Can Leadership Development Be Taught? Not Really, Says Banyan Tree Chairman Ho Kwon Ping

Formal education may be a good vehicle for imparting specialised knowledge or domain expertise. What it does less well is to teach leadership development, hence the moral vacuum sometimes evident at the upper levels of society from business to politics. This dilemma was the focus of a recent talk by Banyan Tree Holding’s executive chairman, Ho Kwon Ping, as part of the CEO Talks series organised by the Wee Kim Wee Centre of Singapore Management University (SMU). Ho, who won the CEO of the Year 2007 award in Singapore, is chairman of SMU’s Board of Trustees and of MediaCorp, Singapore’s national television and radio company. He is also a board director of Air Seychelles, and a member of several business and university councils here and abroad.
The role that companies and universities could play in filling the leadership gap is a key issue for Ho. He has often wrestled with the question of whether enough is being done to develop leadership qualities both in his own group of upscale resorts and in educational institutions such as SMU. At the Banyan Tree, for instance, his goal is to develop a cadre of middle management staff to be the leaders of tomorrow. Similarly, says Ho, universities need to ask whether they are doing a good job “to develop the inherent leadership in students and grow this trait further”.
Who is a Leader?
“I define a leader as one who takes initiative to change the status quo, not for his personal benefit but for the common good,” said Ho. “The status quo need not necessarily have to do with the business situation. Essentially, you have at every moment the status quo that needs to be changed. It takes courage and initiative to do that -- in other words, someone with leadership quality.” Ho noted that all organisations needed leaders with a small ‘l’, at various levels, the big ‘L’ referring to CEO positions and above.
He highlighted four key points pertaining to the leadership issue: the crisis of leadership; the inability of formal education to train leaders; the need for value-based leadership; and the nurture and development of leaders.
Leadership Crisis
On the first point, Ho said, “The leadership crisis in global politics and in business is pretty obvious. You just have to look at the sub-prime crisis in retrospect. [Take away] all the jargon and complex financial engineering terms and it is just a simple case of financial service leaders enriching themselves while building up a bubble. We have a situation where the leaders’ personal interests were totally aligned with the excesses.”
“I think the biggest sin I have seen in politics or business today is not that people are greedy or evil but that they have succumbed to self-deception. You will find that lying to others is actually quite easy. Lying to yourself, once you do it, is very difficult to get out of. And they really do believe, as the sub-prime crisis has shown, they were doing the world a great favour with these financial instruments,” he said.
Leadership Education
Ho believes that leadership is probably the most difficult thing to teach in business schools. He has come to realise that leadership, somewhat like entrepreneurship, is not the outcome of acquiring skills or knowledge. “It really is a mix of character or personality and attributes like independent thinking, initiative -- essentially the courage to make your own decisions. Therefore, creating the opportunities for people to discover these attributes within themselves should be the thrust of leadership training,” he said.
The Banyan Tree group of resorts has its own management academy which runs a programme attended by a group of high potential middle management staff, about 10-15% of the cohort. The academy adopts a unique approach in not using external instructors but facilitators drawn from its senior managers.
“The first thing about our programme is that it isn’t about imparting technical skills but is for cross-cultural exposure, for situational learning through workshops. Only in that way [can] people, in a very experiential manner, begin to understand the nuances and essence of what leadership and leadership development is all about,” explained Ho.
For these reasons, he has come to the conclusion that business schools are not inherently equipped for leadership training. Ho is convinced that leadership comes from within oneself and is not something that can be taught in military or business school. “Leadership comes from internalising core values, not just from external values,” he emphasised.
Value-based Leadership
Ho disagrees with what he considers are common views about leadership. “While in transit at airports to visit our resorts, I find there are lots of self-improvement books being sold at bookshops with tips on how to be a leader in 12 easy steps,” he commented. “It is not surprising as businesses as well as business schools see leadership as an instrumental tool that allows one to rise up the ladder and so on,” he said.
Taking the line that leadership is more than “getting things done through other people” -- a cynical and manipulative dimension -- Ho firmly believes that leadership is about inspiring people. “My job as CEO and that of my subordinates is to induce an atmosphere within my company where people like to come to work. For that to happen, the senior managers will have to transform the fears and anxieties of other staff into hope, and practise this on a daily basis,” he said.
In the course of his travels to developing countries, for example, he has to deal with employees from different educational backgrounds and lifestyles. “When I interact with them, I realise they have fears and aspirations, daily concerns, work stress and concerns about livelihood. The way I can be a leader for them is to transform such concerns into a vision for the company they work for, so they come to work with interest in their hearts rather than just doing a job to get by,” said Ho.
There is one conundrum which continually intrigues him. “Why is it that in history as well as in daily life, in situations requiring leadership, somehow leaders fail to make the obvious and simple decision?” he asked. “The answer I’ve come to is that we are blinded by our own self. Our own egos stand in the way. Secondly, we avoid decisions that are difficult to make. That is, in my own view, how otherwise intelligent, capable, charismatic people fail as leaders.”
Nurturing Leaders
Ho is convinced of the need to develop and nurture the leadership abilities of ordinary people in ordinary jobs. Therefore, the goal of management training at Banyan Tree resorts is to teach participants to become better leaders. “I believe within each of us is a latent leader, and my goal is to get them to understand themselves and how they can reach inside to become better leaders,” said Ho.
One training technique is to get participants to delve into their past to better understand themselves. “Leadership is about making difficult decisions and doing the right thing. What we have done with our management courses is to get participants to recall such moments when they have risen above themselves. When you are able to build and call upon your inner strength, that amounts to successfully transforming yourself into a leader,” added Ho.
He cautioned against equating people who come across as charismatic or great speakers with being great leaders. Instead, he lauded leaders with a small ‘l’ “who have come out of their own selves in their personal lives, confronted the array of choices, and made decisions without considering personal interests.
Ho concluded: “When you are able to do all this in a calibrated manner, and you do this day after day, you will have become a true leader. You will find that people will follow you because they know your decisions are based on considerations about them, rather than considerations about yourself.”
Singapore Management University
Can Leadership Development Be Taught? Not Really, Says Banyan Tree Chairman Ho Kwon Ping Can Leadership Development Be Taught? Not Really, Says Banyan Tree Chairman Ho Kwon Ping Reviewed by Henrique Boclin on Thursday, November 08, 2012 Rating: 5

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