How good leaders manage failure

This was an article snippet posted as an anonymous comment on Tan Kin Lian’s blog. I thought it is so appropriate in light of our recent “Toilet Break” affair.

(Former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam at Wharton India Economic forum, Philadelphia , March 22,2008)

Question: Could you give an example, from your own experience, of how leaders should manage failure?

Kalam: Let me tell you about my experience. In 1973 I became the project director of India ‘s satellite launch vehicle program, commonly called the SLV-3. Our goal was to put India ‘s ‘Rohini’ satellite into orbit by 1980. I was given funds and human resources — but was told clearly that by 1980 we had to launch the satellite into space. Thousands of people worked together in scientific and technical teams towards that goal.

By 1979 — I think the month was August — we thought we were ready. As the project director, I went to the control center for the launch. At four minutes before the satellite launch, the computer began to go through the checklist of items that needed to be checked. One minute later, the computer program put the launch on hold; the display showed that some control components were not in order. My experts — I had four or five of them with me — told me not to worry; they had done their calculations and there was enough reserve fuel. So I bypassed the computer, switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage, everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed. Instead of the satellite going into orbit, the whole rocket system plunged into the Bay of Bengal. It was a big failure.

That day, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, Prof. Satish Dhawan, had called a press conference. The launch was at 7:00 am, and the press conference — where journalists from around the world were present — was at 7:45 am at ISRO’s satellite launch range in Sriharikota [in Andhra Pradesh in southern India ]. Prof. Dhawan, the leader of the organization, conducted the press conference himself. He took responsibility for the failure — he said that the team had worked very hard, but that it needed more technological support. He assured the media that in another year, the team would definitely succeed. Now, I was the project director, and it was my failure, but instead, he took responsibility for the failure as chairman of the organization.

The next year, in July 1980, we tried again to launch the satellite — and this time we succeeded. The whole nation was jubilant. Again, there was a press conference. Prof. Dhawan called me aside and told me, ‘You conduct the press conference today.’

I learned a very important lesson that day. When failure occurred, the leader of the organization owned that failure. When success came, he gave it to his team. The best management lesson I have learned did not come to me from reading a book; it came from that experience.

It’s interesting that in Singapore (at least in the Government), it seems the opposite is practised. When some amoeba civil servant comes up with a great idea, the government mouthpieces boast that “Minister Chin Tua Liap mooted the idea”.

But if a disgraceful prison break occurs, the blame is contained within the detention centre and no higher. And the Government’s logic is that blaming the Minister will lower morale of the staff. So better to blame the underlings and “move on”.


Have Singaporeans really moved on?

Scanning the forum pages of our English dailies, I notice a glaring absence of any letters about Mas Selamat-gate.

This could be due to one of two things:
1. Singaporeans have really moved on, as SM Goh Chok Tong and Straits Times’ political editor Chua Lee Hong exhorted us to; or

2. The media is rejecting all letters about the issue, and is failing its national duty of reflecting the views of Singaporeans.

Which one is it?

p.s. those who read the Chinese, Malay and Tamil press, do share the situation on that front.

My Response to MP Lam Pin Min’s blog

Well at least some of our P65 MPs are writing about the Mas Selamat issue and its aftermath.

Dr Lam Pin Min wrote a piece defending the PM and DPM’s arguments about how they see government responsibility. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, the Minister is ultimately responsible for his ministry’s policies and operations, which was why a COI was necessary to account for the lapses and to be answerable to the public. Just like the PM is accountable for his cabinet ministers. But, does that mean that the minister is culpable for all the mistakes that his subordinate (sic) commits? This cannot be.

Here is a comment I left in response:

Dear Mr Lam,

I have already read PM’s speech. Why bother copying and pasting it here?

The more you defend your bosses, the deeper a hole you are burying yourself and others in your party in, simply because the Executive’s self-righteous arguments lack merit on their own.

I urge you and your PAP colleagues to put down your cheerleading pom poms for a moment and do a better job reflecting the feelings of the people on the ground.

