My submission in 2012 March for CDF Essay Competition

This is something I wrote in March 2012 in submission to the CDF Essay Competition held during that time. The CDF during that time was LG Neo Kian Hong who later went to SMRT. I was serving my NS as a conscript back then.

Largely, I think I still remain fairly consistent to what I believe in. On the positive side, it is a good thing because I remained true to what I believe. But it may also mean that I have not transcended to a higher level of thinking. What do you think about what I wrote?


Leadership is the ability to influence others to follow and progress towards the direction that a leader believes in. It is also about finding a direction and having a vision first, prior to influencing others to move along. It does not necessarily mean that the direction that a leader believes in is right; this makes cultivating the correct values of a leader extremely important because a leader with the wrong values will result in more individuals with wrong values. It is similar to a virus, and the medium to spread across is the mind.

Take Adolf Hitler as example. He is a very powerful leader, albeit a criminal who have caused the death of many innocent lives. It is a pity that he does not have the correct values in him that will help benefit mankind. You can only imagine what good he can do with his leadership skills if he had chosen another path.

I believe that the purpose of a leader is not to create more followers; it is to create more leaders. A good leader demonstrates to others that leadership is possible and positive; prompting others to take the lead when the situation calls for it, and be like the leader.

While there are many similar qualities in between, a leader is different from a manager. A manager is one who is able to make people do thing, regardless of whether willingly or not. They are concerned about doing things right. A leader is someone who has a vision and is able to influence others to believe in the vision he/she sees. He/she is more concerned with doing the right things. Thus, a leader must comprise of these two abilities, to lead and to know where to lead; one that has a vision and cannot influence, cannot lead; and one who can influence but has no vision, cannot lead as well.

It does not take a position to be a leader. Everyone can be a leader. Certain positions require leadership to be able to perform in those duties associated with that position, such as the Captain of a ship, CEO of a business or a commander of a troop. However, it does not mean that we must have a position to exercise our leadership; every single person can be a leader by pushing the boundaries of the norm, by exceling in his/her role and thus influencing others to follow. In fact, contrary to common beliefs, I think that in certain situation, the top person (or a higher authority) in a hierarchy may not be the best person to lead. This is because some people are negative when it comes to listening to those who are above them in position, perhaps due to negative experiences, power distance issue or past misunderstandings. Being someone who is similar in position but doing things the right way and the better way may have a bigger impact in inspiring others to willingly follow because there is a similar stand, role and mutual understanding. The one being lead will feel that the effort made will comprise of “real” reasons such as necessity and value and not just because the leader is trying to fulfil the duties of his/her role because it is expected of a leader to lead. This brings to a point that, sometimes, leadership is also about knowing when to stop leading. This might sound contradicting but a leader should be doing the best for the team because the best team is one which can function without the leader; functioning without the leader does not mean that the leader is not needed, but because the leader have nurtured a team which can run on its own. Taking the back sit allows team members to be able to self-actualise and grow and become leaders themselves. Some leaders may feel that it is part of their job scope to constantly take charge, as such, introduces too many requirements for team members to follow and achieve. This result in micro-managing, which albeit, done with the intention of doing his/her job, backfires.

Sometimes, it is even better when you are the lowest in the hierarchy. When you are outstanding, despite being in the lowest position, you are sending a message to those above you to do better because they are driven to remain at the top. But of course, a true leader should be able to identify the correct time to take a back seat such as when he/she genuinely feels that another member of the team may be a better candidate to take charge in a particular situation. Despite saying this, it does not mean that you should always step down as a leader when another member outshines you in terms of measurable performance. Certain attributes are hard to quantify, such as charisma, attitude and peer relations. Say for an instance, a person may be higher in sales volume than his team manager, but he/she may lacks the quality to influence others to do better. Stepping down as the leader, will result in an overall negative effect on the team, thus, decisions have to be made carefully.

Also, stepping down as the leader may cause unnecessary stress to the person taking over and to the rest of the team members as well as they must now adjust to take someone who was once above them in position to be a counterpart. It will depend on the different kind of situation and organisation structure but these are points to consider about.

One bad thing about the tradition top to bottom organisation structure is that it is difficult to promulgate messages down the level. Messages get distorted along the lines and what is intended never get passed down in the original form to the bottom level. One improvement over the years is the use of technology. It allows us to facilitate communication. However, we have to be careful with the use of technology because it is still possible that messages gets misinterpreted along the line, as information such as body language and tone is not transmitted along with emails.

