Olympic Medals

I had the opportunity to meet a Japanese shooting coach last week.  He was once Japan’s champion shooter, though he did not manage to get an Olympic medal despite being of Olympic standard because they scrapped his specialist event in the year he was supposed to compete.

We were talking about winning championships, and how athletes in Japan are selected to be trained into national champions.

He said potential champions are picked from school according to their physique and skills. But the issue of being a world champion goes beyond this and even goes beyond excellent mental management – what many people refer to as the pressure of high stake competitions.

If a champion is motivated to keep pushing herself or himself to higher and higher standards because of motivation that comes from winning  (in other words, their motivation to win comes from winning), that is fine for national championships…but it is not good enough for world championships.

In a world competition, the standard of the best of the best in the world is very, very close.  At this point, if the motivation to keep going stems from winning, then the motivation is blown to pieces if the athlete fails to win a number of times.  And failing to win is not so difficult among a small crowd of champions who are all world class.

What keep these athletes pushing on with determination and tenacity is that they truly enjoy the sport – their motivation is not primarily about winning, it is about enjoying the sport and wanting to be better and better at it.  Winning is just a milestone, or a testimonial, along the way.

I think this point contains a critical lesson for us as leaders of organisations: if we try to motivate our people to be the best company, whichever way we measure that, whether it be profits, or ROE, or stock price or whatever, there is a limit to how well we can keep going even if we get to be No. 1, because after getting to be No. 1, we must keep striving to maintain the position of No. 1.

When the company gets to be No. 1, those who are behind will want to follow, to mimic, to dissect and figure out, how to beat No. 1.  So No. 1 has to keep moving ahead in order to keep being No. 1. 

Keeping the people in the company striving year-in-year-out to keep up at being No. 1 is a big demand on stamina, focus, energy and determination.  It is very difficult.  The real key to sustained success lies in having people who enjoy their work, who find meaning and purpose in what they do, who find their work to be an integral part of what makes their life worthwhile.

So as leaders we need to recognise that getting our people to enjoy and to feel good (not just be good) about what they do is not an afterthought, not a “bonus”, and not a “nice-to-have”, but a critical criterion for continued winning.

We must ENJOY WHAT WE DO IF WE WANT TO KEEP WINNING.  And that desire to Win with Honour must start from within each one of us.
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Flood of 1969


I recently watched the film “Long, Long Time Ago” produced by Jack Neo and his J Team.

For me and others in my baby boomer generation, I am sure the film brought back much memory (though not necessarily fond ones) of how Singapore was like more than 50 years ago:  the kampong huts, the gangsters, the corrupt officials, the fights, and the floods.  How much Singapore has come over 50 years!

Later generations of Singaporeans will not have empathy for the events, though they could nonetheless enjoy the film for its drama.

The one memory the film jolted in me was the 1969 floods.

I had started work in the Sewerage Department for just a few months then.  When the floods came, I rushed to understand what is happening on the ground.  The Braddell Road pumping station, which was just next to a river, was flooded through.  The sewage pumps could not work as they were flooded over.  If the pumps were stalled for an extended period, it would represent a serious health threat.  What had to be done was to pump out the flood water.

Some labourers were valiantly trying to pump the water out using a number of mobile water pumps.  These were the people who work through the crises while most of the population were comfortably under shelter expecting all things to be fixed.

The sewage pumps were too far down so the mobile pumps could not get the water out.  What was I to do?  The workers looked at me for instructions.  After all, I was their engineer.  My mind was whirring with all the mechanical engineering lessons on fluid flow that I had learnt.  The situation was desperate.  The theory I recalled drove me to a decision.

I told the Indian workers to connect the outlet of one mobile pump to the inlet of another mobile pump.  This way the power of two pumps will be used to pump the water out.  The workers asked me whether I was serious about my instruction.  They said:  “This has never been done before!”

I told them to make the connection, not sure myself that things will work out.  Fortunately for me, the plan worked.  I was lifted several notches in the eyes of the workers.  My mechanical engineering lessons were not wasted after all.

Two leadership lessons come to mind from this recollection:

BE PRESENT IN A CRISIS.  Don’t run away from it.  If you are not at the scene when things happened, make your way there. People depend on leaders for direction and encouragement.

BE CONFIDENT: The person in charge has to be confident to uplift the spirits of everyone else around.


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Keep an Open Mind

Keep an open mind

The need to always be learning and to have an open mind is shown in an essay by Fernando del Pino Calvo-Sotelo titled “The Five Experiments: a short essay”

Fernando del Pino Calvo-Sotelo is one of the sons of the late Rafael del Pino y Moreno, founder of the Spanish construction company Ferrovial.  He has been involved in managing the family fortune since 1998.

“The Five Experiments” is based on a speech by Del Pino in June 2015 on what he believed to be “a multi-generational decline of the Western civilization”.  His essay can be found at https://magallanesvalue.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/The-Five-Experiments.pdf

It is a very thoughtful commentary on five aspects of national life that “are now taken for granted as if they were not experiments but an immutable reality, an axiomatic truth that cannot be changed.”

They have been adopted at face value in the West as though they are obviously good and right in the West, when in fact a humble, honest reflection will have to consider them as “experiments” whose validity should be subject to Winston Churchill’s caution that “however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”

The Five Experiments pointed out by Del Pino are:

  1. Universal suffrage and unlimited democracy with the conclusion that “never before in History has democracy been used on such a massive scale and never have majorities had so much unconstrained power.”
  1. Big Government & Welfare State with the comment: “Welfare states create the illusion that money grows on trees.” 
  1. Gigantic indebtedness that starts with the statement: “Politicians first promise, then tax.  When they run out of tax revenues, they borrow.” 
  1. Crazy central bankers and fiat currency that continues from above with “when no lender in his right mind would lend them a single dime, powerholders just print.” 
  1. Living without God with the observation “when power is not subject to a higher rule, those in power become gods, although not saint, infinitely merciful, just and good gods, but somber tyrants in waiting.”


As leaders we need to be acutely and critically aware of what is going on, not content with the superficial observation or explanation.  The essay is well worth your time to read.


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