“Are leaders born or made ?” asked Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University. The celebrated leader from Singapore replied in jest as well as in earnest: “Leaders can be made provided they are born.” Chuckles went around the room with glasses of fine wine. Prof. Gardner, that formidable, foggy eyed Harvard guru, was simply out-classed by a man whose wisdom was earned in real combat conditions.

A handful of my colleagues and I were having lunch with Mr. Lee Kuan Yew at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The year was 2001. This was the same school where once upon a time the big man of Singapore had spent several days on a sabbatical. He was then learning to transform this obscure island into one of the world’s most impressive turnaround stories. I was deeply moved by the Minister Mentor’s response to that question, but had no way to seek further clarification as he was whisked away by his security men as soon as the lunch got over.

I had to wait for more than six years to get my answer. This time, I sat facing a much mellowed but strikingly handsome Lee Kuan Yew again in Singapore’s Arts House – in that very majestic Parliament Chamber which bore mute witness to history in the making. This is what he said in his rich, guttural voice:

“I do not believe all of us are born leaders. To be a leader of other men, whether you are a class monitor, whether you’re captain of a football team or cricket team, or platoon leader or brigade commander, you got to have that extra energy, that extra drive, that physical presence. Deng Xiaoping may be just five feet tall, but he had that dynamism that left you in no doubt that he was a leader.”

So how does Lee Kuan Yew know how to spot a leader? He shared a great story, “I went to a sheepdog exhibition in Australia and the chap with the whistle, he had three sheepdogs and he could get a whole flock of sheep brought down and put into the pen.

So we asked him “How do you train the dog? He said: ‘We have a way of doing this, but you must first decide whether that dog can do this job.’

I said: ‘How do you do it?’

He said: ‘Look at his eyes, look at his pedigree. If the dog hasn’t got the eyes that will look into a sheep and scare the sheep into doing this, don’t try.’

The words were reminiscent of a sage from India who once said to me, ‘the eyes are the index of the spirit. If you want to know the mind of the man, just look into his eyes. His spirit will shine through those eyes.” You can see why leadership and leader-sheep do have something in common.

When I look back at most Asian leaders whose feet are stuck in ideological underwear, Lee Kuan Yew seems just class apart. His vision for Singapore strikes you as refreshingly earthy: “make ourselves relevant and useful to the world.”

I love the legendary Lee. I simply adore the way he carries his enormous fame like a light jacket that he wears and casts away when it becomes uncomfortable. Someone in the audience asked him how he wants Singaporeans to remember him as. He said he cannot engage in those luxuries, “I am what I am. I had a job to do. Having undertaken the job, I had to make it work.” Full stop. One day if Lee Kuan Yew closes his eyes on the glittering city state he carved out of desolation and despair, it may well be said, “Look at those sheepdog eyes; the light that shone through them will inspire awe for generations to come”

Subscribe to My Newsletter