Lee Kuan Yew and Elon Musk: Leadership Practices  – Georgios Ardavanis (Ph.D.) 

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Lee Kuan Yew

The outstanding statesman of Asia and Singapore is Lee Kuan Yew. CEOs of large organizations, department heads, and even unofficial leaders of work groups lacking formal authority could all benefit from Mr. Lee’s leadership skills. Due to his exceptional leadership, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew has been able to guide his core team and the country through numerous highs and lows, giving him a competitive edge. Here are my selections based on what I’ve seen and read about the numerous anecdotes of those who have collaborated with and opposed him:

·     Insisted that governance was first and foremost about results.

·     Superior performance requires superior moral leadership.

·     Being fully committed and devoted to achieving challenging objectives.

·     Possessing the intelligence and discernment necessary to make the best choices.

·     Working with a group of incredibly skilled individuals.

·     Having very high expectations of both himself and other people.

·     Apply straightforward and unambiguous communication.

If one were to rate the factors that contributed to Lee Kuan Yew’s success as a leader, I would pick his unwavering commitment and laser-like focus in achieving a number of extremely difficult and demanding objectives. Regardless of what Mr. Lee’s detractors may claim, moving a small nation from the third world to the first in only one generation is an extremely difficult objective in every way. Even more of an accomplishment is being able to get the respect and desire of bigger and more powerful countries like the USA and China as a partner nations. In addition, Lee Kuan Yew could win over his team members, giving them hope that they could succeed with him in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. According to his son, the prime minister of Singapore today, Lee Hsien Loong, “You always knew you were on a winning team with Lee Kuan Yew.” That we would be okay no matter what occurred since you were with someone who would always find a way.” Having a positive attitude and strong work ethic alone may lead one to work hard on the wrong path if one lacks the intelligence and clear understanding necessary to make wise judgments. World leaders actively sought advice from Lee Kuan Yew due to his ability to see through the clutter and gain insight with such clarity on a variety of topics, including balancing international relations, dealing with British Colonialists to obtain independence, and making decisions to encourage Foreign Direct Investment. After gaining discernible insights, Lee Kuan Yew did not operate in isolation. Saying that Lee Kuan Yew created Modern Singapore all by himself is untrue and misleading. On a larger scale, Mr. Lee succeeded in inspiring people to put in a great deal of effort in order to realize his objectives and vision. On a smaller scale, without the backing of his core staff, Mr. Lee would never have been successful. These core team members did more than just “carry the bags” for Lee Kuan Yew. Instead, they were outstanding leaders in their own right who served as cabinet ministers with varying specialties and team roles. When they believed there was a better way, they would confront Lee Kuan Yew, and when he lacked the necessary skill sets, they would support him. For example, the Dutch economist Dr. Albert Winsemius provided the plan for Singapore’s successful economic development, which was carried out by Dr. Goh Keng Swee, the Finance Minister at the time, who established the Economic Development Board.

Lee Kuan Yew had very high expectations for his staff, the government, and himself. In addition to making sure that his administration is free from corruption and runs smoothly, Mr. Lee expected performance from all of its constituents. For example, Lee Kuan Yew bemoaned the lack of flowering plants on the road leading to Changi Airport’s Terminal 2 when it opened in 1990. Even though the flower planting on the way to the airport was outside of the airport’s authority, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t seem to care. He insisted on seeing to it that the airport management collaborated with the appropriate divisions to plant the plants because he wanted it done.

In the end, Lee Kuan Yew’s communication was extremely concise and direct. He was a person who voiced his opinions without requiring his teammates or subordinates to clarify them. He “hated empty-talking because he thought the time was precious and there were too many things to do”


Elon Musk

Whatever your opinion of Elon Musk, the following points cannot be disputed: He is incredibly inventive, wildly successful, and serves as an inspiration for creative leadership. It is evident from the numerous successful businesses he has founded, sold, and managed that he employs a very particular kind of leadership to keep the innovation train rolling. Musk doesn’t build or lead in a vacuum; rather, he is surrounded by staff members, board members, and investors who look to him for direction. Here are five lessons we’ve learned from Elon Musk about leadership, for better or worse.

Musk possesses an extraordinary capacity to identify possibilities beyond the trends and status quo. He can collaborate with his team in an environment where there is no such thing as a “bad idea” because of his openness. Rather, he fosters an attitude of receptivity to promote collaboration and the search for the next big concept. Elon Musk is portrayed by his biographers as follows:


·     Elon Musk is not afraid of failure. Elon Musk empowers his team with the same bravery when he makes bold decisions. Obviously, the role of a good leader is to nurture that boldness by prioritizing innovation over quick fixes.

