Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Good leaders respect each individual

Jan 25, 2010

Foreign Minister George Yeo delivered the inaugural Fullerton-St Joseph's Institution Leadership Lecture last Friday. We carry today an edited excerpt of the transcript of the lecture.

THE world is going through exciting transformations. Just two weeks ago, in my constituency on the shore of Bedok Reservoir, we unveiled a piece of the Berlin Wall - an icon from the end of the Cold War, marking the opening of a new chapter. The symbolism goes beyond just the division of Germany or the lifting of the Iron Curtain. It is much deeper.

What caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, symbolised by the collapse of the Berlin Wall? You remember United States President Ronald Reagan, who was ever the breezy optimist? He decided to take the Cold War to its limit with his 'Star Wars' initiative. That really broke the Soviet 'camel's back' because he pushed precisely in the direction in which the Soviet Union was weak at - electronics and space technology.

I was in the Air Force then and got to know the Israelis very well. I remember from 1980 to 1983, I must have visited Israel close to 10 times. In the period after the war over the Bekaa Valley, they showed me gun sight videos of the MiGs and Sukhois that they shot down with their F-16s and F-15s. It was like shooting ducks in a carnival.

Yes, the Israeli pilots were good but that would not have accounted for the 100 to zero outcome in air-to-air combat. And the MiGs were good aeroplanes for dogfights, in some ways more manoeuvrable than the F-15s and F-16s. The Soviet missiles were not inferior to the American missiles. But where the Soviets were weak was in their electronic warfare and systems management.

When it came to producing steel or generating electricity or laying railway tracks, the Soviet command economy was very good because you could mobilise people and command them to do things. But the development of electronics, of electronic warfare, required the cooperative efforts of a large number of individuals. You cannot command the writing of good software. Good software requires creative individuals and individuals who network with one another, coming together, understanding each other's strengths and weaknesses. So it was really that technology that determined the outcome of the Cold War but it did more than that. It created a phenomenon called 'disintermediation', a term used in the financial industry.

Old banks found that with electronic systems and globalisation, they could be bypassed through all kinds of new financial instruments not regulated the way traditional banks were regulated. Over the years, bright minds in America, Europe and elsewhere developed all kinds of new financial products, dissolving the old boundaries between banks and non-banks - in effect, an entire non-bank sector even bigger than the regulated banking sector, which in the end became a major cause of the 2008-09 financial collapse.

United States President Barack Obama recently took the advice of former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker and has said the US has got to tighten the regulation of banks and make banking simple again. Well, I am not sure if it is that easy to achieve such an outcome because the technology continually allows people to bypass regulations and hierarchies.

The fact is hierarchies are breaking down, dissolving into messy networks and this affects everything. It affects the relationships of teachers with students; of parents and children, employers and employees, ministers and ordinary citizens. With the revolution in information technology, everyone has choices they never had before.

You ask a kid anything now, you give him a textbook, he will Google, he will check, he will find alternative views and teachers are often put on the defensive. Well, you can try and shout down the student, say, 'Shush, quiet,' but can you win the respect of the students? Or is it not wiser to say, 'Look, what does Google say? What does Wiki say?... let's have a discussion.'

And in the process, instead of fighting disintermediation, instead of trying to protect hierarchies that are no longer sustainable, you begin to operate the network.

Because of this profound change from hierarchical structures to network structures, there has to be a change in the way leadership is exercised. One key aspect of this is the style of leadership. Let me go back to my old responsibility as minister in charge of broadcasting.

With the technology now available to us, broadcasting has fragmented, audiences have fragmented. Each of us has in our pocket a narrowcast capability, both to receive and to transmit. I myself have become my own broadcaster - or perhaps I should say 'narrowcaster'.

In the old days, you could say: 'Let's watch a movie at Capitol.' But today Capitol doesn't exist. And if you go to Cathay or Lido, which movie are you talking about? It is a world of cineplexes.

As for television, in the old days it was either Channel 5 or 8. Today that is meaningless. After dinner at home, eyeballs are looking at different things.

