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Excuse me, are you a leader?

If you are, you need to remain situationally relevant!

I saw a quote by Mr Lee Kuan Yew recently,

“I do not yet know of a man who became a leader as a result of having undergone a leadership course.”

This caused me to stop and think... is this true? Do leadership programs NOT make better leaders? Then what can we make of all the leadership courses in the Army from Officer Cadet School to make a soldier an officer, and then other further courses through the years as the officer develops himself further. Do those not work? I have come to the conclusion – Yes, but...! So does this put paid on all leadership development programs - our own Transformational Growth Leadership program included? To some extent, but let me explain, starting from selection ...


A leader is only a leader if people will follow her. She does not have to be in a position of authority, nor does she need to have hierarchical position. Conversely, one can have position power over people and yet not be a leader. Many people believe that you have to be a leader when you have position power, otherwise you will not be able to move your people to achieve their objectives. That is not true. People may still move despite poor leadership from their supervisors because they have themselves leadership capabilities within. Hence, a leader can come from any position, and a good leader does not need to be led by better leaders. So if leadership is so innate, then why do we spend so much money on leadership courses? And are all people leaders?

The truth of the matter is that not all people are leaders (although they CAN be, in different situations, as I shall elaborate in my next point). They may be good managers, but poor leaders. This is why there are rigorous tests prior to sending a young soldier on to OCS because we need to ascertain that the person can lead before we spend all that effort developing him further. It is the selection process that first decides whether the person can and should be sent to OCS. The percentage of recruits being selected for OCS is less than 10 percent of the whole cohort. Hence those who make the cut must already have in them certain field leadership qualities, which Basic Military Training will identify, and then send those worthy of becoming officers onto OCS, which will then polish and amplify those leadership skills. OCS churns out armed forces leaders simply because those selected for the course have already demonstrated leadership capabilities. In effect, OCS did not so much as create leaders, as they did selecting them, and from there, making them better. Hence, if you didn’t have it to start with, you wouldn’t have it at all. Similarly, leadership development courses cannot mint leaders; at best, they enhance existing traits. These courses must therefore have some form of selection process to ensure that the right people come through.

Situational leadership

Yes, I believe that everyone CAN be a leader, but in certain situations. A mother is a leader in her home because she brings up her children, feeds the family, and keeps the relationships on an even keel. She is a great leader! But she may not be able to lead a team of engineers on an oil platform. She may not have the technical affinity and she might not prefer to lead a bunch of men through the tight confines on the platform. Hence, we need to be aware of the situation under which we are building up leaders, understanding that most of them cannot be transplanted into different situations, much as we would like them to. In other words, leadership success in one area does not necessarily translate to leadership success in others. SMRT may be a case in point. Their CEO, Desmond Kuek, was the Chief of Defence Force, the apex leader in the armed force. Yet he may be a little over his head in SMRT right now and some people are questioning his ability to lead the company despite surrounding himself with ex-senior officers from the armed forces. How can this happen? A leader is a leader, right? Well, no; and this just goes to show how leadership is situational, so a leader is a leader only in the situation that he has shown aptitude and attitude towards that leadership. Therefore, a leadership development program must be situationally appropriate for one to gain from it. Generic programs don’t work one iota. I suspect this is what Mr Lee was alluding to.

Continuous development

Being a leader today does not mean you will be one tomorrow. Just as your behavioural traits change over time, so too your leadership traits. As our life changes, our situations change, the environment changes, the people change, and what worked for us in the past will most probably not work today. If we are not constantly assessing ourselves and developing our leadership capabilities within our socio-cultural situations, we will lose that ability to lead. This will become apparent when you lose people, or their trust. When people stop heeding your advice or instruction, you know you have lost your ability to lead. There are two things you can do from that point on – either renew your leadership abilities or quit and find a company or situation that needs your type of leadership. One thing is clear – past performance is certainly not an indicator of future performance. In fact, past performance may be a hindrance! Leaders, therefore, need to spend quite some time in constantly developing themselves, in understanding how their leadership traits are helping them or not, and then from there, refine the way to move their people ahead. If there is no such introspection, if there is no such self awareness, then the once-revered leader will soon find no one supporting him, and he becomes an individual contributor, or worse, an unemployed manager.

6 Steps to Becoming a Better Leader

So, excuse me, are you a leader? If you are, you’ll need to remain situationally and behaviourally relevant. Here are 6 steps that you can do today...

  1. Discover your current leadership traits – not what you think you have but what you actually display

  2. Map those traits against the situational requirements that you are expected to lead from

  3. Identify areas where you are strong in, and areas that may need more development

  4. Talk to people – your supervisor, your peers, your subordinates – and ask them for their honest opinion on how to be a better leader

  5. Armed with these, seek out a development program targeted to meet these needs (don’t opt for generic programs for those will not be able to help you in your targeted development), understanding that some of these programs are heavily weighted on coaching

  6. Commit to becoming a better leader, repeating this process every year

Remember, leadership is not about you – it is about the people whom you lead, and your ability to show them the way, to map out the path, to encourage bravery, to discover newer and better options, and helping them down that path. Do that well, and people will follow you. You will be a great leader!

Here’s to your leadership success!

Interested in a situationally- and behaviourally-appropriate leadership development program? Download our Transformational Growth Leadership program brochure!


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