Leadership in Action

A LEADER in the MAKING: Observing Leadership in my Students

I’ve appointed JH to be the chief technical lead of the class project. Within a short span of 5 minutes, he met the rest of the technical lead for a debriefing session, displaying exceptional tact and soft skills that could easily put some of the adults to shame.


He started the session by thanking the technical leads for the effort they have put in.

Integrity and Positivity

He was humble, mentioning that he too was “very messy” during the management of the class project but expressed optimism that the project had advanced at good speed despite all that.

Care for All

During the debrief, one of the technical leads highlighted that one of her team members was difficult to work with and had refused help from her. Together with the technical leads, they brainstormed about how to tactfully ask the team member for her progress and lead her to getting help if she needs it. He advised the technical lead to exercise more patience and expressed that things will go well.

I’m very impressed. I hope that he can continue to bring this into the working world and be a boss of some company. The world is going to need more leaders like him.

Journal, Leadership in Action

BIG PICTURE THINKING and POWER OF INFLUENCE: Observing Leadership in my Students

N was the result-and-task-oriented person, the head of the student club. J was the people-oriented person and a leader from the previous generation.

Both were just as passionate in serving and both were correct in their own rights.

It was two schools of thoughts, just like the one between a conservative and a liberal, one between a democracy and a communism.

They couldn’t convince one another. I see logic in both and I see shortfalls in both their execution. They just have to decide and move on.

N was probably stubborn in his own way, having the likes of a great entrepreneur in the making although not quite there yet. Authoritarian in his approach and expects everyone under him to perform as well as him. Decisiveness was his strength. Anger management and giving up to easily in getting buy-in from his team were where his shortfalls laid.

The Issue in Question

The issue in question was about dealing with additional student manpower for a school event. N was dogmatic that all student volunteers must be of quality. He was willing to interview the over 50 volunteers and will not hesitate to kick anyone out if they did not meet his standard. Harsh were his actions but there were certain validity to it.

J disagreed because no one kicks out volunteers and this is not “how the student club works”. Airy-fairy that reasoning might sound, but not without its truths.

Big Picture Thinking

In leadership training, people were often taught to have “the big picture in mind and not to be bogged down by details”. I often thought to myself what big picture thinking actually means. It was one of those terms, to me, that is so overused that it loses its meaning.

However, being put into the situation to calm both N and J down, for the first time, I was forced to do big picture thinking in a manner that I’m self-aware. One thing that I definitely know:

  • Kicking out student volunteers may allow them to run the event smoothly and make the event-goers happy. It will highly likely result in bad reputation for the student club if not done properly too. This will mean that future leaders of the club will find it difficult to recruit volunteers for all sorts of events.
  • Yet, keeping all student volunteers may sink the event into mayhem. That will also result in bad reputation for the student club and may cause a decrease in the number of event-goers next time.
  • Win-win: Keep as many as we can, train them and give them a memorable experience. Develop them and we have more capable volunteers with us in the future. They will help us make our event-goers feel at home. After all, we need all the help we can get.

A few big aspects about big picture thinking here. To me, big picture thinking (may include but is not limited to):

  • Is cross-generational and for the long term: How a decision can bring positive impacts and negative effects in the long term. Long-term should be defined as beyond the current generation/situation.
  • Takes ALL stakeholders emotions and concerns into consideration: In short, empathy. Yes, we need to take care of the needs of the “customers”. This must not be done at the expense of our own people.
  • Is a Win-Win: This often requires some creativity but when we place serving the people at the heart of solving our problem, I truly believe this will flow in automatically.

Power of Influence

Just as I and my colleague thought that we have settled their differences, the unthinkable happened the next week. J was so uncomfortable with N’s approach that she gathered the support from the rest of the student leaders to lead, plan and execute the event!

From the conversations with the rest of the student leaders, we can see that N’s authoritarian approached failed to gather any form of sympathy or support from them. The leaders were in fact happy that they were able to carry on with their work under J’s leadership. One thing, they felt that they were respected.

