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A Student's Guide to Leadership

Leadership Analysis - Lee Kuan Yew

Leadership Characteristics & Traits
Share Your Thoughts! What Makes a GREAT leader?
Transformational Leadership
Decision Making
Motivate Your Team
Leadership Analysis - Winston Churchill
Leadership Analysis - Lee Kuan Yew
Leadership Analysis - Rudy Giuliani
Quiz - What's Your Leadership Potential?
Videos - Famous Speeches By Great Leaders
Further Training in Leadership
Handy links
Handy References

Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s first elected prime minister in 1959 at the age of 35 and was re-elected time and time again. He remained in power for over forty years until he stepped down from his position in 1990. To this day, he still remains as one of Singapore’s most influential politicians and currently serves as Minister Mentor to Singapore’s current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s very own son. (Wikipedia, n.p) Smedinghoff (2004, p.9) describes Lee Kuan Yew as a “model leader” and names him to be, “the greatest peace-time political leader of the 20th century.”



Johnson (1999, p.38) agrees with this statement and contributes this to Lee’s ability to transform Singapore from a shipping port with no natural resources to one of the richest, safest and most orderly countries in the world. Kraar (1997, p. 102) adds that China and Hong Kong’s leaders want to emulate him and the outcomes he has achieved. He also discloses that Tony Blair even sent a research team to Singapore to study its retirement and savings scheme. Lee Kuan Yew’s achievements speak for themselves and demonstrate his exemplary abilities as a leader and politician. Through examining his background, ethics and morals, environmental factors and career we are able to “unmask” him and gain insight into how he evolved to be such an excellent leader and define his leadership skills and style. Through comparing his strengths and weaknesses we can analyse Lee’s capabilities and his downfalls that could have been turned into potential to improve and excel even further as a leader.  



Lee’s Background and Life History and its Influence on his Leadership

Lee Kuan Yew was born on September 16 1923 in Singapore but was heavily influenced by British culture because his father had an English education and enforced the importance of a good education which lead to Lee being educated at Singapore’s premier Raffle’s College. He traveled to the UK to study law at the renowned Cambridge University where he graduated with Double Starred First Class Honours. He then returned to Singapore where he practiced law and became an advisor for trade unions before starting a career in politics. (Wikipedia, n.p. & Chow, 2006) Lee’s academic career was interrupted by World War || but he learnt valuable life lessons that made him a stronger person and contributed towards being a better leader.


It was the Japanese’s brutal reign during the Occupation of Singapore that shook Lee to the core. In order to survive, he became a trader in the black market. This is an example of Lee’s attitude to politics, “I am correct, not politically correct” (Lee Kuan Yew as cited in Josey, 1980, p.27) and shows that his decisions are sometimes based on the “virtue ethics” model of decision making because although it was an illegal thing to do, Lee was looking at the bigger picture and justified his actions by believing that “it’s not about what we do but what we become.” (Week 3 lecture slides, 2007) He believed that no one had the right to rule Singapore but the Singaporeans themselves which inspired him to step up to the plate. He promised his people that Singapore would remain a free country from foreign rule and colonial domination. In 1961 Lee devised a plan with Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman to merge the countries of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore together to form a Federation in order to end British Colonial Rule. He strongly campaigned this idea and won with 70% of the votes in the referendum. (Wikipedia, 2007, n.p) This is an example of Lee’s use of partnership as an effective form of leadership. (Week 2 lecture slides, 2007)


However, this union was short lived due to tension between the Malays and Chinese and a race riot broke out in 1964. This rift affected both parties and resulted in the skyrocketed prices of food and disruption of transport. The riot ended with twenty-three fatalities and hundreds injured so Lee appealed to the public to end the riot and severed ties with Malaysia. (Wikipedia, 2007, n.p) This demonstrated his “utilitarianism” approach to decision making. He believed that the merger with Malaysia was crucial for Singapore’s survival but he saw that his people were displeased and that the situation could result in more bloodshed so he decided that ending the Federation would be the most beneficial decision. (Week 3 lecture slides, 2007)


