14 leadership lessons any CEO, Director, Manager, Teacher, Parent etc can learn from Lee Kuan Yew

Leader of the nation, Lee Kuan Yew



A good man leaves behind a name, a great man leaves behind a legacy.

And a legacy he did leave behind. Lee Kuan Yew was the personification of an exemplary leader. He led a nation from a third world country of turmoil and chaos to a first world country with the highest GDP/person anywhere in the world in less than 50 years. Even at his death, he pulled a country together as hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans came together to mourn for the loss of this great leader. He allowed our Singapore Travel Blog to travel between countries that would have never allowed for if not for our little red passport.

So how did he do it?

How did he pull together a nation of a then over 2 million people with different background, beliefs, religion and race and make it happen?

14 leadership lessons any CEO, Director, Manager, Teacher, Parent etc can learn from Lee Kuan Yew

1. You are never too wise, too good or too high up to learn
Speaking of too wise, too good, too high up, none in Singapore would be as wise, good or as high up as a leader as Mr.Lee himself, but being of English study, Mr.Lee actually only took up Mandarin in 1955 at the age of 35 and continued having weekly Mandarin tutor all the way till his passing at the age of 91.

(Mr.Lee on his lifelong journey of learning Mandarin)

In fact, Mr.Lee was widely known as being very inquisitive and would often ask many questions to his bodyguards, maids etc. Even at community gatherings, MP Baey Yam Keng was quoted to have said how after watching a performance, Mr.Lee would ask about the kids performing, how long they have been practicing for, who is their teacher, if she’s local or a foreigner etc.

Mr.Lee was never too full of himself as a leader, he was always humble and willing to learn and adapt to new things.

I do not classify myself as a statesman. I put myself down as determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something, I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. That’s all. That’s how I perceive myself. Not a statesman. – Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths

2. Know the people you want to lead & speak their language
To garner votes from the Chinese, Mr.Lee took to picking up Chinese and Hokkien. To garner votes from the Malay, Mr.Lee often spoke in Malay. In his younger days, Mr.Lee even smoke and drank as it allowed him to connect better to the locals.

When I was in my 30s, I was fond of smoking and drinking beer. I quit smoking because it was causing me to lose my voice at election campaigns. That was before medical research linked smoking to lung and throat cancer, among other things. Oddly enough, I later became hyper-allergic to smoke.

The drinking gave me a beer belly and it was showing up in pictures appearing in the press. I began to play more golf to keep fit, but later on turned to running and swimming, which took me less time to achieve the same amount of aerobic exercise.” – LKY

Even in his days as MP, Mr.Lee would often find time to head down to Tanjong Pagar and attend community events so he’ll be able to interact with the residents and find out the problems and issues they are facing.

As a leader/would-be leader, when was the last time you sat down and listened to your people/followers about what are the problems they were facing? When you are trying to motivate your son/daughter, are you speaking to their language, do you understand what they are saying?

3. You don’t have to be so serious all the time
Even as a leader, you don’t have to be so serious all the time. It makes you more human and relate-able.

(Mr.Lee on asking a Phd Student to get a boyfriend and get married)

4. Do not be afraid to stand up for the right reasons
In an early American interview with Mr. Lee about the then Vietnam and US situation, Mr.Lee was bombarded with questions meant to put him on a spot, Mr.Lee replied and rebutted in the politest of way:

May I say what I mean, myself, in my own form of words? I think Americans have what I think is a friendly habit of attempting to help a person think for himself, but I’d rather do my own composition, if I may.”

(Mr.Lee early in his interview with American reporters that would have made any lesser of a man cave, but not Lee Kuan Yew)

And in another interview (0:55~1:54)

Interviewer: “Why do you have so little faith in your people”
LKY: “I have been in office for now 29 years, I’ve won seven general elections since my first in 1959. I think that qualifies me at least to be able to say that I do know Singapore better than the questioner.

With rebuttals like that, Mr.Lee was basically telling people from around the world that he would not be pushed around and firmly securing his place in our hearts as a leader to respect, admire and trust.