In history lessons, we always heard endless stories about how knights and advisors of the west to generals and eunuchs of the east usurped the throne from the king. Some of them wanted the power and others wanted a revolution.

Whichever the case, it is the power of influence that ruled.

Positional power can be easily lost without influence.



My First Self-Authored Paper

It was always a dream for me to share and contribute unique ideas on a world stage. On 13 Jun 2016, I got a little breakthrough at Turku, Finland, through the 12th International CDIO Conference, presenting the first paper which I wrote as a solo author, Industry-Inspired Experiential Learning and Assessment of Teamwork (see Page 469/470).

Perhaps this idea is not that unique unique. Original and fresh perspectives at methods found in real life would probably be how I liked to describe it. It was a small piece of work, considering that a team of psychologists from the Individual and Team Performance Lab, University of Calgary also presented something on teamwork, an excellent piece of work (Please check it out here!) which was practical, structured and on a titanic scale.

Not to mention that I had to rush out of the conference venue immediately after my presentation to meet a collaborator, leaving no time to network with those who are interested in my work.

The very next day, I saw this (see 4th tweet):


The conference organisers picked up on my research and highlighted it on their Twitter. I’m really excited about it.

Not just that, there were at least three other people at the conference who remembered my face, my name and my research. A Brazilian who worked in the aerospace industry who consulted me on leadership training for their student-trainees, a lecturer from UK who we only met over 20 seconds over the conference dinner complimented my work, and, the psychologists from the University of Calgary, who also remarked that it was a good piece!

In fact, only now, after the conference, checking out from the tweets, it might be because it was the University of Calgary who had first picked up on my research. In an attempt to reach out to me, they tweeted globally. The conference organisers followed up on that tweet and highlighted my research. No matter what the case, it is something that really excites me and I can say I am proud of.

To the ITP Lab team from University of Calgary at CDIO, thank you for reaching out to me.

I’m also glad I attended both the paper presentation and workshop by the University of Calgary too. I really learnt a lot from their experiences; they are after all the experts in this field, backing their methods by strong research. If you are interested to check out their work, I’ve put a link to their website above. The tool is free to use too I believe.


At last, a breakthrough, a small win. ūüôā

Journal, Leadership in Action

Finding a Win-Win Solution: Observing Leadership in Action

It was a very real predicament:

  • A man’s wife who was not emotionally stable and in the final days of her pregnancy. She wanted him by her side.
  • The man has to attend an important interview followed by a day’s long chance of a lifetime event with his team mates. Failing to attend the interview, not only himself, his team mates as well, will lose an irreplaceable opportunity of a lifetime to attend the event.

What will you do? Is there anyway to have the cake or eat it too?

Arrange for someone to take care of his wife? Good thinking! He tried to but was unable to find one.

It sounded much like a dead end situation where he has to sacrifice his team mate or sacrifice his wife.

This situation happened to a friend of mine. What he did was commendable and he remained accountable to both his wife and his team mates.

He calmed his wife and asked for permission to be away for just two hours and no more. In those two hours, he attended the interview with his team mates and ensure that they gained entry to the event. As for the event that he and his team mates wanted to go so badly, he gave the event a missed himself and returned to his wife.

While it seems like a pity that he has to miss the event, I felt that he made the right decision to stay with his wife! And he definitely did so while being accountable to his team mates who made it to the event after all. I don’t think I can think of a better win-win solution given his circumstances.

“chess board” by Adam Raoof

Lesson of the day: Win-win solutions are usually not black nor white.

Journal, Leadership in Action

Leadership is a Choice: Lessons from My Students

I’m grateful to be reminded by my students constantly that if you put your heart to whatever you do, we will make it there somehow. Today’s story is about a student whom I shall call him H. I visited H nearing the end of his internship and we spent a good half hour catching up with each other, as I tried to find out more about his internship experience. Apparently, he was offered a contract for extension of his services. Two to be exact, one from the company which he was attached to, and the other was with company’s customer.


