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Speech at DARE! SMU Career & Internship Fair 2014

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Manpower, SMU Mochtar Riady Auditorium


  1. Leadership is something I feel very passionate about, something I spend a lot of time figuring in terms of my own journey as a leader. I try to do as much as I can to help my officers and commanders jump start their own development because I sometimes wish I’d realised things a lot earlier.
  2. There are many perspectives on leadership out there. And there is no right or wrong answer. I’ll share with you my perspectives on what leadership is and what it means. For a start, we should bear in mind that just because you are a manager or in a given appointment, it doesn’t mean you are a leader. It is just a post that comes with a certain authority and responsibilities. Whether you are a leader or not is a different matter altogether. Also, I don’t believe that leadership is something natural and inborn. If it was, we are mostly finished because few of us would be gifted that way! I believe that leadership is something that can be nurtured, learned and practiced.

    Why Leadership
  3. Leadership is principally about people. We all say that people are our only resources, especially in Singapore, and it’s true. It’s all we have. In any organisation, it’s people who make policies, create processes, build structures, and initiate ideas. It’s the people who implement things and make things happen. They are at the frontline and are the touch points with the public, whoever your stakeholders are. So it is people who make things happen,and we should never forget that. What really makes a difference in the organisation is people who go the extra mile – those who go beyond what they are expected to do.
  4. Many of you here are student leaders presently, or in the past. You would have been in great teams before. What was it that made you feel excited about being in that team? The camaraderie? The leadership? The climate? And you remember feeling that you could just take on the world and give it your very best shot. But I’m sure many of you also have that experience of being in groups and teams that was really disengaging. You just can’t wait for things to be over. Really de-motivating and you’re just trying to get by, unwilling to put in the additional effort.
  5. It’s useful to remember these emotions and experiences. Because the thing that makes the difference is when people are prepared to break free and do more than what is asked and expected. The question therefore, is how do you unleash that potential?
  6. So if people are really the key to everything, then I would say that the key to the key would be leaders. They are the catalysts, they are the levers through which you can unleash the potential, whether as an organisation, a group,a school, a business, and I would suggest, possibly even as a country. It is important to have a conceptual idea of why this is important, because it will help you ensure that you really do pay attention to leadership.
  7. Now, what is it that makes us a good leader? If there’s one or two words that come to mind, any suggestions? If there’s one thing you think is really quite critical? Is there one thing that is really important that you associate with leadership? I hear responsibility, humility, initiative, charisma and foresight.
  8. How many of you here consider yourself leaders? Not many, and how many of you feel that it is important to be a good leader? That’s a good show of hands. I am sure some of you here are already holding leadership positions. How many of you here are able to stand up and describe your leadership philosophy? To be able to state, this is what I believe and this is what guides me in everything I do and everything I say?

  9. Again, there are no right and wrong answers, but if there’s one word that comes to my mind about leadership, its trust. To be a leader means people are prepared to follow you. What makes you want to follow someone? It’s because you trust someone. Ultimately, you may not even necessarily like the person,you may not agree with everything, you may not even fully understand him, but you trust and are prepared to follow them.
  10. If trust is at the heart of leadership, then we need to ask ourselveswhat it is that engenders trust. What is it that we must do to be able to earn that trust? And this is very much related to ‘values’. It’s who you are as a person. It’s about what you say, it’s about what you don’t say, it’s about how you say it, it’s about what you do, what you don’t do, and how you do it. Perception matters, but after a while, when you begin to know that person, and see him in action, it’s not longer just perception that matters. It’s how you walk the talk, who you are as a person. All of us are inadequate, and none of us are perfect. But people trust you based on how they relate to you as a person.

  11. Leadership is also about engagement. Again, it’s related to people. All of us as individuals want to feel that we matter. Some people talk about Gen Y, Gen Z and how they are all very inward looking, only caring about their own interests, and so forth. In fact that is true for any generation, because that’s part of human nature. But I believe that all of us would like to feel and believe that actually, we matter more than just being a cog in the machinery. We do not want to be a digit. We want to feel that who we are matters. It gives us a sense of existence, a sense of purpose in our organisation or group. It’s sometimes the little things. Perhaps at work, the fact that your bosses remember your name makes you feel good because we realise that we are not just an anonymous entity. Even for myself, when residents come up to thank me for my effort, it positively encourages me because it reminds me that what I do, perhaps, really does matter after all.
  12. So engagement is really about how you connect so that we feel we are all part of something, part of something bigger and better, so that what you do, why you do and why you go the extra mile begin to makes sense.
  13. The first point about values can be surfaced here again. When you engage the people around you, you will know that it is very difficult to deceive them.The easiest people to fool are your bosses. The hardest people to fool are those beside you and working for you. They see the real you everyday. So engagement will only work if it is real.

