The character of leadership

In a world of financial turmoil and uncertainty, how do we train future Asian business leaders?

Business education has changed beyond recognition since I graduated in 1968. Just three years after the birth of independent Singapore, I was one of the pioneer graduates from what would eventually become NUS Business School.

The qualities that define exceptional leadership come not from academic distinction but from an ability to challenge the unknown

At the time there were just 21 of us, graduates fromt he then new degree of Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA). Looking back, those who signed up for the new programme had a sense of adventure and the courage to try something different.

This year around 600 aspiring young business leaders graduated with the same qualification. They are entering a world with a very different commercial psyche, one where change is the only constant, where imagination and innovation are the driving force of business.

Handling the pressure this brings demands a quality of character and personality – one that cannot be assessed by grades alone but one which I believe is an equally important product of education.

Education, after all, is about more than just arming the individual with data and knowledge. It is about nurturing the full personality – the individual’s spirit of adventure, to analyse, explore, understand and think critically about the world around them.

Challenge the unknown

More and more the qualities that define exceptional leadership come not from academic distinction but from an ability to challenge the unknown, think differently, and tackle problems without fear of failure. I am pleased to see that NUS Business School has taken the lead in putting these important soft skills at the centre of its programmes.

peterseahPeter SeahInnovative leaders think out of the box, turn conventions upside down, and inspire others to follow. They set out to make a difference – in their own lives, to their families, their careers, and to the society they live in.

These personalities take an open-minded approach towards risk and failure. Today we talk a lot about disruptive potential – if you want to disrupt then you must experiment, and with that comes the possibility that it will backfire.

Being open to this – being open to failure – means being open to opportunity. Indeed failure is fundamental to the success and character building of the individual. In a way it is like getting sick – it builds up your immunity and toughens your character. If you have never had a setback or never failed then, on the day when the defining crisis hits, you will be ill-prepared to deal with it.

Building these personalities and turning students into real leaders is the job of our business schools. But the quality of a future leader is defined by more than just marks on graduation certificates. While I.Q. and grades remain important, more important still is that we inculcate in future leaders a strong E.Q. – emotional quotient.

The ability to communicate and interact across roles and across generations is now a critical skill and intelligence alone is not enough.

Sharp intellect

When we think of Singapore’s late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, we think of a man of integrity, with a very sharp intellect who excelled academically. But in my opinion, Mr Lee exhibited a high level of EQ as well as IQ.

The affection with which he was regarded was demonstrated by the thousands who lined the streets to pay their respects after his passing.

Effective leaders then are able to relate to and build bonds with those they lead. In short, they must be likeable.

Individuals with high intelligence tend to be very impatient – usually they know the answer to the question they are asking. They think quickly and expect others to work at the same pace. But to be an effective leader, to reach the top echelons, they must learn to manage and control this impatience. Having empathy, engaging, understanding and caring about how others think is vital.

Leaders, by definition, are the drivers of change. But effective and lasting organisational change cannot be achieved by force. Cultures and mindsets do not move overnight, it takes time.

Rather than use position or authority to push through change, I prefer to persuade and bring people around to my way of thinking. I believe in management not by fear but by love.

In order to change cultures you must be a role model and be prepared for the long haul

In the mid-1970s, some 10 years after I graduated, I joined the family-owned Overseas Union Bank, since merged with UOB. I came from American-owned Citibank, an organisation which was many years ahead in terms of technology and management style.

I arrived with new ideas for doing things, but immediately came up against a wall that many new and enthusiastic managers will be familiar with – ‘we’ve been doing it this way for years and done well, so why are you asking us to change?’

Role model

I realised then that in order to change cultures you must be a role model and be prepared for the long haul. At OUB it took more than a decade to accomplish the cultural shift we wanted to put in place. It was achieved through dialogue, understanding and gradually winning people over.

ThinkAloud4I could have tried short cuts, using authority and position to force change. But in my observations short cuts bring only short term gains. You might think you are the best manager, but when the crunch comes no one will back you because you have not taken the time to build the connections, the support, the E.Q.

Of course many learn this through experience – an important learning tool for any leader.

I have been fortunate to have had a career in the financial industry as it has grown to become a central pillar of Singapore’s place in the Asian and global economy. Now I see my duty as to advise and groom the next generation of corporate leaders.

Along with other alumni and industry leaders I am pleased to be working with NUS Business School to engage and share experiences with those who will one day be our successors. It is a vital part of building a sustainable economy for future generations.

If our little red dot is to stand and compete on the global stage, we must ensure that we create a pipeline of world-class, Asian talent armed with the skills, values and personality ready to embrace the leadership challenges of tomorrow.

Peter Seah is chairman of DBS Bank and a BBA graduate of NUS Business School. This commentary is based on a speech he gave at the School’s 50th anniversary homecoming celebrations.

Sign up to our newsletter