Most of us are not asking for Mr Wong’s resignation. We just want some admission of personal accountability.

And for goodness sakes, don’t tell us that by punishing the Minister, it will demoralize the whole Ministry. On the contrary, but putting all the blame on the small guys at WRDC, the officers at MHA and ISD will get the message that when push comes to shove, they will be the fall guys when something goes wrong.

I’d like to end with a quote from Newcastle, one of the readers of my blog, who left this comment:

“Is this then the precedent being set among the ministers where things go right, I get my million dollar pay package and take the credit. When things go wrong, I get my million dollar pay package and blame my minions.”

Gerald Giam

Afternote: It should be “Dr Lam” not “Mr Lam”. My apologies to the good doctor.


Don’t demoralise MHA by punishing the Minister

Yesterday PM Lee told Parliament:

The Minister is ultimately accountable for the policies and operations of his Ministry. But this does not mean that if a lapse occurs down the line, every level in the chain of command, up to and including the Minister should automatically be punished or removed. Based on the facts, we have to decide who fell short in performing his duties, and what is the appropriate disciplinary action for each officer involved. We also have to follow due process, giving officers the chance to defend themselves. Otherwise we will demoralise the organisation and discourage officers from taking initiatives (sic) or responsibility, for fear of being punished for making mistakes.

I said yesterday that if the logic goes that a Minister shold not be punished for a lapse that occurs down the line, then he will never get punished for anything, because everything the Minister “does” is actually done by his civil servants.

PM said that to punish the Minister would demoralise the organisation and discourage lower level staff from taking initiative or responsibility.

Nothing could be further from the truth!

Instead, if everytime something goes wrong, and only the lower level staff get punished, that would do much greater damage to morale. Not only would staff not take initiative and responsibility, but they would ask themselves: “Why bother when I’m going to be made to take the whole rap if something goes wrong?”

This is very bad management style. The boss should always take responsibility, and the rap if necessary.

Then again, perhaps PM was referring to morale among the top level elite Administrative Officers and Ministers. That is probably his greatest concern. To heck with those losers with fewer than 4 As in their A levels.


Protecting their own kind

The PM and Home Minister have given their statements in Parliament regarding Mas Selamat’s escape.

I am glad that although the Committee of Inquiry (COI) report was not released, at least the details of how Mas Selamat escaped — complete with pictures — were. I’m also glad to learn that this wasn’t an inside job. And I think it’s fitting that not just junior officials, but even the Superintendent of Whitley Road Detention Centre (WRDC) will be punished for this lapse.

That’s the good stuff. Now for the not so good.

The Escape

I wonder what was going on in the mind of the Gurkha who accompanied Mas Selamat into the toilet. Didn’t he find it a bit odd that the water was kept running for 11 minutes? Couldn’t he have banged on the door and asked Mas Selamat what was taking him so long? Or looked under the door? Or heard him opening the window and squeezing himself out? Why did he go OUT of the washroom to look for the female ISD officer to alert her, leaving the prisoner completely unattended. Maybe it was during those few seconds that Mas Selamat was able to escape from the window undetected.

Next the leap over the fence. The COI said it was most likely that he jumped on top of the covered walkway and lept across the fences to freedom. I find that quite incredible. The photo shows a double row of fencing, each with barbed wire on top, and separated by at least 2 m. The ground on the other side is filled with shrubs. Even if Mas Selamat lept across it, he would have broken his ankle when he landed.

The alleged escape across the fence is uncannily similar to the method used by NSF Dave Teo, who went AWOL from his army camp with a SAR21 assault rifle and several 5.56mm ammunition rounds. Teo lept from a parapet situated near a fence to escape. Did our security agencies not learn a thing from this very recent incident — that you should never have any fixed platforms near a fence?


I am shocked to learn that the punishment for allowing Mas Selamat to escape will be limited to only officers in the WRDC. Surely there are others in the ISD and MHA who are partially responsible.

