to be holding an important job because that would be a disaster for Singapore and my legacy. That cannot be allowed”, Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr. Lee recognised that he could not stay in the top job forever and saw the importance of raising the next generation of leaders to lead Singapore into the future, before he stepped down from the political stage. The same goes for business. In an organisation, no one can sit in the Managing Director’s chair forever. It is inevitable for new business leaders to join organisations, and when they do it is likely will lead a company-wide transformation or reshuffle. Therefore, while focusing on growing the business, leaders should also be on the constant lookout for potential candidates to be the “next top leader”.

While looking internally is often safer and enables leaders to develop and mould up comers, if there are no capable candidates it is worth looking further afield, as Lee Kuan Yew did when building Singapore’s workforce. Often an external view and experience can reinvigorate a business and provide lasting rewards for the future workforce.  

Historically and today, Australia and Singapore enjoy a positive relationship; from aiding in the battle against Japanese invasion in World War II, to becoming Singapore's fourth largest destination for accrued foreign investment and signing a free trade deal more than 10 years ago. Looking forward,

Australia’s national strategy and five year plan for growth focuses increased attention on Asia, with Singapore a core building block in this plan—a strategy mirrored by Australian businesses.

With the passing of Singapore’s founding father, it is timely for Australia to take a moment and learn a few lessons from such a formidable leader.

About the author
Cynthia Stuckey is the Managing Director of The Forum Corporation in Asia-Pacific. Forum is a recognised global leader in linking learning to strategic business objectives. For more information, visit: http://www.forumaustralia.com.au/