When I first met H a few months ago, he started off saying that he do not wished to go for internship. After all, he was an entrepreneur himself with employees under his charge at his disposal. But this is what the school requires all students to go through: an internship opportunity before he can graduate with a diploma.

I also remembered suggesting to H that he could treat it as an opportunity to experience what it was like being an employee, so that when he go back to his company, he can become an even better boss, a boss that understood what his employees had to go through and their difficulties. He returned two hours to my office after that short meetup then saying that he will do it.

And he did.

And in a manner which I least expected.

From the half-hour chat I had with him, I got to understand that he was handling customer relationship and doing operational planning during that attachment, which was strange, because important tasks like those were usually taken up by the permanent staff of the company. In the midst, two other interns from another vocational institute was also “placed under his charge”, which makes it a very strange relationship.

In H’s own company, H is the boss and naturally has the authority to give orders to his employees. As an intern however, that sort of authority to give orders would not be implicit. He has to win the respect of those two other interns. It is even weirder that eventually, the permanent staff was sort of “under his charge” as well. The project he was handling move forward in good pace. Relationship with his colleagues were strong.

To the best of my understanding, H didn’t put himself into the position he is in right now. It sort of crept to him. Frankly speaking, I do not think I can pull off a hat trick like what he did when I’m a student myself.

“Leadership is a choice, not a position”

~ Stephen R Covey ~

I think we all have some form of leadership in us somewhere. Whether we would like to exercise, practise and refine makes the difference.H chose to make that difference.


To end off, I thought I will share a TED video about a similar topic. Please see below~

Journal, Leadership in Action

Getting Priorities Right: Observing Leadership in Action

I’m currently in the middle of my 12-day service back with the Navy. (For non-Singaporean visitors to my blog, you can read more about Singapore’s conscription process right here.)

I’m pretty sure that a lot of people may disagree but I thought everything has gone rather smoothly, even though the Company Sergeant Major, the Company Quartermaster and his trusty sidekick are not around with us this time.

Taking over the main coordination work was the (at first I though he would be) reluctant but (in the end) he gave it his all Operation Specialist. Obviously, he was a lot more slower in gathering the stores compared to the experienced Company Quartermaster but the process I thought was generally smooth.

There was a small “little¬†hiccup”¬†though as he started counting the number of pliers and¬†wire-cutters¬†he had just¬†drawn from the store, where he was solemnly reminded by the officer not to do the counting himself but to continue his coordination work with him.

In a “crisis”¬†mode, I thought I might have done the same as him. It was just a solemn reminder to me as well that getting¬†priorities right is crucial, which in his case, he can entrust¬†the counting to another person who can do the same thing, while continue on the coordination work which he was the only one who could do it.

But still, not a bad attempt for a person doing major logistics work for the first time. I’m quite impressed actually. ūüôā


Reflections: Learning from Leadership Experiences

National Service in Singapore (note: Singapore practices conscription), as irritating as many think it might seem to many because it locks down an able-bodied male for anywhere between five to 20 years to service, and this is after the initial two-year full-time service in the armed forces or home defense units.

For me, I have the privilege of serving in the Republic of Singapore Navy. I am not a commissioned officer nor do I get to sail. I’m not even a specialist. However, I am given the opportunity to run along side with the commissioned officers, helping them out in events and projects that were assigned¬†to them. It’s a great experience see them work and working under them and it makes me proud to be a part of the Navy family. Come to think of it,¬†I might have also learnt a thing or two about leadership from them.

Open communication with the team, whatever your rank is, is crucial to the success of the projects you are running. Sometimes, we do take things a bit far and say that there is “no rank” in the Navy.

