Lesson for leaders: It is okay to fail

From top left, clockwise: Mr Viswa, Mr Piyush, Mr Lim, Prof Hsieh, Ms Tan

A difference between Silicon Valley and Singapore is how failure is perceived. In the American start-up central, failure is worn as a badge of honour by entrepreneurs. But in the Asian city-state, failure is often seen as a mark of shame.

This fear of failure could be a stumbling block for Singapore that is moving from an investment-led to an innovation-driven economy, said panellists at the inaugural Inconvenient Questions (IQ) special panel discussion on Post-COVID: Leadership Beyond Management. IQ is a collaboration between NUS, the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS), and communications practice Strategic Moves.

The transition towards innovation – and the need to embrace failure – is made more urgent as the pandemic accelerates the disruption of entire industries and everyone will be dealing with “unknown unknowns”.

Leaders will have to use a lot more deductive reasoning and be comfortable making decisions without a full set of data, noted moderator Mr Viswa Sadasivan, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Strategic Moves and a former Nominated Member of Parliament.

This requires guts to make changes to established practices or introduce new products, which means a willingness to accept risk and failure, said Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO and Director of DBS Group.

“You have to give people the capacity to experiment, be willing to let them fail and recognise risk-taking. It is not easy in a regulated industry, but it is my job to give people shelter and air cover, saying ‘you go ahead and try and I will back and protect you’,” he said.

And chances are, the rates of success of truly innovative ventures are often low. Pointing out this fact, Mr Lim Siong Guan, former Head of the Singapore Civil Service, said there is a need to build resilience in Singaporeans.

They must learn to accept a situation where success is only one out of five or 10 times (10 to 20 per cent). “Coping with failure is not something that you are born with but something you deliberately work on,” added Mr Lim, who is also Professor in Practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS. 

He cited Israel, which has been dubbed a “start-up nation”, as an example. An Israeli counterpart once told him about a school robotics programme, where students learnt how to use the technology in a socially responsible manner, and more importantly, also how to fail.

But even as leaders innovate to steer their country or organisation out of the economic slump caused by the pandemic, they will need the support of their citizens or employees.

How to be a good and genuine leader

The sharing of struggles and personal difficulties is vital to building trust. But often, leaders are reluctant to show their vulnerabilities or apologise when they make mistakes.

One major reason is social media that encourages a mob mentality, said the panellists who point out that even changing course due to new data can draw ire.

This is because people usually have a fixed idea of what a leader should be, said Ms Jessica Tan, Group Co-CEO of Ping An Group.

“I think of a leader as getting the direction correct...in terms of what is important and what is it that you want to solve. But we should be open-minded that a leader is not expected to know every step that gets us there,” she explained.

So to inspire trust, leaders must be transparent about the choices they make and the rationale behind each decision. At the same time, they should also tolerate some “chaos” and be open to dissenting voices.

“Otherwise even good individuals will not want to speak up. Then you get a passive company,” she said.

For former civil servant Mr Lim, a good leader should address the concerns of the people and convince them that there are, at times, even a need to make sacrifices for the good of future generations.

“What people want is a sense that the guy in charge has my well-being at heart and knows what he is doing. Even though he doesn’t have all the knowledge, he is asking the right questions and pursuing the right issues,” he said.

After all, the biggest threat and opportunity always starts with very weak signals, and a leader needs to detect them and take timely action, said Professor Hsieh Tsun-Yan, CEO Counsellor and Founder of McKinsey Leadership Practice.

Summing up the discussion, Mr Viswa said unpredictability and uncertainty will define the post-COVID world, which calls for leaders who are a lot more comfortable with gaps in logic.

“But when there are gaps in logic, there must be a moral compass, a reference point, that gives (a leader) an instinctive and intuitive sense of direction,” he stressed.

The leader of today will need to lead with purpose. And this should not be purely driven by the value to shareholders, but the impact on all stakeholders, including the society at large.


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