More than 10 years ago, a young officer in the army was about to attend a course on company tactics. For those who are not familiar, a company appointment is a junior command where you lead some 100 soldiers.
The young officer was then the project officer to a brigade commander, who was many times senior in rank and experience. Brigade commanders are very busy and important people who have far heavier responsibilities.
One day, the brigade commander asked for the young officer, gave him a good half-hour pep talk, and passed him a folder. It was a thick folder of tips, tactics and templates that the brigade commander had painstakingly gathered and refined years back when he was a battalion commander. It must have been a gem of a personal folder, for with the prized tactics his battalion had emerged as the best infantry battalion.
I was the young officer, and till today I feel very honored and privileged to have received the attention, guidance and blessings of someone so senior and yet with a heart for the junior ones. I learned that a rank or appointment is what one wears, but respect is what one earns.
I served this brigade commander for 1.5 years. In that time I learned many things from him – his humility, his service leadership, his belief and faith in his junior command, his empowerment of people and his inspiration to them. Years later, I would learn the key differences between a manager and a leader. There are many versions out there, and a simplified one is that a manager focuses on the successful completion of functional tasks, while a leader influences people to confront harsh realities and inspires and develops them to overcome them. In our lives, we are likely to find many more managers than leaders. And if we are ever blessed to meet an inspiring, we remember him or her for a long time.
Some years ago, this brigade commander collapsed at a race and passed away. It was a huge shock and brought profound sadness to his family and loved ones. In each of our grief, we found so many others who shared it. Eight years on this day, this brigade commander, his personality, his quotes, his deeds, his stories continue to be fondly remembered and shared. This is leadership – not defined by the extent or number of achievements one accomplishes, but by how many lives ones touches and transforms. For it is through inspiring and building a new generation that one builds people and their capacities to make the world a better place.
Although his was a life gone too soon, this brigade commander’s beliefs and values continue to live on in many of us, and through that he continues to influence and shape Singapore.