Going Solo

Moving on to my varsity days, I’m famous in my faculty as an events person. When I walked into the lecture theater, it seems as though almost everyone recognised me although I may not know all of them. Among the events I ran is School Day, a one-day event hosting 700 to 900 students and staff. I chaired that event personally, it was a lot of stress but everything went miraculously well. I was at the peak of my confidence at that time in leading my team to victory, a team which I hand-picked through an interview,¬†but more importantly, a team that was highly committed.

I’ve learnt that it is important to choose your people carefully. For me, I chose people who I¬†think that has the potential to grow and I tried to groom them to the potential I thought that they are capable of.


Years past again and fast forward to 2011, where a great watershed election is taking place in Singapore, an election that got everyone around me to be passionate about politics. All over Facebook was a wall of election thoughts, people making critical comments about the government and the oppositions alike, people who suddenly can all become the government:

“If I was the government, I would have done this to keep my votes instead!”

“If I was the opposition, I would have done that and tell the government off!”

It is great! For once, I can really say that I feel that the people of Singapore are now more willing and daring to voice their thoughts and feelings for their country.


Then there was this line from one of my favourite books:

“…, it is easy to be critical of one’s commanders after the event and it is a game that all junior ranks enjoy playing. It is wrong to indulge in it too much.”

~ Roald Dahl, “Going Solo”


I’m probably one of those guilty one who also go “If I was the government; If I was the opposition”. If anything the Toastmasters has taught me about leadership, it was to refrain from making to many of such comments.

“Maybe he has his reasons,” my usual reply these days.

“I’m sure that he could see more than I do,” in my mind, I would be thinking.


With that, I would like to share bits and bytes of my personal thoughts and reflections regarding my term as a club president of a Toastmasters club. This open reflection to me is also a personal assignment I set for myself, as part of the learning process.


For fellow Toastmasters who are reading this post, please read the following section carefully.

To those who are intending to take up leadership post: I’m not going to be nice in this post and share all the positive stuff about my experiences. I’m going to do quite the opposite in face and share with you all the “negative” stuff. Then again, is it really positive or negative, that depends on how you look at it.

This should not deter you from taking up a leadership position within your club because of two things: everyone is going to have a different leadership experience, and, without putting yourself in crisis mode, you are never going to learn. I encourage everyone to bite the bullet and take up a leadership position some day. You will see growth in yourself.


A Lil’ of Background about Toastmasters and Running a Toastmasters Club

What is Toastmasters? Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. (From the Toastmasters.org website).

Toastmasters would always claim that there is a strong similarity between how a corporation is ran and how a Toastmasters club is ran. Instead of starting an argument over who is right about this, maybe let me just list down a selected few task of what a Toastmasters club has to take care of from the perspective of a single club:

Developing members’ communication and leadership abilities – This is the core work of a Toastmasters club.

Raising awareness about the benefits of the Toastmasters movement and attracting more people to join Toastmasters (ie. Marketing) РThis is secondary but just as important. A Toastmasters club that is sincere and successful in developing its members would usually have no problems with this.

Managing the club finances to ensure that it is well-spent РThis helps to fund for capability development (eg. extra educational materials for the members), welfare (ie. food) and morale (ie. prizes and gifts) for the members.

Once the above three is settled, the natural progression will be to:

Forming strategic relationships with other Toastmasters clubs for mutual growth and benefits РNo man is an island, so are Toastmasters clubs.

The rest are really the details, like how to make the Toastmasters programme interesting so that members get a fun environment to study in.


What’s tough about Toastmasters that the corporate might not experience? In my opinion, it is the fact that everyone is a volunteer. Toastmasters is always second priority. Commitment levels among the members are going to¬†fluctuate.


About Manuals (aka Textbook)

In Toastmasters, we are given manuals to guide us through our task. In terms of training a person to be good in public speaking, there are clear instructions, guidelines and suggestions as to how one can make his speech a good one. However, when it comes to training a person to be a leader, the manual gets a bit blurry.

While the leadership “manual” defines¬†the terms of reference (ie. what you are supposed to do) of the position you are holding, there is little about how to carried out the task. That is almost left as a blank. And the terms of reference, not surprisingly, defers from club to club, depending on the practices and the culture.