5. First Rule: Protect your people
One of Mr.Lee’s earliest problem as PM was the Macdonald  house bombing in March 1965. During the Indonesian Konfrontasi where Indonesia openly opposed the formation of Malaysia, Indonesian saboteurs mounted a campaign of terror in Singapore. The 10 March 1965 bombing of the MacDonald House was the most serious of the spate of bombings in Singapore, when a bomb exploded at 3:07pm at the 10-storey building. The bomb killed three people and left 33 injured. Despite the heavy political pressure from Indonesia,the bombers were subsequently tried and executed.

In the subsequent years, Mr.Lee then sprinkle flowers on the graves of the marine bombers.

But the act of execution despite the political pressure our leaders were facing assured us that our leader is here to protect us and would not forsake our safety/rights due to an external force.

6. Have strong views but not a close mind that makes you inflexible nor open to change
In the initial stage of the proposition of the integrated resorts. Mr.Lee was quoted as saying “Casinos would be allowed in Singapore only “over my dead body,” But was subsequently heard on interviews to be open to the Casinos in Singapore and became supportive of it.

In a separate incident about India by George Yeo:

We came back and put up a very positive report on India.

Kishore Mahbubani, then Foreign Ministry Permanent Secretary, told me that when he put up the report, one of the senior permanent secretaries told him: “You must be mad to put up such a report if you knew LKY’s views about India.”

It went up to Cabinet and Mr Lee, as expected, poured scorn on it, saying we were just naive and so on. I mean, he knew Nehru. He once told Rahul Gandhi: “I knew your father, your grandmother and your great-grandfather.” So he had this longitudinal view of India, which we had to respect. He seriously doubted India’s reform policies would happen. Every time he read a negative report on India, he would send it down to me, you know, “For information”, as if just to remind me.

But at the same time, every time I went to India, which I did quite often in those days, he would ask me about it. He was curious and he wanted the inputs. And one day, he said on our engagement in Bangalore: “It’s good that these things are happening but anticipate a change of government.”

True enough, two years later, the government in charge of Bangalore changed, but the new government was even more supportive of co-operation with Singapore.

From that episode, I thought you must have a view and you must act on a view to be a leader. But at the same time, you must not close your mind to new inputs. And while you may disagree initially, at least have a doubt that you may be wrong – which he did and he then adjusted.

7. As a leader, never bring your personal matters to work
Remember the last time your boss came in to work and started screaming at you just cause she had a rough time herself? Lee Kuan Yew didn’t do that just cause he knew that wasnt the mark of a true leader.

This trait could not be more apparent during the period when his eldest son, Mr.Lee Hsien Loong first knew about his cancer. Mr & Mrs. Lee Kuan Yew was in africa when they first heard about the news. He was distressed and couldnt even sleep. Yet when he met the Africans, he would smile and be his charismatic self.

On the outskirts of Africa, a journalist asked for a group photo in which Mr.Lee cheerfully agreed, he persuaded mrs.lee to join in but she didnt want to. All in presence who knew what had happened back home knew the state of mind Mrs.Lee was going through, yet throughout the whole ordeal, Mr.Lee never allowed his emotions to show.

8. It’s ok to let some things go, as long as it doesn’t affect anybody
We’ve all heard that one, when Lee Kuan Yew seeked the advice of a Fengshui master and had our coin be made of 8 sides, yes? Wrong!

When asked about his take on fengshui in “The Hard Truth”

Mr.Lee replied: utter rubbish.

People spin these yarns! It doesn’t bother me.

(On Fengshui 3:29~4:00)

9. Give your followers room to grow and space to decide
As a leader, you dont have to do and decide everything and Mr.Lee understood that well. He always had his thoughts and would suggest but never dictates his followers to do what he thinks its right. He was also never hungry for power and gave up his place for EM Goh Chock Tong

10. Have capable generals and use them to the best of their abilities
Singapore’s achievement today wasnt made single handed-Ly by Mr.Lee. He had his generals and the best ones at that. People like the late Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam

11. Confidence is key
Perhaps one of Mr.Lee’s strongest attribute and charisma is his Confidence. He was always so sure of himself and that confidence flowed down to his followers

12. When you say something, make it happen
Mr.Lee worked long and hard. He promised us that Singapore would grow to a metropolis, and it did. He promised that the Singapore river will be cleaned up, and it did.

