The 4 Stages of Leadership and More: An Afternoon with Lim Siong Guan


“A leader’s most critical contributions are what still remains when the leader is no longer around” – GIC Group President, Lim Siong Guan

Ask any Singaporean in the wake of LKY’s passing and you can’t help but notice that leadership has an uncanny ability to transcend both the personal and corporate spheres. And with the series of events in the past weeks, perhaps there is a greater awareness of the implications of both effective and ineffective leadership. Unknown to most Singaporeans, Lim Siong Guan served as the first Principal Private Secretary to LKY, and if you paid close attention last week, he was also one of the pall bearers at the lying-in-state ceremony for Singapore’s founding father. Even more unknown to the majority, is that Mr Lim was the former Head of the Singapore Civil Service and that his recent book “The Leader, The Teacher & You” is arguably one of the most influential books (written by a Singaporean) on leadership in both the private and public sectors. In a recent conversation with Mr Lim, he shared on the 4 stages of leadership as well as his own personal experiences on leadership. This post thus seeks to further elaborate on the different stages of leadership and would conclude with the author’s own reflection on what makes a good leader.

The 4 Stages of Leadership

1) Leading from the Front

Leading from the front is essentially the starting point of any leader. This is the place where his/her followers take reference and instructions from. A leader in such a position often proves his worth through the demonstration of his/her competence, and those under him/her would be expected to follow suit. However, at such a stage, decision making is centralised and dependent solely on the leader, leaving little room for the development of those under him/her.

2) Leading from the Side 

Leading from the side is now where the leader gradually releases greater autonomy on the follower and in this situation acts as a pace-setter, providing effective monitoring and goal-setting, but at the same time allowing room for personal growth and development for the follower. In such a scenario, the leader still retains some degree of autonomy, however, greater trust is developed between the leader and the follower.

3) Leading from the Back

Leading from the back allows the follower to now take effective control of the tasks and make decisions for themselves. The role of the leader is thus to provide guidance and advice against potential pitfalls and obstacles, but always allowing the follower to discover, learn things for themselves and sometimes even making mistakes. However, the leader would never allow any tasks that is too challenging to overwhelm the follower and provides a safety net for the follower to fall back on.

4) Leading from Within

Leading from within is perhaps the highest stage of leadership any leader can aspire to achieve. At such a level, the leader’s ability, competence, way of thinking and value systems has been successfully implanted to the follower, and the follower now is fully equipped to make decisions and guide any tasks and responsibility given to him/her. However, very few people, do actually make it to such a level.

What Makes a Good Leader?

I think the hallmark of good leadership begins with integrity, followed by being able to empathise and lastly individual competence. A recent article on the McKinsey Quarterly suggests that there 4 types of behaviour organisations should develop in producing effective leaders. Namely, being supportive, strong results orientation, seeking different perspectives and solving problems effectively. The first behaviour falls under the realm of being able to empathise, and the subsequent 3 other behaviours are invariably tied to individual competence.

Yet the notion of ‘good’ entails a moral dimension to it. And morality is inevitably tied to values, of which integrity is at the forefront of it in the context of leadership. Integrity produces trust, and trust is paramount to the development of any form of healthy relationships. Because leadership is essentially a relationship business, trust becomes the basic foundation for any form of effective leadership.

But good, is the enemy of great.

Good leaders settle for traits and characteristics mentioned above, but great leaders go beyond. At the very pinnacle of great leadership, leaders give off themselves to the people, and in the words of Lim Siong Guan, is it about “putting others before yourself”. Leaders at that level commands the respect of his/her followers, and his/her impact transcends both the organisation and the individual.


In my own personal experience with Lim Siong Guan, it is hard not to see why even his own staff at GIC holds him with such deep respect. Much of his life had been spent serving the nation as the head of different ministries. But despite his status and position, he remains humble and open to helping anyone no matter how junior he/she may be. The managing director of EDB even considers him one of the most selfless leader he has ever known.

In the short frame of 80 minutes we had with Mr Lim Siong Guan amongst a group of 20+ students, we certainly all walked out feeling a little more inspired, a little more enlightened and a little more encouraged to be a better leader.

After all, it is the little things that really matter.


1. Lim, S. and Lim, J. (2014). THE LEADER, THE TEACHER – LEADING FROM WITHIN. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015].

2. Long, S. (2015). Lim Siong Guan: Superman, Yoda, change crusader. The Straits Times. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015].

3. Srinivasan, R., Feser, C. and Mayol, F. (2015). Decoding leadership: What really matters. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Apr. 2015].

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