Quick Thoughts and Flashbacks

It always looked simple when I¬†see how the past¬†presidents managed the club. But I knew it is not going to be easy. I’ve seen a bit on how tough things can get before but I didn’t realise that it is going to be a slugfest.

The first job for me was to put together a trusted team. This started before I got appointed as president. I chosen a largely inexperience team to help me. It was done on purpose for three things:

  1. I believe an inexperience team is capable of making big changes and has less baggage to carry along with them when they one to implement daring changes.
  2. I believe it is important to groom a new batch of leaders to take over some day.
  3. I also like the idea of everyone feeling their way and slog through the process with one another.

I also relied on my past experiences in the Navy and varsity for this. I try to encourage open communication and I had a picture in my mind of how to groom and guide everyone.

However, it was an extremely shaky start when I few Exco officers told me that they are unable to put in the minimal time for Toastmasters. Reiterating, Toastmasters is always second priority in everyone’s eyes.

A single officer is alright but a few is going to be problematic. Ultimately, this will affect the morale of the team if not handled properly. I think it did.

Then there were other panics as well. A huge part was spent firefighting.

Of course, thinking back, there could be a thousand and one things which I think I can do better.

Key Takeaway 1: Ask More¬†and Don’t Assume

I am always asking my team if they need any help for tasks which they are assigned. Their replies to me were always that they can managed and I took¬†their word for it. Sometimes, I really felt that they were just being kind. I am quite convinced¬†that some of them aren’t coping well.

If I have to think about what I can do to get a better sensing, is perhaps to ask for a more detailed update on what they have done to understand the situation they are in a bit better, including how they are managing their primary commitments in their work and family together with their Toastmasters commitments.

Key Takeaway 2: Big Picture

I think that it is always really simple to say that we need to think of the big picture. However, when you are the decision maker, the added stress is going to make thinking with a clear head a tougher task than you think it is.

A single decision, no matter how small it is will somehow affect the other parts of your strategies. Sometimes, these may even affect other people. Sometimes, the effects of a single wrong decision will come back to haunt you for years and it is really not something that you can run away from.

If you want to know if you are really indeed a strategic planner, be a leader. It can be for an event or you can walk the journey that I walked. Take up a term as President in the Toastmasters club or some other committee that you might know of.  Firstly, you get to test yourself. Secondly, you can gain experience to become a better big picture person. Either way, you will stand to benefit. At least I did.

Key Takeaway3: Getting Others to Empower Others

I think I have quite a tough time trying to get the more responsible group of Exco to empower their peers to do the job. I believe that workload should be shared, as a learning experience for the entire Exco. Three reasons: allow those who are more capable not to be overtaxed by the workload, allow the rest to learn from the experience better and overall, getting more people groomed and developed by giving equal opportunities for them to shine.

I still believe this is a workable model and I wonder if I should be more pushy in my ideas. Then again, I believed that people should be persuaded rather than directed. I think I need to brush up my tact and persuasion skills more.

The Major Takeaway: Balance between The Work and The People

“Leadership is a process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.” ~Chermers M~

This seems to be a definition for leadership widely accepted by the majority of theorists and researchers. This definition tells us something important about leadership to me. I may have a vision that I want to accomplish for the club. At the end of the day, it is really about working with people.

People are not going to be very focused at work. If they have family problems, they will bring it along with them. If they are unhappy about something in their personal life, they will bring it along with them. It is unfair to say that work is work and personal life is personal life. It is just being human that we will be affected by influences all around us.

I believe that a leader also has a tough job to be genuinely interested in his peers’ personal lives. Only then, will the leader be able to listen and act with empathy and hence more tact. Trust will be built and this will get done in better time.



There is a lot more that I think I can share about if I want to. But really, this article is turning into a TL;DR. Let me  end off now by thanking the people who have given this precious opportunity to lead the club. It is a slugfest but I learnt a lot.