When I was in our school’s 24-man dragonboat team in 1994, I was seated on the first row out of 12 rows because I was one of the shorter guys.
My rowing partner Naveen and I were coached by the previous pair of front rowers (simply by paddling behind them for one entire year) on how to set the rowing pace of the boat according to different water conditions and how other rival boats were performing.
If the front two rowers couldn’t coordinate together, then the entire team would be unable to row in unison. The boat would simply slow down.
So it was a stressful role that we had to deal with in countless training sessions and scary competitions. Even if all hell broke loose, we had to count the pace together and keep straining the muscles on the exact same pulses.
As the A-Level exams loomed, I got worried about my grades and thought about quitting the team to focus on my studies. Our boat drummer (and old friend) took me aside and said, “If you quit, who is going to do your job that you were trained for? How can you let the team down? We have to do this together, ok?”
I didn’t quit, and it was an early lesson in demonstrating leadership in one’s appointed role. Our team’s true leader was our coach Neo Seilin, and he demonstrated by role-modelling principles of fairness, integrity and performance excellence into each of us.
Over the years, I learned more leadership lessons in the army, in school and at work… as a team member or as a team leader. I observed good leaders, I got aghast at bad leaders. I was put into tough decision-making situations and made the calls, and learned from each of them. I’m still learning and this will not end till my dying day. For this, I give thanks to God for all the opportunities (which seemed more like miserable times when I was younger)
Recent events in Singapore, such as the elected presidency, transport issues, church leaders being jailed…have demonstrated one clear thing to me – What most people are desperately craving for, whether at work, at home or in politics, is simply strong and capable leadership at all times.
(Note: I have little interest in talking about whether the president was elected or selected, anyone living in Singapore for long should have realized some things do not change in local politics.)
Leaders need to have both conferred authority and moral authority ie. This is my role that I was asked to do and I’m going to do it right by my team to drive the best outcomes.
In my life, I’ve seen inexperienced teams win big successes, strong teams falter and get retrenched, mediocre teams remain stagnant, and so on… all largely attributable to the person leading the team.
Capable leaders know how to work with their teams to drive successful outcomes. Weak leaders lead them down the path of despair and desolation, even as they try to pander and fluff people up.
I have met people who have never had a good (I mean – effective) manager their entire lives at work, and they are often bitter folks who think the worse of their situation. What they don’t realize is that it was their manager who helped to lead them down this path, either out of ignorance, incapability or spite.
I’ve seen church audiences believe the ravings of deluded preachers. I’ve seen people suffer from bad parenting, and then passing the hurt on to their children. Good leadership is needed everywhere, not just in the office.
The danger lies not when we have weak leaders, but when we accept them and carry on in our lives as status quo.
I made up my mind long ago that I would never work for a leader less capable than I am, and that rule has always worked out even as times get tough or uncertain. As I’ve written here before, one of the toughest bosses I had stared me in the eye when I was complaining about how tough a situation was to meet my targets, and asked nicely: “What do we pay you for?” A good leader gets to the heart of why we do what we do too.
Conversely, I have to constantly ensure I’m the right leader for my current team by word and by action. It’s very tough to be the guy who says the buck stops here and then take all-up accountability for hard decisions. It’s even harder to be a leader who wants to develop his people for real tangible career growth, not just for small talk.
The worse kind of manager is the sort who says: “Let me know how I can help you.” Then when you ask for help, he says “Sorry I can’t help you.” and worse, goes off to play golf with his cronies. Small talk, I loathe it.
Leadership as a parent is the hardest by far. It’s a job you cannot quit from, ever. From the day I became a dad, I worry often about whether I’m doing right by the kids. I don’t know if my philosophical rejection of the current education system is going to do them more harm or good. We’ll see how this turns out in the next 20 years as they become adults.
But you know what I learned from the best leaders?
They taught me that leaders need proper training and guidance to be leaders. And that means they themselves need the right mentorship and managers. When people with high potential are led astray by weak leaders, then teams suffer for it… and in other scenarios, entire societies will pay the price.
As a Christian, it’s Jesus who provides leadership training on the moral front (the Bible offers numerous lessons), and the people He provides and puts in our lives who offer the day-to-day practical training. Jesus and the prophets of old have said there will be injustice in our earthly lives, but I ask myself, how do we lead ourselves first before we speak ill of other leaders who create injustice?
We see weak or the lack of leadership in many places and in society, and we often lament about it as though we cannot do anything about it.
But let’s deal with what we can, and start with developing leadership skills, or raising good leaders in our individual lives, families and workspaces.
Every good leader we have will help make the world a better place.