What does it mean to trust someone? How do you build a winning and positive team culture?

Sukhmohinder Singh — or Sukh as he is affectionately known — is someone who has learned the ropes and leadership principles, through years of practice and hands-on experience, as a leader and mentor. A retired Colonel with 35 years of service in the Singapore Armed Forces, Sukh headed the SAF Centre for Leadership Development during his last ten years of service. Today, he designs and facilitates leadership training programmes as an executive coach and consultant. Let’s find out more about the nuances and principles of leadership from Sukh.

We lead people; we manage resources. I have become clearer about this. I don’t believe in “managing people”, being humans with a mind and heart, they need leadership. We need to provide leadership which is the focus of nurturing their potential, unleashing their aspirations and then harnessing the energies of our people where the human will and motivation is virtually unlimited. With resources, you have hard limits. You have limits to how much money you have, or how many hours you have in a day. When you begin to manage people, you treat them as just another digit.

You manage resources, but you lead people.

As leaders, we don’t actually know all the answers. But we’re expected to have the courage to make the decisions. To me, that is a critical leadership trait. People need certainty to move and act. If you’re ambivalent and ambiguous, fear making the call, people won’t be able to move with confidence and certainty to get things done and learn. This will magnify anxieties, elevate frustrations and eventually remove any sense of purpose and daring initiative, as the culture of the leader is to play it safe.

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The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it is far better to have a team that is aligned to its values, committed to an outcome, and where the people care for each other, rather than to have someone who is very smart and capable, but is actually toxic to the entire team. During the later part of my SAF career, I had to make a very hard decision to remove a very bright and talented individual from my team. He was intellectually gifted, visionary about the direction of our work but had little or no regard for those who were less gifted intellectually, not aligned with his view and had on multiple occasions been seen to lack the morale courage to admit to his errors of judgement or actions. This was exceptionally toxic, especially so when he was also senior in Rank. He would ridicule and demean others, and was never open to feedback or making efforts to change. It was a tough decision; there was a loss in domain expertise within the team, but we made up for it by applying ourselves, sharing and learning together, while I recruited another individual who had the prerequisite intellectual grounding in the subject matter and who was much better in personality and character. The teamwork that emerged thereafter allowed us to realise more enduring outcomes.

I’ve made it a point to live and lead consistently with the values I espouse. As leaders, we need to have the moral courage to make decisions that are aligned to the Organisational Values, which should be aligned to yours too as a leader. Looking back through the years, people may not have liked me for my style of leading that has been described as being very harsh, very demanding and insensitive to people’s feelings but I can safely say that I was respected for my consistency in the living my values and that of the SAF through the decisions I made. I think this to be true, but if I did fail in this area then it is a failure that can lead to an erosion of TRUST.

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Trust. A simple word but it matters so much. I have learnt to categorise trust into three critical components. First, you must be individually capable in the work you’ve committed to handle. You must be able to carry your weight. Two, you must be reliable and keep your word. If you say you’re going to deliver something to what quality, at what time, et cetera— get it done.

The third quality is something not everyone can take to easily. It is a desire to nurture intimacy with the people you lead and being prepared to share your vulnerabilities but yet exude a confidence that you will be competent eventually. This in turn results in reciprocity from members of your team and the eventual result is a high performing team that consistently delivers extraordinary results cohesively. It means declaring your shortcomings openly and humbly. Being vulnerable means that I trust you enough to expose myself. To me, this is an important indicator or test, and one component I always seek to nurture and develop in my teams.

You must actively seek feedback from the people around you if you really want to grow.

Besides having a shared purpose, a successful team has to have a very strong and healthy culture of feedback. You must actively seek feedback from the people around you if you really want to grow. Make it a habit. You must do this, because you will be surprised at what people’s perceptions may be of you. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree— it’s important both ways. As a leader you must also develop the habit and skill of giving effective feedback, if you care about their growth and realisation of their potential.

I’d like to share a simple method to give effective feedback that I learnt from a CCL source: SBI, which stands for “Situation, Behaviour, Impact”. When giving feedback to your team member, clearly share what the situation was (e.g. “during the meeting”), what behaviour or action you noticed, and what was the impact of the behaviour on you. It’s important to emphasise that the impact you felt is an individual one, and you’re not speaking for everyone. Be objective and timely in your feedback and your tone of voice matters. The practice of timely, unadulterated/objective feedback regularly allows your team members to becoming aware of their blind spots and proactively taking actions to grow and develop themselves or it allows you the leader to seek actions if there are patterns of undesired behaviour observed. Without feedback, self and others, your growth is stunted and your potential minimised.

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Always ask certain fundamental questions before jumping into any work or action: “Why? and What” Why does this matter to you? Why are you going into this business or project? Why? Be honest. Be clear about the why because when you are very clear about your purpose and the values attached to it, the odds are you will always make decisions that are aligned with these fundamental choices. Your decisions will also be guided by your clarity “why” and not lose its direction. When you’re not clear, the decisions you’ll be making may not always be congruent. Then you need to make clear “What” you want to achieve, your outcomes or what is your destination? The ability to already see and feel what you want, provides clarity when making choices of how you will get there. Your strategies, tactics and actions that you take thereafter with this clarity of “Why” and “What” will potentially be satisfying and meaningful.

Always care about the “why” and “what”. Anchor yourself and stay true always to your values and purpose and have a vision of what you want.
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Learn from some of Singapore’s top leaders and meet like-minded students at the SMU Leadership Symposium. Held annually, the SMU Leadership Symposium brings together student leaders from universities, polytechnics and junior colleges all over Singapore to meet, connect and learn more about leadership.

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