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Leadership is vital in all organisations. As the writers discuss on the subject of Cultivating Leaders in this issue of CDTL Brief, find out if leaders are made or born, about the role education in nurturing leaders and who or what is responsible for developing ethical leaders.

April 2003, Vol. 6 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Leaders: Born or Cultivated?
Professor Tan Sook Yee
Faculty of Law

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 in leaders.

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 skills.

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 prepare herself.

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.

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Inside this issue
Cultivating Leadership & Stewardship
Leaders: Born or Cultivated?
Teaching and Leadership
Cultivating Leaders in Learning Communities
Cultivating Leadership Qualities in Students
Developing Leaders
Education—The Journey to Moral Leadership and Moral Citizenship