When I was nominated by my Dean to contribute a piece to
this publication, I was initially disinclined towards the
task. For a start, are leaders not born rather than cultivated?
But while ruminating on the subject, I recalled the well-known
quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon them.”
In modern societies, hereditary leadership is on the wane.
Leaders are elected, appointed or rise to office because they
have displayed certain qualities. In the current context,
those who can be said to be born great are those who are born
with leadership qualities. What then are these qualities?
Names of acknowledged leaders of the twentieth century come
to mind— Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Golda Meir, Mathama Ghandi,
Lee Kuan Yew, Mao Tse Tung, Nelson Mandela, Sukarno, Tengku
Abdul Rahman, Margaret Thatcher, Mother Theresa, to name a
few. So what made them leaders?
The ability to have others in a group accept and follow
a leader requires a strong, dominant, extrovert personality,
if not charisma. Leaders must have a vision and a capacity
to inspire and motivate others. To galvanise others into action,
a leader has to persuade and convince others to follow their
way. The power of oratory is seen clearly in the leadership
of Winston Churchill, and of course, Hitler. Integrity, consistency
and steadfastness in the face of adversity are also qualities
Many of these qualities are often inborn. This is certainly
true of charisma and personality. However other qualities,
that are associated with leadership, are not necessarily linked
to personality; they are more in the nature of skills that
can be learnt. The ability to persuade and convince others
to accept one’s argument or reasoning is such a skill,
albeit that some people are more gifted at it than others.
Not every good speaker is a Winston Churchill or a Lee Kuan
Yew, for example. Good leaders should also have integrity
of character and lead by example. These qualities, which go
to make up character, can be instilled as well. She who seeks
to lead needs to command respect. She has to know his/her
subject and the people whom she is to lead. In current parlance,
not only must she have intellect and character, but also equally
important, she must have emotional quotient, or EQ.
Although some are born with leadership talents and personalities,
there are those who are placed in positions where they are
required to lead, but may not have these inborn qualities.
These are persons who have “greatness thrust upon them”.
Such persons have to acquire the skills that their position
calls for. To this extent then leaders arguably can be cultivated.
Experience shows that different situations call for different
kinds of leadership. Times of war and times of peace call
for different kinds of leaders. For example, Winston Churchill
was a good wartime leader, but was less successful in peacetime.
Likewise in the corporate world now, we see the fall of the
more flamboyant icons of the last decade and the call for
a quieter type of leader who has the stamina to pick up the
pieces and put a company back together again. Vision with
a capital ‘V’ is less important now than the ability
for tedious detailed work. To put it simply, different times
call for leaders with different qualities, personalities and
Leadership is required in a variety of situations and settings.
There are world leaders, leaders of countries, of political
parties, associations, business organisations, professional
groups, clubs, and so on. Every organisation of human beings
needs a leader even if he is just a primus inter pares.
In fact, one can be a called a leader so long as there is
another person to be led! Moreover, a person is no less a
leader even if he holds no office so long as he/she is in
a position to influence the others in the group.
These cursory observations led me to the conclusion that
theoretically anyone can be called upon to lead in a given
situation, and ideally when such an occasion does arise she
must be ready to assume the position and discharge the responsibilities.
Each individual has her own talents. Each person is a potential
leader. Each one should be given the chance to develop and
For an institution such as the National University of Singapore,
the notion of cultivating leaders requires no more and no
less than to provide the environment and the opportunities
for those who come through its doors to develop themselves
to their true potential in their chosen field of study and
in extracurricular activities. The university as I see it,
should be like a well equipped laboratory both in facilities,
equipment as well as staff so that the students have the wherewithal
to experiment and develop their individual talents.
A university should be the place where intellectual curiosities
are aroused, where budding abilities are nurtured and tested.
Students should be encouraged in their respective disciplines
to know, understand and acquire a deep and genuine interest
in the subjects that they have chosen to study. They should
have opportunities to develop critical skills and learn the
art of proper reasoning and disputation. The university’s
obligation also extends to providing an environment and a
variety of activities that would help in character building
and the acquisition of proper values.
I should like to think that the Law Faculty has more than
answered this challenge. Apart from the rigorous discipline,
which the study of law requires, the Faculty encourages its
students to test and stretch themselves in diverse ways. They
may participate in the many mooting competitions and debates,
both local and international. They may avail themselves of
the exchange schemes that we have instituted with Law Faculties
in countries ranging from Australia, Britain, Canada, China,
Germany, to the United States of America. Of course, there
are also the usual work attachments as well as student sporting,
cultural and social activities, which offer more scope for
law students to enrich their life experience.
In short, as I see it, the situations where leadership qualities
are required are as diverse and myriad as life itself. Anyone
can be called upon to lead at some point in her life. She
should be ready and prepared to take on the “greatness
that is thrust” upon her. The challenge to an institution
such as ours is to ensure that all who come through our portals
have the chance to acquire the necessary knowledge, skills,
understanding and values.