His solid, academic career was the foundation to his political success because he was able to gain what Robbins, Millet and Waters-Marsh (2004, p. 395) refer to as “expert power” through his skills and knowledge and was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1955.  Josey (1980, p.3) describes Lee as “scholar” and “intellectual” that has excellent command of the English language and is a presence in a political arena. Dubrin, Dalglish and Miller (2006, p. 97) would define this “masterful communication skill” as a characteristic of a charismatic leader. They also add that another key characteristic is “the ability to inspire trust” and according to Robbins et al (2004, p. 365) Lee was able to gain “identification based trust” because there was a mutual understanding between him and his party members and they all had the same ideals and intentions. It was this understanding and appreciation of the wants of his party and the people of the country, Lee worked hard to achieve their common goals and in 1959, he was elected Prime Minister and he then not only had “expert power” but “legitimate power – power granted through organizational hierarchy” as defined by Davidson and Griffin (2003, p.566).



Leadership Style


Transformational vs. Charasmatic

Lee displays traits of both a charismatic and transformational leader which could explain why he is such an excellent leader all round. Dubrin et al (2006, p. 97) states that most charismatic leaders are able to inspire and motivate people but aren’t usually capable of bringing about huge changes unlike transformational leaders. As stated before, Lee has transformed Singapore drastically by appealing to his followers’ values and sense of higher purpose to execute his vision for a new and improved Singapore. He was also able to align his vision with his followers and this is shown through Kraar’s (1997, p.105) testimony that Lee has created a tiny island of three million who constantly strive to improve.


A Servant Leader

As Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew was a public servant and therefore displays some aspects of a servant leader. Dubrin et al (2006, p. 69) defines a servant leader as someone who, “places service before self-interest.” In the case of Mr Lee, this is true as he has always been concerned with developing his people’s welfare and socioeconomic status, health and education standards. 

Lee also “listens first to express confidence in others.” A servant leader will pay attention in order to gain insight to the concerns, requirements and problems in order to decide what course of action to take. As a politician in a democratic society, this is crucial because if Lee ignored the needs of his country he would have be overturned and lost power. The third characteristic is someone who “inspires trust by being trustworthy.” Lee built a foundation of trust early in his political career. He was able to relate to his voters by describing his political party, People’s Action Party as, “beer-swilling bourgeois.” (Wikipedia, 2007, n.p) More importantly, he consistently delivered on his policies. One example was recognising Singapore’s housing problem and solving it. There was a shortage of housing so he organised housing to be built on government owned land and currently, 90% of Singaporeans own their own home as cited by Elegant, Elliot and Smith. (2005, p.38). Dubrin et al (2006, p.69) outlines the fourth characteristic of a servant leader as someone who “focuses on what is feasible to accomplish” and concentrates on the most important issues which means some will be neglected. As Prime Minister, he was responsible for an entire country with a population of over four million so naturally, some issues would be overlooked but he ensured that his people’s interests were placed first and his three main concerns were national security, the economy and social issues. (Wikipedia. 2007, n.p)


A Participative Leader

Lee’s leadership style is indeed participative as defined by Dubrin et al (2006, p. 75) as, “sharing decision making with group members and working with them side by side.” In this case, Lee’s group included his cabinet and party members, the experts he consulted with, the people of Singapore and many others. It is hard to pin point a specific subtype of participative leadership and he displays all three: Consultative, Consensus and Democratic. As Prime Minister it is improtant to consider other people’s opinions but often he has the power of making the final decision. This is called consultative leadership. A consensus leader will aim to have all members agree on an issue although in Lee’s case, it is virtually impossible as there are so many people involved when making decisions on behalf of the nation. A democratic leader is one who takes a vote on an issue to decide the outcome. The best example of that in Lee’s case is holding a referendum.


