‘Leaders must be able to take criticism, acknowledge mistakes’: PM Lee

‘Leaders must be able to take criticism, acknowledge mistakes’: PM Lee
(L-R) Mr Shailendra Singh, Managing Director, Sequoia Capital India and PM Lee Hsien Loong. PHOTO: MCI
Published: 10:00 AM, February 26, 2017
Updated: 10:55 PM, February 26, 2017

SINGAPORE — The most important philosophy that a leader must have is “not to take yourself or your philosophy too seriously”, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong when asked to share his leadership mantra at a closed-door dialogue with about 100 technology innovators and disrupters from around the world.

Speaking at the event held on Friday (Feb 24), Mr Lee also stressed the need for a leader of a nation to be close to the ground and not surround himself with yes-men. In addition, he must be able to accept differing views and criticism, as well as acknowledge his mistakes and to change decisions when merited, Mr Lee said. 

“You have to see the world, you have to talk to people, ordinary people. You have to have a sense of what it looks like not from the point of view of the policymaker, but from the point of view of those who are at the receiving end of your policies,” he said, based on the transcript released by the Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday.

Mr Lee added: “I try not to surround myself with ‘yes, sir’ men. That is important because if all you have are people who say ‘three bags full, sir’, then soon you start to believe them and that is disastrous.”

Instead, what a leader needs around him are “people who have their own views, whose views you respect, whom you can have a productive disagreement with, and work out ideas which you might not have come up with, or who improve on ideas you had”, Mr Lee said.

Mr Lee shared that when he is interviewing potential Members of Parliament or political officeholders, he would ask them — among other questions — what policy issues they care about and have a view on, and would like the Government to change. 

“That is usually the question which they find the hardest to answer because they are not sure whether to tell us that we are dead wrong on something or other,” he said. 

“But if they give us a good answer, we give them very high marks.” 

He noted that for government leaders, it is “very hard” to break out of their circle. 

“Because it makes so much sense — if only you drew the boxes this way, line things up like that, make that administrative adjustment and everything will work fine. But in fact, every time we draw a box like that, there is a consequence for human beings,” he pointed out.

Leaders can ill-afford to think that they are always right, when in fact they can be mistaken from time to time, Mr Lee stressed. 

“Always leave open the possibility, I may be wrong. If the person tells you something, what makes him say that? Could he possibly have a point?” he said. 

“You may find that after thinking it over a day or two, he has a point and you have to find some way to accommodate that and to acknowledge that you were mistaken.”

Stressing the need for leaders to consider differing views, Mr Lee said they have got to know when to accept these opinions and when not to. 

“If you do not take the views, you must be able to persuade the team that you know what you are doing, please come with me even though this time I did not go with the majority view,” he said.

Mr Lee cited the recent constitutional changes to the Elected Presidency scheme, including a key amendment to stipulate that the presidency has to be rotated between the different racial communities. 

“It is a very radical measure. It is one which we debated for probably for four or five years,” he said.

Noting the long process, which included the appointment of a Constitutional Commission that subsequently held public hearings and made recommendations, Mr Lee said: “It is not just a thing you pass in Parliament ... you have to justify to the public, and the public has to understand, accept and support it.”

He added: “There has to be some free play. It cannot be just your idea on how to make it work.”

He reiterated that a leader must be able to “work with people, take views, take criticisms, change your views, even change your decisions, and then collectively find a way forward”. Yet, the collective decisions need to have a leader’s imprint somewhere inside. “It is very hard. Because if you just lead by consensus, then a bot can do it. But if you just charge ahead alone, you may find that nobody is following you,” he said.

Mr Lee’s most fundamental piece of advice? There is no formula for successful leadership.

“If you think you have found a formula to succeed, somewhere in there you are going to fail,” he cautioned.

He added: “For you to have gotten where you are, you must have some idea, some spark, some breakthrough, some magic ... Yet, if you just depend on your personal magic and spark, very soon you will either run out of magic or you will make a mistake.”