Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the passing of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew (LKY). The impact of LKY’s thinking on me, as an expatriate in Singapore, has been profound. While I was aware of him prior to arriving in the country in 2013, it is only since my arrival that I have undertaken the readings required to develop a more detailed glimpse into his thinking.

Having now read his memoirs and ideas for the future of Singapore, LKY is, in my opinion, a political leader without equal. I accept that this is a bold statement to make and his legacy, like everyone’s, is a reflection of the time and place in which they lived. This noted, the legacy of LKY is evident to me every day I wake up and reflect on how much I enjoy living in this country.

While there is much that I could write about leadership that I attribute in part or as a whole to Singapore’s founding father, for me 5 lessons stand out as pointers of what great leadership truly is: 

  1. Have a clear vision and create culture: In leadership it is often said thatculture will beat strategy on any day. But culture without vision is pointless. Lee Kuan Yew had vision that extended out decades and the vision was backed by the people to create the amazing city-state that Singapore is. This vision was not created at the expense of culture. Rather the vision embraced culture, making the two inseparable.
  2. Judge and prepare to be judged: Lee Kuan Yew was never afraid to tell it like it is. I doubt you will ever read more authentic transcripts from a leader. He put a clear stake in the ground and allowed people to judge him for it. He was judged favourably because of his deep and sincere concern for the country and its people, and not simply promoting his own interests. Invariably his judgement was correct.
  3. Integrity means compromise is rarely an option: Only when I read his works did I fully understand how deep Lee Kuan Yew’s sense of integrity was. His actions and beliefs were aligned throughout his political career and personal life. He was also a pragmatist and knew when difficult decisions needed to be made. Any compromises were made after much consideration, always in the greatest interest of Singapore.
  4. Understand and accept human nature: Lee Kuan Yew took the best of psychology and applied it in building a country. He designed systems and pushed for legislation that reflect this; reinforcing the behaviours that he wanted to see for the country and creating disincentives for the behaviours he wanted to see eradicated. He understood how perverse incentives, crime and corruption can destroy nation building and that, unfortunately, some human beings will gravitate to such things.
  5. Succession planning is the key to true leadership legacy: Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy lies in his commitment to succession planning. For Singapore to realise its potential requires not only a vision, but continuity of that vision across successive leaders. Acutely aware of this, Lee Kuan Yew set up a structure that ensured consistent leadership and policy continuation. We can contrast this with CEOs who leave organisations in disarray after their departure. Leaders who, post cashing in their golden handshake, watch the demise of the company from a distance.

I have chosen to only cover 5 leadership lessons that I have drawn from my reading of LKY’s work. There are many more. How many leaders identify their deficiencies and work tirelessly to address them as LKY did in learning Mandarin after finishing University? How many leaders can take lessons from living through occupation, reintegration and then separation? How many leaders can take a country the size of Waiheke Island with few natural resources and turn it into a country with one of the largest GDP per capita in the world?

Singapore has its fair share of challenges for the future. There is the issue of an aging population, the changing nature of jobs and the impact this will have on the workforce, and the upholding of national values in times of major global social change. Last weekend, I had the privilege of meeting some of Singapore’s public-sector psychologists at the Singapore Psychological Society AGM and dinner, and am encouraged in their commitment to further enriching the lives of all Singaporeans through good research and policy. As a scholar of leadership, I’m indebted to Lee Kuan Yew for the lessons I have learnt through his life and his work. I’m a proud New Zealand citizen, but I do feel privileged to have the opportunity to live and work in Singapore during this time.

For those non-Singaporeans uninitiated to the thinking of Lee Kuan Yew I thoroughly recommend The wit and wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew and The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew. Both are easy reads and give a broad overview of his thinking on many topics such as politics, society and economic prosperity.

For a more in-depth review The Singapore Story, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew is a fascinating book. I have only read Volume 1, which traces his life up to independence in 1965.