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NUS President shares insights on leadership

29 August 2011

Prof Tan (left) at the dialogue session moderated by Mr Fernandez

A student who asked Prof Tan how he would go about developing leadership in schools

While preparing for leadership, one should not be too quick to rule out the pursuit of things that appear useless. Speaking from experience, NUS President Prof Tan Chorh Chuan pointed out that some things which appear to offer no immediate visible benefit may yet turn out to be highly valuable and enriching for one's development as an individual and leader. He shared this advice and other personal insights with some 120 invited guests and students at The Fullerton-St Joseph's Institution (SJI) Leadership Lectures on 26 August 2011, where he was the Guest Speaker.

Elaborating on inadvertent preparation for leadership, Prof Tan cited art and travel as two aspects that have provided him with very powerful stimuli for self-discovery and learning about the external world, both of which contribute towards multi-dimensionality. He said: "For me, it's art and travel. For you, it can be anything that excites you, but at least some of it must take you out of your comfort zone. It must bring you to areas where you know you are not going to ace it without tremendous effort and some uncertainty."

Prof Tan also touched on motivations for leadership such as the sense of constructive dissatisfaction which led him to take on the role of Director of Medical Services at the Ministry of Health. He also recounted his experience of being thrust into crisis leadership during the time of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003. At that time, he found himself having to make some high-stakes decisions, such as to close Tan Tock Seng Hospital and dedicate it to the treatment of SARS which turned out to be the right course of action.

In addition to giving the lecture on leadership, Prof Tan also fielded many questions from the audience which comprised representatives from community groups, universities and professional associations. Moderated by former veteran journalist Mr Warren Fernandez, the wide range of questions he addressed included his experiences of failure, how the school could foster leadership, the kind of students he hoped NUS would produce, his strategies in choosing co-workers and how he kept his team motivated when things didn't go as planned.

The Fullerton-SJI Leadership Lectures were organised by The Fullerton Hotel and SJI, with The Straits Times as media partner. Each Lecture features an SJI alumnus who has made a major impact on Singapore and Singaporeans. Previous Guest Speakers included former Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr George Yeo, Chairman of SPRING Singapore and Special Advisor for Economic Development at the Prime Minister's Office Mr Philip Yeo, Chairman of the National Kidney Foundation Mr Gerard Ee and Chairman of DBS Bank Mr Peter Seah.