LUMEN Issue 2 - December 2011 | Page 18


Makes an

Exceptional Leader ?

Prof Tan Chorh Chuan was appointed President of NUS in 2008 . He is concurrently the Deputy Chairman of Singapore ’ s Agency for Science , Technology and Research ( A * STAR ) and Chairman , Board of the National University Health System . He also received the Public Service Star in 2003 for outstanding contributions to overcoming SARS in Singapore , and the Public Administration Gold Medal in 2004 for his work in the Ministry of Health .
Prof Tan : “ You have to pursue a lot of useful things but you also have to consider pursuing things which may appear useless .
I want to just touch on two aspects which have been particularly important for myself , particularly in my school and University days , and they are art and travel . I have been travelling and sketching since the beginning of my University days and until even today . But it is only when I look back , that I have been able to think of them in these terms ; that art and travel actually represent very powerful stimuli for external discovery , about learning of the external world . They also provide very strong impetus for inner discovery : understanding yourself . And together , they lead to multi-dimensionality .
But beyond external discovery , which is very interesting in its own right , for me what is more important is that travel is a powerful stimulus for inner discovery for understanding the many layers of ‘ self ’.
And here I say many layers of self , because each of you actually think you are one person but there are many layers to your personality . You will only see , or experience or be conscious of those layers when you come under great stress . Then you will know some of the good aspects of your deep inner self and some which may not be very pleasant to know that exist within you . But it is only really when you expose yourself and understand yourself that you will perceive the many layers of your personality .
And finally , stress and time are important . But it ’ s also the habit of reflection that is very important . After you ’ ve had a tough travelling day , a little bit of time should be set aside for reflection on why certain things turned out in a certain way . It ’ s very helpful to complete the experience to help you understand why you have behaved in a certain way in certain situations .”
On his opinion on why people take leadership positions , he shared , “ I think one very important motivation is the desire to make a difference . This is a very powerful motivation . Particularly if it is a desire to make a positive difference and not a negative one . And for some people , I think that a component of this is what I call constructive dissatisfaction .
Constructive dissatisfaction is when you are dissatisfied with the state of things but have the motivation to do something to contribute to making it better . That ’ s constructive dissatisfaction . And it can be a very powerful and useful motivator for leadership because in the end , leadership is often seen to be glamorous , but leadership is often also very tough . You have to make tough decisions , unpopular decisions , and when the going gets tough , you must have that inner sense on how you are going to do this to help you to overcome the difficulties and to be effective .
Quite often leadership can be accidental . In other words , you weren ’ t planning to be a leader but somehow or other , the situation came and you
were thrust into a position of leadership . Now that is probably not as uncommon as it appears to be . But when the situation comes , I think that it ’ s very important that if you ’ re going to do it then you really would have to step up to the position of leadership .
The first thing I learnt was that actually stepping up to a leadership position is an active decision . You have to consciously say , I am going to take charge . You have to accept that whatever decisions you may need to fine tune ; sometimes , you may be wrong . And therefore you have to monitor the right things .
Being President of NUS does not make you a leader . It ’ s what you do in that position that determines whether history and your peers will later say whether you have asserted a positive leadership influence .”
On how a leader reacts to a mistake , Prof Tan spoke about corrective action . He said , “ You have to see where you went wrong and what you need to do to correct it . Be open about it to your colleagues that we made the decision in the best possible knowledge that we had , and it ’ s wrong , so we change course .
So it is the ability really to motivate , mobilise and bring along other people towards a centre of collective thoughts , and to be able not just to identify those goals , but to move effectively towards them . That ’ s what I personally think about leadership .”