Leadership – Not just about style

This blog post aims to reflect on leadership, through examining the leadership of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

In class, we studied Goleman’s (2000) six leadership styles.


Fig. 1.0: Goleman’s (2000) six leadership styles

Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership style was characterised as being authoritative, which was crucial in the guiding Singapore’s nation building journey during the turbulent period of communism and racial riots, and separation from Malaysia. Through his leadership, clear directions were set and Singaporeans were motivated to work together with him towards a vision of turning Singapore into a metropolis within 10 years of independence. The standards to Singapore’s success was well articulated by Mr Lee to the civil service, private sector and people, that integrity, pragmatism and most of all, meritocracy for people of all races, religions and languages, are fundamental values for Singapore. As a result of his strong leadership, Mr Lee not only fulfilled but exceeded his promises and vision of Singapore to its people, building Singapore from a Third World country to a First World within a generation. The authoritative leadership style worked well in that context, as change and a clear vision was needed, and was seen to be the most effective leadership style of the six styles (Goleman, 2000).

However, great leadership is not dependent on different styles alone. What is more important is to know and fulfil the prerequisites of leadership before taking up a leadership role.

Prerequisites of Leadership  

El-Meligi (2005) states that the five prerequisites of leadership constitute a common denominator to any presumed style of leadership and without which, no leadership qualities can be put to good use. The five universal prerequisites are:

  1. The will to lead (motivational dimension): a conscious and voluntary choice “to lead or not to lead”. There is a significant difference between wanting to lead and needing the position or status associated with leadership.
  2. Clarity (cognitive state of mind): The leader needs to distinguish between what is essential and what is peripheral or irrelevant, between what is urgent and less urgent.
  3. Similar and yet different (social role): The leader must be similar with the group by sharing the essential core values and cherished aspirations, yet must also be different as an integrator, being in charge of the group, and as a vanguard.
  4. Ability to learn (developmental dimension): presupposes the willingness to learn. Some leaders stop learning when they reach a certain level of confidence engendered by success.
  5. Energy resources (psychobiological dimension): Leadership may be defined as the flow of energy from a leader to a follower. It is important to wisely deploy energy and ensure its availability at all times.

five prerequisites

Fig. 2.0: El-Meligi’s (2005) five prerequisites of leadership

Analysing these factors with Mr Lee, it is evident that he fulfils the prerequisites.

  1. The will to lead: Mr Lee has a high willingness and motivation to lead Singapore to achieve success and prosperity as he cares for the country deeply, rather than for personal glory and power.
  2. Clarity: Quoting Mrs Margret Thatcher, Mr Lee “had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our times and the way to tackle them. He was never wrong.”
  3. Similar and yet different: Mr Lee knew what Singaporeans needed and delivered it. Expressed in his own words, “[i]f I were in authority in Singapore indefinitely, without having to ask those who are governing whether they like what is being done, then I have not the slightest doubt that I could govern much more effectively in their own interests.”
  4. Ability to learn: Mr Lee knew to never rest on his laurels despite him leading a successful Singapore, and being a well-respected world leader. He embraced life-long learning such as learning the computer, bettering his Mandarin, and adapting to changes in society.
  5. Energy resources: Mr Lee knew that he had to keep himself healthy to have the energy to make important decisions. He was able to also ‘pass his energy’ to followers and ensure smooth leadership succession for Singapore.

Thus, it is not enough to simply examine leadership based on styles and personalities alone. As El-Meligi (2005) posits, no leadership potential or quality could work unless these five prerequisites (that transcends all cultures) are met. It is evident that Mr Lee is an extremely successful leader not only because of his leadership style in Singapore’s context, but also because he fulfilled these prerequisites which built a strong foundation for his leadership. Hence, as future leaders, I feel that it is essential to achieve these five prerequisites to construct a strong foundation to build our leadership upon – before thinking about other aspects of leadership – in order to become better leaders.

(787 words)


El-Meligi, A. (2005). Leading starts in the mind. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific.

Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership That Gets Results. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2000/03/leadership-that-gets-results [Accessed 2 Apr. 2015].

Goleman, D. (2000). The Six Leadership Styles. [image] Available at: http://www.comindwork.com/weekly/2013-08-12/productivity/the-six-leadership-styles-goleman [Accessed 2 Apr. 2015].

Sunström, L. (2015). 9 Lessons You can Learn from Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) + Words of Wisdom. [online] StartGainingMomentum. Available at: http://www.startgainingmomentum.com/9-lessons-you-can-learn-from-lee-kuan-yew-lky/ [Accessed 2 Apr. 2015].

The New Paper, (2015). Lee Kuan Yew the statesman. [online] Asia One Singapore. Available at: http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/lee-kuan-yew-statesman [Accessed 2 Apr. 2015].

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