  14. Thirdly, leadership is really about providing clarity. It’s about providing direction. It is about sense making when situations are complex and when things are uncertain. How do you try to sense-make? Importantly, we need to realise that it doesn’t mean you know everything, but at least you try and also to do it collectively. Because when you are a bit clearer about where you are heading, where your OB markers are, it reduces uncertainty and thus anxiety and stress. Clarity provides confidence and helps to also earn trust and establish purpose.
  15. Our problem today, I think, is sometimes a lack of clarity. A lot of times people don’t communicate and engage enough. The problem is that when you are not sure where you are going and what the purpose is, you will begin to shrink into that comfortable box where you know you cannot go very far wrong. I actually think we have a tremendous amount of initiative and creativity to run far and wide but we need clarity and direction for that to happen. And the process of engagement helps that because the more we communicate, the clearer we become about a lot of tacit spaces which are actually open for us to use.

  16. Fourthly, leadership is about climate building. What kind of climate are we setting? So, assuming we have clarity, and we know where we are going and what the OB markers are, the question is would you then dare to run? Would you dare to exercise initiative? What happens when something goes wrong? Remember, the little things that you say, how you act…people are all watching you. And that sets the climate. For example, many of us will hear people telling others to be prepared to take risks, push boundaries…only for them to be harshly disciplined when things go wrong or when superiors begin to jump. Guess what? No one will run because you just set a climate that doesn’t support that risk-taking. Similarly, what kind of collaborative climate do you wish to see? Climates don't just happen automatically, you need to spend time thinking about what you want to build, so that it is conducive for people to flourish and make use of that space to grow.

  17. Lastly, leadership is about nurturing. I believe that it is our responsibility to help people grow, to teach and impart. It is not just about you being successful when you are there as the leader. It’s about whether things will thrive and go further after you. It is about sustainable success. It’s about making sure things will continue even when you are not there. I think that’s a mark of true leadership, where something will continue to grow even after you have left. That is your real legacy…not just what was achieved when you were at the helm.
  18. It’s very interesting when we look at any organisation and you look at the number of man-hours dedicated to spending time with people, or on leadership development. You’ll be surprised. It’s actually woefully inadequate, compared to efforts to boost knowledge or professional development when we send people for courses and training.
  19. We aren’t so good at developing the person, as a person. And remember the first point about values? How do you help a person to grow and be more aware of their strengths and weaknesses? How do we help someone to be a better person, a better role model, and a better leader? Nurturing is very much about a sense of stewardship.

    Values Revisited
  20. I’ll come back to the first point on trust, which is tied to values. Itis important because it is the one thing that gets in the way of leadership and effective leadership. What are your values? Really. Not what you tell others,but who you really are. One of the things, which you will contend with very quickly, is your own ambition, your own self-interest. How does this square with what you do? People are prepared to follow you because they trust you. It’s because they believe you have their interests at heart. Because they believe that you care for them. And that when chips are down, when stake sare high, you will be there to look out for them and protect them, even at the expense of your own interests. Will you do just that? Or will the thing that gets in the way end up to be your own value system? You see, many of us will say the good things, the right things, but when the moment of reckoning comes…what will people see? Your actions will define who you are. That is when people will know if they will indeed follow you.
  21. Let’s look at a simple daily life example. When you go for meetings, your position may already be supported and cleared by your various bosses. But suddenly, when the biggest boss doesn’t agree with the position, you look around, and you realise that everyone who had endorsed your position keeps quiet, they are all staring down, taking notes, doodling, and you have that sinking feeling that you just left to fend on your own. Would you go the extra mile for these folks?
  22. In essence, think hard about these questions:
  23. How many of you here can very clearly articulate what you believe in? That these are the values that guide me?
  24. How many of you are very clear about your purpose in life? It’s useful to think about these things as they determine who and what you really are.
  25. I believe that people can generally see through most of us. Even though we are imperfect, people know that they can count on you, that they can depend on you, because they know your heart is in the right place. Or not. That’s where it all starts. Once the people’s hearts and minds are won, the rest will fall into place. Because you are prepared to go the extra mile, you will find solutions, find different ways of doing things, stretch boundaries, and build something great.
  26. Imagine how it feels like when you propose something and your boss says that is a good idea and that while we can make some tweaks, let’s transform your idea into a policy. As opposed to running it down? Or micro-managing it to death? Guess what? The next time round, you will put in effort to do more, to do better because you know that it matters. That you matter. It also comes down to the little things, how you respond emails, how you thank people, how you remember them and how you cheerlead in many ways. Your leadership beliefs and philosophy will have to guide you in everything that you do.
  27. Throughout our lives, it is always good to take a step back and reflect on what we want and who we are because we may lose our way, stray off the path. There are societal expectations and peer pressure that we know intimately well. A useful guiding perspective I often share is to imagine your last days and the last years of your life, and to imagine what you would be thinking of as you reflect on the life lived. I suspect it will not be the money that you make that you care about. Or the posts that you risen to. I believe it’d often be about relationships, love, family, the respect that you earned, friendships that you built throughout your life journey.
  28. If we lose ourselves, it affects our own journey in life. Again, from a leadership perspective, it just gets in the way of how others may relate to us. So, hold onto your beliefs and values, guard it jealously. Always reflect along the way, pause, ponder, and don’t lose yourself or your way.
  29. When we do this, I believe that we can be a leader who would be true to ourselves. And one whom people would be prepared to follow.