The art of practical leadership

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The best way to learn to be a leader is through apprenticeship to one. But can leadership skills be passed on over the generations without dilution?

FORMER head of civil service Lim Siong Guan's new book on leadership contains a passage that made me cast my mind back to my first boss at work.

In The Leader, The Teacher And You, the retired civil servant recounted a conversation he had with then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at their first meeting. Mr Lee had told him: "Always look at the foreigner in his eyes. Never look down. You are dealing with him as a representative of Singapore. Conduct yourself as his equal."

When I was a civil servant in the 1970s and 1980s, my boss, Mr Sim Kee Boon - who was permanent secretary of the then Communications Ministry - did not spell it out for me in so many words.

But you could tell in the way he dealt with foreigners at meetings or during lunches that he was anything but inferior to them.

I remember to this day, more than 30 years later, how his confidence and self-assured way rubbed off on subordinates like me, and made us believe we could solve any problem in the world.

Often, he looked more like a construction contractor with his tanned complexion and small stature than Singapore's top mandarin. But when he spoke and probed minds, it was clear who was boss. It made an impression, especially when you are a young officer trying to figure out how the world works.

I was fortunate to have him as a mentor early in my career and to be able to observe and learn first hand his brand of leadership.

In a piece last month, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about the difference between technical knowledge, which can be obtained from books or taught in school, and practical knowledge, which can be imparted only by imitation and experience.

He wrote: "Practical knowledge is hard to see but it is embedded in traditions of behaviour. It is embedded in the lives of older legislators and public servants, and it is passed down by imitation to the younger ones.

"This craft of governing well has been forsaken and is disrespected but you will not be effective in public life unless you find a wise old person who will teach you the tricks of the trade, hour after hour, side by side."

I was side by side with Mr Sim when I accompanied him on a trip to France to find out about its mass rapid transit experience, when Singapore had not decided whether to build one.

The plane stopped over in Abu Dhabi and when we got off, he headed straight for the washroom. I followed, thinking he needed to answer nature's call. Instead, he peered into every cubicle, curious to find out their state of cleanliness. As the top civil servant in charge of Singapore's airport, he was checking out the competition. Lesson: Never stop learning or miss an opportunity to find out more about the business you are in.

Once, when we were having problems with a bus company, he called a lunch meeting at the ministry to discuss the matter with the company's top management.

His message to them: Work with the transport officials, don't bite the hand that feeds you.

At the end of the lunch, when they were about to leave, suitably chastened, he delivered one last parting shot: "As this lunch was arranged to resolve problems that you had created, I will be sending the bill to you."

It was a classic demonstration of his ability to clinch the point he wanted to make, about not undermining the regulator that had enabled the company to operate its business. Additional lesson: As a regulator, you need to show who is boss.

Mr Sim was a first-generation civil servant who worked closely with the ruling party's Old Guard leaders in the earlier years of Singapore's independence.

Can their values and leadership principles be passed on to future generations?

Mr Lim wrote his book to try to help the process. At its launch last month, he spoke about the importance of doing this, to make sure enough of the first generation's values that created Singapore's success be transmitted to today's third generation.

He elaborated on this in an interview with The Business Times earlier this month. He said: "The second generation learns from the first generation the core principles and values that have led to success, and they use those parts which are particularly relevant for them to solve their own problems. This is a good way of passing leadership down.

"My concern is really about how the second generation passes on to the third generation. Because if they pass on the mantle of leadership through the same apprenticeship mode, the third generation will adopt a fraction of what the second generation learnt, which is already a fraction of what the first generation passed on. So, there is a dilution of knowledge, from generation to generation."

Such an apprecenticeship of leadership cannot be passed on through a book, no matter how well-written.

But Mr Lim is spot on in being concerned about how much of a country's relevant values can be retained through the generations.

Some people have lamented that compared to leaders of yore, today's leaders seem less sure in their touch and less willing to try out the big ideas. Perhaps it was a simpler world then; issues were less complicated; the people's needs easier to meet.

But there also seems to be a qualitative difference in the types of leaders. First-generation leaders like Mr Sim were adept at establishing relationships with those they needed to work with, whether foreign consultants, bus operators or airport stakeholders.

They depended less on theory or key performance indicators (KPI) or financial penalties to obtain performance.

They understood how to get the job done, who could be depended on to do what, when to press and when to hold back.

There are clearly no easy answers to how leaders are made and what is the best way to nurture the next generation's.

What's clear is that in today's more complex and uncertain times, these questions have assumed even greater importance.

hanfk@sph.com.sg