Lee’s Attitudes, Morals and Ethics

Dubrin and Dalglish (2003, p.98) believes that in order to be a good leader, one must set a good moral standard for their people to follow. Morals are defined as, “standards that an individual or group has about what is right and wrong.” (Week 3 lecture slides, 2007). Unlike values which are fluid, morals are fundamental. Josey (1980, p.5) states that Lee is a socialist first and foremost and believes in the importance of freedom, better living and peace. This served as the basis for his vision which is the Singapore we know today. He also believes in the importance of multiculturalism and this is reflected in the nation he has created. According to Contact Singapore (2007, n.p.) the country is made up of 76% Chinese, 13.7% Malay, 8.4% Chinese amd 1.8% Eurasians and other minority groups.


Lee sees the importance of discipline and a good education which is why he has provided a world class education system. Singapore’s Ministry of Education (2007, n.p) states that their education system is recognized throughout the world and provide first class facilities. Josey (1980) describes Lee as a disciplinarian and this comes from his strict childhood where he was subject to corporal punishment and this is reflected in the laws and penalties he has set out for Singapore today. He believes that there is no harm in corporal punishment and credits it to the contribution of his success. Johnson (1999, p.38) stated that in the 1970’s, Lee did not approve of the, “bead-jangling, hirsute, pot-smoking, guitar-strumming hippies” so he banned from entering the country so that they couldn’t influence others and it help to maintain a virtually crime-free country.   


Elegant, Elliot and Smith (2005, p.38) describes Lee’s core values as “Confucian Values” and can be summarised as, “a political philosophy that might be loosely summed up as respect for authority and order, while putting the good of society above that of the individual.” These values influence Lee to use a utilitarianism form of decision making as discussed previously.



Lee’s Strengths and Weaknesses

It is hard to fault Lee which is why he is such an outstanding leader. He has a strong presence, the knowledge and experience and an excellent communicator. A survey conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM, 2007) showed that the top five leadership behaviours/skills identified were:


  • Performance
  • Character
  • Persistence
  • Adaptability
  • Flexibility


Lee’s performance record speaks for itself and Smedinghoff (2004, p.9) believes Lee displays excellent character and this is shown through his integrity. He states that, “Lee Kuan Yew's insistence on replicating his integrity was recognised when the Institute for National Development voted Singapore the least corrupt country in Asia, and the seventh least corrupt worldwide.”

Lee is persistent and this is shown through his forty years of service to Singapore. He is also very adaptable as demonstrated through his strength through hard times during the Japanese Occupation of Japan.


Arguably, one of his flaws is his lack of flexibility. Many have argued that his government regime is autocratic. Lee defends himself and has been cited by Elegant et al (2005, p. 38) as saying, "Anybody can join the PAP and change the policy from within," he says. "If you've got a better idea, you come in, you convince us and take over." Afterall, Singapore is a democratic country but the public keep voting to keep him in power and would probably continue to be if he didn’t step down. Shaw (1998, p.29) argues that Lee’s cabinet is handpicked by him which be why so many people think Lee is an autocrat.

He has tough laws including ones on censorship. When Elliot, Abdoolcarim  and Elegant (2005, p. 42) confronted him about the ban of a documentary film that was made locally about a Singapore opposition politician he replied, “I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed.” However, he did not do anything to change the law.



Mr Lee Kuan Yew was perhaps speaking about himself when Bawaba (2006, p.1) cited him as saying, "a successful leader is someone who can communicate with the people and identify with their aspirations. He should also be trustworthy and demonstrate a track record of good judgment." His accomplishment and forty year reign in Singapore’s political scene speaks for himself. He is highly regarded by others and this essay has shown that he displays many traits of an exceptional leader. Lee is testimony to show what hard work, perseverance and discipline can achieve. Lee Kuan Yew has achieved what many world leaders dream of and accomplished this without violence. He is an example of an exemplary leader.

Lee Kuan Yew


Lee Hsien Loong - Singapore's current PM and son of LKY


Lee Kuan Yew meeting with Prime Minister John Howard in Canberra

Lee Kuan Yew plants Hopea sangal in Henderson

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Dr Li Ka-shing and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at the opening of the Li Ka Shing Library

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This photo shows Lee Kuan Yew being carried by his supporters!

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A Student's Guide to Leadership