·     Elon Musk wants everyone around him to work hard and put up their best effort. As a matter of fact, he emailed his staff one evening posing the choice between becoming hardliners or resigning while receiving their compensation. In this fashion, he was able to fire almost 85 percent of his staff. He was successful in building a hardcore team that was adaptable. Additionally, when Tesla was having a hard time and he was sleeping on the office floor, he wanted to send the message “We are rebels, not cabin crew on a ship in calm waters.”

·     Elon Musk is not afraid to say “NO.” Although saying “NO” is undoubtedly a negative word, it’s also a great way to make your intentions clear and guide staff members in a different direction. Knowing when to say no is one thing, but having the ability to soften that rejection with a better offer is a sign of exceptional leadership.

·     Elon Musk focuses his attention on one thing at a time and with great intensity. The night Twitter’s board accepted the takeover offer, he had spent two hours focusing on fixing a leak in the valves of a SpaceX rocket in Texas. The exponential focus and intensity that Elon Musk brings to his every energy and activity show how fast his life moves.     

·     Elon Musk is a character who is detail-oriented, impetuous, and competitive. Elon Musk was able to transform his inner demons from childhood into inspiration and a profound understanding of his place in the world. 

·     Elon Musk naturally belongs in the world of digital technology because he is an innovative man. However, while having begun in the sphere of digital technology, his obsession with electric cars and space seems to allude to the industrial age.

·     Elon Musk is concerned about his reputation and future standing. Elon Musk enjoys the thought that the rest of us are reading his writing and aspires to be remembered as one of the most significant figures of our era.

·     A fundamental element of Musk’s leadership approach is lifelong learning. None of the people in Musk’s inner circle are content to rest on their past knowledge because they understand that learning never ends, maintain their curiosity, and look for new opportunities to quench their informational thirst. Rather, a simple question about how things function or an invitation to share might serve as the basis for fostering a passion for learning. Musk himself, after all, is credited as saying that “you can learn almost anything if you read a lot of books and talk to a lot of people.” A competent leader is both self-assured in their abilities and receptive to what others have to contribute.

In summary, the following shared pillars dominate Elon Musk’s and Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership abilities:

·     Leadership is first and foremost about results.

·     Being fully committed and devoted to achieving challenging objectives.

·     Working with a group of incredibly skilled individuals who work hard and put up their best effort.

·     Apply straightforward and unambiguous communication.

·     A successful leadership approach requires lifelong learning.

How Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Bad

If Elon Musk and Lee Kuan Yew were capable of exhibiting the aforementioned qualities of leadership, why would following in their footsteps have disadvantages? Please consider the following three reasons:

1.       Over self-confidence.

2.       Over-reaction.

3.       Over-dominant.

Sometimes, the same success factors can also lead to mistakes or missteps. For example, Elon Musk and Lee Kuan Yew tend to make the right decisions and have strong resolve and conviction toward their goals and ideas. While they listen to feedback from their team members, there are times they simply decide to stick to their ideas. In talks, Elon Musk and Lee Kuan Yew are renowned for being straightforward, to the point, and dominating unless you are well-prepared to respond with thoughtful questions and answers. Some may have chosen to comply and keep their ideas to themselves, while others chose to take personal risks and accountability to voice their opinions to Elon Musk or Lee Kuan Yew. We need to use our people’s thoughts and ideas as much as we can in a world where mental capacity is becoming far more important than physical labor. That being said, it would shield leaders from being caught off guard by blind spots.

Elon Musk and Lee Kuan Yew both made up for their achievements by assembling a team of highly skilled individuals who, if they believed they had a superior idea, would take on the challenge (well, at least some of them did). If the same leadership trait were applied in a factory in China or another Asian country, team members might submit to the boss and there might not be enough room for suggestions, criticism, and original ideas. In fact, if your top performers don’t feel that their ideas are contributing to your success, they may get disengaged.


Getting the Balance Right

Even great leaders such as Elon Musk and Lee Kuan Yew are not immune to making leadership mistakes. After all, leaders are human, and it is human to err. Leaders are human, after all, and mistakes are inevitable. So, how can we strike the correct balance and avoid going overboard if our goal is to imitate Elon Musk and Lee Kuan Yew in order to become better leaders? Here are a few pointers:

1.       Find out what worked for Elon Musk and Lee Kuan Yew, and then find out if it’s also going to work for you

2.       Find out if you have the abilities or skill sets to emulate a certain quality, and if not, get your team to compensate for the weakness.

3.       Get someone to be your coach, who will be honest enough to tell you if you have applied these leadership qualities in the right balance

The final point is the most crucial since ALL leaders require feedback, regardless of how powerful their skills and insights are. Getting good feedback is something that great leaders like Elon Musk and Lee Kuan Yew strive for, despite their successes and failures. This could be the most crucial and fundamental leadership trait that we should all aspire to.


Georgios Ardavanis – 20/10/2023

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