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Speech by Mrs Josephine Teo, Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport, at the Raffles Institution 191st Founder's Day Celebration

26 Jul 2014

Good morning.

Mr Choo Chiau Beng, Chairman of RI Board of Governors

Mr Magendiran, Senior Deputy Principal

2. Thank you for having me.

3. In my second year of university, I took an exam which asked the question “Are leaders born or made?”

4. I remember thinking that in Chinese, we might have asked a similar question – 是时势造英雄还是英雄造时势

5. I don’t remember much of what I wrote except that I got an ‘A’ for the exam.

6. But it did spark a lifelong interest for me to understand the nature of leadership, what it is and what it is not, and how do you become a better leader.

7. In fact, it led me eventually to commit several years of my professional life to serving as adjunct faculty of the US-based Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), a very well-regarded institution for leadership development in the world. I learnt a lot from CCL.

8. In the course of my work, I was incredibly lucky to have met and worked with many outstanding leaders. However, the person who caused me to reflect most deeply about leadership is someone you have never heard of, will likely never meet, let alone get to know.

9. Her name is Kang Huang Lang. But before I tell you about Mdm Kang and the impact she had on me, let me share with you what I believe leadership is not.

10. Leadership is not position. You can be appointed to any grand-sounding role and for a period of time, people might give you the benefit of doubt. But respect is always earned and if you cannot live up to the role, no one will recognise you as a leader for long.

11. Leadership is not about doing things your way. Very often, leadership involves finding out what people need, helping them decide how best to fulfil those needs, and supporting them to achieve their goals.

12. Leadership is, however, also not “going with the flow”.

13. Leaders have the responsibility of thinking, speaking and acting with integrity. That means not spreading rumours and taking care to check facts.

14. If you believe things are going right are fears are unfounded, you have the responsibility to reassure and not to stir. If you believe that things are headed in the wrong direction, you have the responsibility to forewarn and be constructive. Shouting things down but not building things up again is not leadership. You cannot lead by being part of the problem. You can only lead by being part of the solution.

15. If you have made a mistake, you have the responsibility to own up. If you know a better way forward, you have the responsibility to step up. If you don’t know a better way, you have the responsibility to step aside and support others to get the best possible job done.

16. Let me tell you now about Mdm Kang, one of the unlikeliest persons to be considered a leadership guru.

17. Mdm Kang is a member of the Pioneer Generation. She started work around the age of 16 in the 1960s. In those days, jobs were hard to come by and since she was almost illiterate, she went to work in a garment factory sewing clothes for a living.

18. In the 70s, garment exports from Singapore reached a high and the factories were running overtime. Mdm Kang was not well versed in employment law but she realised that the way the company computed overtime pay was grossly unfair to her fellow-workers. She brought up the matter to her managers and fortunately, they agreed with her. Not long after, her managers encouraged and supported her to take on union leadership roles.

19. In the mid 2000s, garment factories started to wind up their Singapore operations. We had become too expensive for garment manufacturing compared to some neighbouring countries. Mdm Kang knew her company would fold too, but she refused to leave. She told her bosses to let her colleagues go first.

20. Now, you might think she selfishly protected her own job. What you might not know is that when a company is winding up, sometimes the last people to leave don’t get much retrenchment benefit. This is because the company’s resources may have been depleted by then. It is therefore safer to leave when the company is still in a position to pay some retrenchment benefit. Mdm Kang therefore selflessly took the most risks upon herself.

21. I got to know Mdm Kang when I was serving in the union. Mdm Kang eventually lost her job. But she did not despair. Even though she has enough savings for retirement, she continues to work. She does not consider the job of a cleaner beneath. In her words, “It’s an honest job – what do I have to be ashamed of?”

22. One Chinese New Year, she hosted a party in her HDB home. Guess who turned up? The many seamstresses in the factory who she had led and stood up for, who she made sure got the retrenchment benefit before she did, and who she helped get new jobs.

23. Mdm Kang will never grace the cover of Time Magazine, nor any magazine for that matter. But she is a hero no less, a leader of the highest order as far as her co-workers and I are concerned. What has Mdm Kang taught me about leadership?

24. First, you are as much a leader as you have followers. Don’t just look ahead. Look behind too. Check if anyone’s there. Check they’re still with you. You cannot lead alone and you don’t often get far without the support of others. Therefore, keep your arrogance in check.

25. Second, you don’t need the trappings of success – big house/car/investment portfolio - to be a leader. But you do need a big heart. As leadership guru John C. Maxwell says, "People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care." Don’t expect others to bend backwards for you. Think instead how you can adapt and be helpful.

26. Third, good leaders find hope when there appear to be none. It’s easier to sit around and commiserate, and some people are particularly gifted in bringing out the most negative of energies in themselves and others. But what does that achieve? Stay away from people like that. Hanging around these toxic agents will only do you harm. Learn instead to reach inside yourself to find the most positive of energies and spread it around. Far more goodness will come of it.

27. In fact, thinking about it, Mdm Kang is the living embodiment of the servant-leader, an idea pioneered by Robert Greenleaf, who has this to say:

28. “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. The conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…….” In other words, lead in order to serve.

29. Greenleaf goes on to say,

30. “The best test, and difficult to administer is this: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely themselves to become servants?” The outcome of servant leadership is less about the success of the leader and more about the success of the followers.

31. Finally, let me share a gem of a r eminder I came across years ago.

32. “Don’t climb the ladder only to find that it’s leaning against the wrong wall.”

33. Some people are so seized by the pursuit of career success that they fail to nurture relationships with friends and family. By all means, work hard to achieve your goals. Be the best that you can be. Reach for the skies. But ask yourself, “what does success mean for me?” Behind the glowing accolades, what have you got?

34. It is not for anyone else to judge a person and I put this question to you only because I have friends who regret that success came at the price of broken marriages, distant children or neglected parents.

35. There’s a Chinese saying:

36. 树欲静而风不止
The tree desires stillness, but the wind keeps blowing
A child longs to care for his parents, but they could not have waited

37. At my Meet-the-People sessions, in fact the most heart-wrenching stories I come across are those of family estrangement, spousal betrayal or parents and children who are no longer on speaking terms. They’d rather speak to the MP than each other. Sometimes, family members fail to offer support to one another in times of emotional need.

38. The Government can have any number of schemes to deal with poverty but how can it fulfil an impoverished spirit and the need to belong? It can help with money but who can help give fellowship and love? What sort of success are you working towards – does it include family, friends, community, nation?

39. Interestingly, Confucius had this piece of advice to the ambitious men of his day (warring states).

40. To bring peace to our land, first govern your states well. To govern your states well, first set your family affairs in order. And to do that, free yourself of ill intentions and cultivate your spirit (修身齐家 治国平天下).

41. I hope these random thoughts on leadership and success will be of use to you in some way.

42. Auspicium Meloris Aevi – let us continue to serve in the hope of a better age.

43. Thank you!