Also, another common confusion; do not mistake leader with decision makers. You can be a leader, but that does not mean that you get to make decisions. It will be chaotic if everyone gets to make decision because that will result in all kinds of different goals and directions. A decision maker, may also make a particular decision because he/she is influence by another person.

So how do we become a better leader? I think we can become a better leader by listening. We are all taught to speak and present our ideas, but we were never taught in schools to listen to others; to make sure that we understand that message that is being conveyed. As a leader, especially if you are one with position and authority, it is difficult to hear true words from people. People below you will struggle to tell you what they honestly feel because some of them may be afraid that it might offend you. When feedbacks do come by, you have to analyse to see if it is something true as sometimes, feedbacks can be given with malicious intentions. A leader must be able to clearly see who he/she is, and who he/she is perceived to be, and act accordingly to the feedbacks.

There is a fine line between being too tough or too lenient. A leader, who is always lenient, gives the impression that he/she is too weak to take control of his/her subordinates. However, one that is too tough, will result in unhappiness among subordinates and thus, result in lower work productivity. To me, it is better to err on the side of leniency, unless we are talking about situations of life and death where a tough leadership should come into play. It is always good to be able to “predict” and warn followers of mistakes that they should not be making. If we make this a responsibility of a leader, it would mean that a leader is also responsible for the mistakes that the team member makes.

During different times, different kind of leaders is required. For an instance, during the time when Singapore is weak, divided and young, a strong leader like Lee Kuan Yew is very much needed. A leader must be able to sense the different environment and make changes to the style of leadership. Failure to do so will result in overthrowing of authority, such as the unrest we have seen in the Middle East in recent years.

A person is only considered a leader, when others are willing to follow. It does not mean that being at the top position guarantees that people are willing to follow. It is true that they must comply, but that does not make one a leader. It also takes time for others to recognise that someone is a leader; no one is an immediate leader because no one will be willing to trust someone to lead the way immediately after meeting someone new. However, some people are faster in convincing others that he/she is the right one to follow. These are the ones with good leadership potential.

There are certain qualities associated with leadership. I think the first one that I would like to talk about is guts. A leader must have the guts to step into the unknown because there is no one in front of him/her to show the way. He/she must be brave enough to take calculated risk. Without guts, there can be no leader.

Another quality will be vision. A leader must be able to identify the bottlenecks of a system and have a vision on how to achieve greater heights by removing the bottlenecks. It takes experience and knowledge to be able to do that. Many experienced leaders are able to provide a direction based on gut feeling. However, when you were to ask them why they believe in a particular vision, they are unable to give you a definite answer. This is because, as we do things, many of our past experiences are actually embedded into our sub-conscious level. This sub-conscious mind will provide directions for things that are too complex for our conscious mind to handle. For an instance, when we first learn how to drive, we consciously monitor our hands and legs to coordinate the driving. As time passes, we are able to react according to the changing environment in the blink of an eye. Notice that if I were to ask an experienced driver to pay attention to his/her subtle actions and provide justifications, he/she will not be able to do so as well. Even if there were justification, it will be made for the sake of justifying. Peter Drucker famously stated that “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”1 I think this adequately describes what the vision aspect of leadership is about.

A leader must also have charisma. He must have that factor to attract people’s attention. Some say that there are qualities associated with looks, voice and mannerism that will make a leader more successful in leading others.

Does it mean that a leader is never failing? The answer is no. Leaders are human too. It does not mean that a leader is never down. The difference between a good leader and a not as good one is one who gets up and one who stays down after falling down. In fact, a number of high profile CEOs are reported to have suffered from depression at certain point of their lives.

In fact, some have suggested that it is more likely for high achievers to suffer from depression in life because the same quality that drives them to success (having high expectations from themselves) is also the same factor that cause them to not accept failure as a result of circumstances, but because of their inability.

In conclusion, leadership is a quality that encompasses many different qualities. It is something that takes experience, knowledge and also some in-born qualities. As much as we want more leaders, we have to carefully train our leaders and inculcate the correct values in them. One leader lesser is better than one malicious leader produced. Not everyone is suitable to be a leader at the top position. Some people are better at influencing others when they are on the same level in terms of position as others. I think leadership is a topic that requires consistent study and analysis because it is relevant in everyone’s life.






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