Lee Kuan Yew on Choosing Leaders

How did LKY choose people for positions of power? Insights from 1977–2000 showed how he defined leadership and chose leaders.

Source: Choo Yut Shing on Flickr
“A leader must lead. He cannot follow. If you’re following opinion polls, straw polls, and you’re doing what you believe the public wants, even when you know it’s wrong, then you are not a leader. Success will be ephemeral, temporary, transient.”
— Lee Kuan Yew, Interview with Hirotsugu Koike, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, December 20th, 1990

In an earlier story I talked about Lee Kuan Yew‘s top down approach to overcoming corruption in a nation. It starts with having a core group of united leaders with strong morality and integrity at the top of the government. In this story we’ll talk about how Lee defined leadership and chose leaders.

Lee defined leadership as being able to convince people to trust in your vision and the way to get there. In an interview with Reiko Kinoshita from the Asahi Monthly on March 13th, 1991, he was asked the definition of leadership, to which he responded…

“What the word means — to lead and not to follow… the art of leadership is to be able to get people to rally to a cause so that they will follow you and your policies in pursuit of that cause. That’s leadership…”

A great leader alone isn’t enough to achieve a great vision. In another media interview by Loy Teck Juan from local newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on June 30th, 1993, he said…

I have done what I could by getting together some of our ablest and toughest.

But how do you identify such individuals?

Qualities of good leaders

In a parliament speech on May 21st, 1996, Lee shared his insights on common traits of highly capable leaders he has met…

The art of government is to get the right people to the right places, and the right people often are the able and outstandingly energetic and sound, and they are the ones who will do well, whether in business, in the profession or in government. I took many years to learn that, that there is such a category that you can blanket across the board. So when I met 100 CEOs at Williamsburg, many of whom I have met occasionally here, I recognised…high energy levels, sound judgment, tremendous drive and confidence.”

Of the qualities of leaders, the most important to him was the ability to judge people. In an interview with Trevor Kennedy, Editor-in-Chief of the Australian Consolidated Press Ltd on 2 May 2nd, 1986, he said…

The most important, single skill that a leader must have is to be able to judge quickly. You can either gauge people or you can’t. Some people are good at it, some people are not.”’

He also told Kennedy that a great leader would be elected by the people due to his communication skills.

“You have to move people, you have to convince people. You have to swing them around to your way of thinking so that they will work to these common ends. It needs communicative skill plus an ability to move people, to get people to trust you.”
“…I didn’t set out to be number one. They (Lee’s colleagues in the People’s Action Party) asked me to be number one because I was, I suppose, the best communicator, the one with the mass following.”

Character is more important than ability

But no matter what the abilities of a person, Lee believed that his character is more important. However, a person’s true character takes time and testing to reveal. In his book, “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965–2000”, he wrote…

“Ability can be assessed fairly accurately by a person’s academic record and achievements at work. Character is not so easily measured. After some successes but too many failures, I concluded that it was more important, though more difficult, to assess a person’s character.”

He believed that true gold must be tested by fire, over time. In an Interview with George Goodman, Executive Editor of the Esquire Magazine, on December 8th, 1982, Lee commented…

It’s not possible to know a man over a television screen. It’s not possible even having sat down with each other for an hour.”

He also told attendees at an address to the Political Association of the University of Singapore on 23 December 23rd, 1977, that…

We can measure a man’s ability and output, (but) we can only guess what his motivations, his convictions are. His courage in the face of danger and his capacity to communicate his thinking and feelings, to inspire confidence in people to work and fight to overcome these dangers, these are imponderables. His responses and his performance under prolonged stress we only know when a major crisis develops…”

A leader must be willing to let go…

And finally, he also believed that a great leader plans for and must be willing to let go of his position at the top when the right time came. In a speech for the Africa Leadership Forum in Singapore on 8 November 8th, 1993, he said…

Leaders must have the sense of trusteeship, that they are only temporarily in charge of the destinies of their people and that their duty is not only to discharge this trust but also to pass it on to equally trustworthy and competent hands…”

As to when that succession should take place, he told Hirotsugu Koike, Asian News Chief of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, in an interview on December 20th, 1990…

“A great leader creates succession; especially when he knows his style of leadership isn’t the best for the circumstances. Companies and countries have failed after one strong leader passes because of the failure to identify, nurture and empower talent early.

And so in November 1990, Lee passed on the reins to Goh Chok Tong. He told Hirotsugu Koike, Asian News Chief of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun on December 20th, 1990…

“Singapore has had 31 years of my style, which is quick, swift… If I see what the problem is, I don’t waste time discussing it some more… A younger generation of voters now want to have their say…Whether they are right or wrong is another matter. But they want to be heard. Well, Goh Chok Tong will give them a hearing. That is a plus.”

How did he select Goh? He said he didn’t.

He told Alexander Thomson of the BBC in an interview on August 2nd, 1991…

“I have not chosen my successor. He was chosen by his peers because I do not believe if I choose somebody he’s going to succeed. If they choose him they got to make him succeed. So he wasn’t my choice. In fact, as I’ve declared publicly, he was my second choice. And since he was their choice they have to work hard to make sure he succeeds.”

Tremendous energy and drive, sound and quick judgment, communication skills and the ability to gain trust, as well as being able to let go at the right time; these are the hallmarks of a leader, who must tested over time.

This was how Lee Kuan Yew defined leadership.