I remember once watching a movie, I think it was Harry Potter, the lights were dimmed before the screen came on. Looking at the people sitting in front of me, almost everyone was staring into his telephone or handheld equipment into a different world. We can call it mass customisation but I think that has too 'industrial' a ring to it. Really we're talking about 'multiple narrowcasting'.

But are we completely fragmented? Have we lost our sense of commonality? No, there are times, occasions, when our common humanity rises up to the fore and we are together. But when that subsides, we are each doing our own thing.

Now leadership in this new 'network world' requires a different style and it requires a more democratic style. If people have no choices, you can put them in a room, force them to look at the same PowerPoint presentation or the same blackboard, read the same textbooks, take the same exams - and if they fail these exams, that's it, they'll be penalised.

Today, it is a case of: If I'm not happy with this system, if I'm not happy in Singapore, I go elsewhere. If you won't employ me, I find some other employer. If I don't like you as an employee, I can find some other employee.

In such a world - and I'm not talking here about one-man-one-vote, which is, I think, a gross oversimplification of what democracy means - but the original idea of what Abraham Lincoln expressed at Gettysburg - 'government of the people, by the people, for the people' - that is a very important conception of leadership in the Internet world.

In other words, leadership not as a one-way relationship - of the leader having the ideas, the plan, and others following like clone armies in Star Wars.

In this day and age, clone armies are weak armies. Mindless supporters are worthless. Leadership becomes a chemistry among people, enabling them to draw energy from one another. And for that to happen, leadership has to respect each individual in his own right and according to his own nature.

Brother Joe McNally, who founded LaSalle College, never taught me but he was always there hovering around. I got to know him when I became a patron of LaSalle College in 1988, when it was still only two classrooms at St Patrick's School. I found him a great inspiration.

After he retired, he threw his CPF into LaSalle College which got him into trouble with the brotherhood. I think a complaint went up to Rome about his lack of financial discipline. But he had faith and he always said 'God will provide' - and God eventually did provide, but through people like us who were his friends.

His first love was the arts. But following the vow of obedience, he had to teach when he was a Brother. But when he retired he decided to go back to the arts, and he did sculptures.

One day, he had an exhibition at the art museum at the old SJI building. I stopped by to appreciate one of his pieces in bronze of a Christian Brother hovering over a young boy. That young boy stood erect but was not intimidated. I asked Brother McNally: 'What is the meaning of this?'

Now, Brother McNally never believed in corporal punishment. He said it was always important to respect each child as an individual and relate to him as an individual. Without that respect for the individual, there is no chemistry. The wick is not lit until the individual is respected as an individual. And in a network world, that respect for diversity, for individuality, is very important. Those who can accomplish that in large numbers, energise the network and are energised by the network. Then you have real force.

The old hierarchies no longer work. You give a big speech in a big hall, it will get reported in the media, but the ferment doesn't take place. Old ways have got to be set aside. And there is a messiness that one must live with, an untidiness that is a part of the landscape.

So accepting a certain messiness, a certain uncertainty, a certain unpredictability, is part of the new leadership requirement. Parents now find it more difficult to deal with their children because you can lock them up in their room, you can take away the computer but you can't take away their cellphones. And in any case, when they leave the house they are connected again. They know more things than they are prepared to admit to their parents. And we have to accept that as a matter of cause.

The relationships of ministers and permanent secretaries to the citizenry, of priests to the laity, of employers to employees - all this will have to go through a profound transformation. Because of legacy, some will make this transformation more effectively than others. A Darwinian process is at work.

In the last US presidential elections, I was talking to a strong supporter of Mrs Hillary Clinton at the beginning of the campaign and he assured me that Mrs Clinton would win the Democratic nomination because she inherited a well-oiled fund-raising machine from her husband. But Mr Obama bypassed the traditional networks, got Facebook to help him, reached large numbers and very quickly built up an arsenal bigger than Mrs Clinton's. And he was able to do that only because he tapped younger people, he tapped new sectors that others thought were not productive.

I dare say watching companies, watching families, watching churches, mosques - those who make the adjustment quickly, would increase their power, would increase their reach. Others who find it difficult will shrivel and wither away. And even countries will face the same Darwinian pressures.

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