And when he told us that Singapore will survive, we know it will.

13. But if you fail and make a mistake, do not be afraid to admit it or try and push the blame to someone else

13. Be brave enough to make the unpopular decisions
Lee Kuan Yew had to make alot of unpopular decisions during his time as our leader, such as moving the aged people to build HDB flats, locking extremist without trial, making English the primary language, but he did it anyway. Why? He knew it was for our own good in the long run.

We have to lock up people without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins,”

14.And above all, have a Vision, never take No for an answer and always be the hardest worker in the room
To build a successful country was his vision as our leader, but so many difficulties lay ahead of him from communist to Malaysia to natural resources such as water, to language and religious difference to so much more. How did he do it?

He had a vision of what Singapore could/would be and he relentlessness in trying to get there, determined and was always working and thinking about Singapore, with his notes all filled in his little red box.


When Singapore separated from Malaysia, we had nothing, no natural resources, a country of less than a few million not meant to survive and thrive like we eventually did.

Among his key Visions as our leader:

-Mr.Lee represented Singapore as our leader and worked tirelessly to build bilateral ties across the globe, his insights and knowledge made him highly respected among other political leaders. He visited China (and was one of the last leaders to have met the late Mao Zedong), Japan (despite the animosity since the world war, but he wanted to tap on Japan’s technological advancement), UK, US, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, HK, Taiwan (and played a key role between China and Taiwan, Lee would tell the Taiwan leaders what the china leaders were thinking and vice versa) India, NZ, Russia and many others. He approached Brunei cause of the similarity in size with Singapore, and today, both countries often have integrated military trainings with thanks to the ties forged during Mr.Lee’s days. He sourced for investments from around the globe into Singapore and not just any investments, but mission critical investments, i.e if their office in Singapore fails, the entire operation of the MNC fails.
-His housing model was simple and easy to understand. He knew that if he wanted people to fight for the country, he needed to give them a stake in the country like a shareholder. Else if anything happens, people would just uproot and leave. By giving the people a stake in the country through a housing scheme, it allowed the people to literally call the country Home, where they would fight and defend it with their lives. He wanted to heavily subsidized the flat but not give it to the people free cause he knew that was the only way most would actually take care of the house. This also allowed Singaporeans to have our own and a very big asset after an X amount of years.
-On the day of Singapore’s independence, Malaysia’s then prime minister told the British high commissioner that his country could keep Singapore under its thumb by threatening to turn off the taps. Mr.Lee came to know about it and knew that it wasn’t just an empty threat and that cause it was theoretically possible for them to do that. Then and there, he knew we needed to be less dependent on others and be more self reliant. He foresaw the difficulties back then in 1960s even though the water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia was set to last till 2011. Mr.Lee knew something had to be done.  Fast forward to today, by 2011 Singapore adopts a “four tap” strategy — which includes desalinated, recycled, rain and imported water, with imported water only accounting for 40%.
-Being of a country of less than 700km2 (the little red dot), Mr.Lee knew he had to do something to differentiate us from the rest of the world. After much deliberation, he and his team finally decided to settle on “clean” and “green”. His vision was to have a garden within a city. He embarked on his yearly plant a tree campaign and followed through on the way before he passed at the age of 91. Today a clean Singapore River filled with fishes runs along the heart of the CBD with trees, pubs and office buildings along clarke quay. Worldwide, Singapore is known to people as the clean and green city and Gardens by the bay is a testimony of Mr.Lee’s vision as our then and forever leader and founding father.

Lee Kuan Yew was arguably one of the best leaders around and Singapore is his biggest resume and portfolio. He led, we followed and the nation came through.

So the next time you find yourself trapped and caught in between being a good leader and a great leader, stop and think, “what would Lee Kuan Yew do?”

Related Articles:
The best of Lee Kuan Yew Video
The man behind the rallies (Tear jerking best tribute)
How did the stock market react to the passing of Lee Kuan Yew


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