(adapted from speech given at Dean’s farewell dinner on 23 November 2017)
by Cheryl Chung (MPA 2013)
At the School’s Management Retreat last year, we developed our strategic objectives for the next 5 years, which we affectionately call the 5-5-5: 5 impactful ideas; 50 leaders; 500 change makers. Today, I'm going to share my own 5-5-5. 5 stories and 5 leadership lessons I've learnt from Dean Kishore in hopefully 5 minutes.
Asians can think; Asia can think
I first heard about Dean Kishore during my undergrad days. A friend of mine lent me his copy of Can Asians Think? “Written by a Singaporean leh,” my friend said. It sounds ridiculous now but being Asian in a western university at the time, it was quite the novelty. The only other Asian name as an economics undergraduate I heard of was Danny Quah.
Over the last 20 years since his publication of his book, Dean has been a passionate advocate for the rise of Asia and has built a vast body of work around the topic. This brings me to my first lesson: Leadership means making a bet on the direction you want to go and daring to call out the big shifts. When we look at the LKY School, we have a clear answer. Asians can think; Asia can think. For that, we owe a debt of gratitude to Dean Kishore.
Check, Double check, Triple check.
One thing I learnt leading the strategic planning team at the School is that it is one thing to be big picture and strategic but it is quite another to also have the commitment, consistency, and attention to detail to see the strategy through. One of the things Dean often says to me at Management Committee meetings is that you must check, double check, and triple check. Sometimes, this is tedious and mundane. It is often just easier to let it pass.
I’ve learnt that leadership means that your strategic plan is useless unless you also have care and attention to detail in consistently produce the high-quality work to effect that strategy. You must also have a spirit of excellence and commitment to high standards. As Dean says, you must check, double check, and triple check.
Dean is the School’s ambassador to the world. At the faculty retreat last weekend, he shared about what he saw as the dual role of an ambassador - advancing national interests on the one hand and defending global interests on the other. Dean often says to me "You are the ambassador to the Singapore Government". Usually he says to me just before he wants me to call someone in a Ministry somewhere. I'm trained as a civil servant so it took me a while to figure out exactly what he meant.
Yes, leadership means getting your house in order. But it also means keeping in mind what's important and beneficial not just for yourself, your team, your organisation, your community, your country, and maybe even the world. Sometimes these interests align, sometimes they don't. I learnt from Dean that as leaders, we have to look beyond a local, parochial view to an international view and do the difficult job of balancing these multiple perspectives.
High touch in a high-tech world
Earlier this week, my colleague Dane (Lim), recounted a story:
“I will always remember this trip taken with Dean and Donald (Low) in July 2016 to Kerinici, Riau Island. Dean returned to work after an extended medical leave and within weeks, we were on this trip. We walked under the hot sun in plantations, long stretches on the factory floor, climbed many steps in the processing plants - Dean even found time to charm a group of young students in the village school. He didn’t have to do this, but he was determined to make good his promise to a donor. Truly amazing.”
On a more personal note, it was Dean's birthday last month and I happened to be travelling. I got him a small gift and dropped it off at his office when I returned, without thinking too much about it. Dean sent a thank you note shortly after to say that he and his family had enjoyed macaroons and thanked me for bringing them back for him from Paris. It was a pleasant surprise. He really didn't need to do it. I'm sure he has many more important emails to many more important people to write.
We live in an increasingly impersonal, distant, high-tech world but have a very high-touch dean. Leadership means that you can be bothered to do things that most people cannot be bothered to do. The visit to the donor in the Riau Islands, the courtesy call, the thank you email.
When in doubt, dance.
I particularly love this photo of Dean from this year's cultural night. I'm in the corner, frankly looking a bit sheepish and apologetic. But Dean is front and centre, enthusiastic and throwing himself fully into the moment with his characteristic gusto and energy.
Leadership means being willing to into the action, front and centre. No apologies, setting an example, and enjoying it. And thereby, giving permission and space for other people, maybe younger, apprehensive people, to get into the dance.
As the youngest member of the Management Committee, running what is probably the smallest team in the School, I want to thank you, Dean, for your incredible support. Your invitation to join you in the dance, the trust to just get on with it, and the expectation and confidence that we could actually do a good job: This was an incredible gift. I hope we have done you proud.
And when in doubt, we dance.
On behalf of all of us - from the faculty to staff, from soccer teams to winning soccer teams, from students to alumni of the LKY School
Thank you Dean! No one has done more for the School than you.
Happy sabbatical. We promise to grow what you have planted.