It was reported that the toilet Mas Selamat escaped from was usually used by visitors and staff of WRDC. These visitors must, at one point or another, have included senior officials from ISD and MHA like the Director ISD, the Permanent Secretary (Home Affairs) and even the Minister himself. The Deputy Secretary (Security) who sat on the COI must have seen the same window design in the women’s toilet.

Did it not occur to any of them that there was a huge, ungrilled window with a ledge below it? Why did they not sound any alert? Were they complacent too? If so, do they not share part of the responsibility?

High security installations like these usually have regular security audits by another higher unit. If these audits were carried out, why didn’t the auditors discover the ungrilled window and the fence with a covered walkway beside it? These auditors should also be punished for their negligence. If no such audits took place, why not? ISD and MHA then bear some responsibility for not instituting these external audits.

PM’s speech today in Parliament and his responses to MPs’ questions were most disappointing.

He put up a stout defence for his Home Minister and Director ISD, saying they are “ultimately accountable” but “were not to blame”. This is a contradiction in itself. If you are accountable for something and that something goes wrong, you are to blame. That is what leadership is about.

I’m not asking for any resignations. But for everyone up the chain of command beyond the Superintendent of the WRDC to get away scot free is breathtaking! No one is going to even get fined, forfeit leave, sign extra, do push ups?

The PM said: “(T)his does not mean that if a lapse occurs down the line, every level in the chain of command, up to and including the Minister should automatically be punished or removed.”

In that case, no Minister will ever be punished for anything, because Ministers never do anything with their own hands. Everything that they do in the course of their work is actually carried out by a battalion of civil servants working under them.

PM chose to trot out the “we are not like other countries” argument, when he pointed out that we should not have a culture where Ministers “fall on their swords” whenever something goes wrong, just for political expediency. This is playing back like a tired old record from his father’s era. Most Singaporeans with half a brain will know it is less about being different from other countries, but more about protecting their own kind — the tight-knit network of elites who run this country.


Where is our "full account", independent Committee?

The day after Mas Selamat Kastari (aka The Limping Terrorist) escaped from prison on 27 February, Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng told Parliament that there will be an “independent investigation” into this “security lapse”.

Then Singaporeans found out that our government has a different definition of the word “independent” when it was revealed that this Committee of Inquiry (COI) included the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs, who “oversees security policy” as part of her regular job.

But the COI is independent, we are told, because “she does not have any line relationship over ISD or any operational departments”.

I guess since I didn’t get 4As in my A-levels like those 600 potential prime ministers, I should just shut up and accept that my England is not very powderful because I wasn’t paying attention when my primary one teacher taught me what “independent” means. Obviously my definition must be wrong, otherwise it would mean that our Deputy Prime Minister told Parliament something that wasn’t true.

(But wait a minute…if she is a DS overseeing security policy, but does not have anyone at the Internal Security Department or any operational departments reporting to her, then what is her superscale salary being used to pay for?)

On 2 March, Channel NewsAsia reiterated Mr Wong’s “independent Committee of Inquiry” comment, and went on to say that the “report should be ready within a month”.

I just checked the calendar, and I think it’s 11 April today, which means that the report is more than 10 days late.

What could be the reason for the delay? The DS on the COI team is from the elite Administrative Service, well trained in report writing. Surely she would have been able to whip up a report within a matter of days.

Perhaps the report really was ready long ago, but it needs time for “inter-agency consultation” so as to soften any potentially embarrassing findings, particularly for the political elite. MM Lee has already foreshadowed what the report might contain, when he pinned the blame for the escape on the goats…I mean…guards, whom he accused of being “negligent”.

But fret not, Singaporeans. Two “facts” may have turned out to be untrue, but I’m still holding out for a third fact to come true: That when the COI completes its inquiry, the Government will give a full account on how Mas Selamat escaped.

(It’s notable that it is only after the Workers’ Party expressed concern that the Committee will “submit its report to the Minister, and no part of the proceedings may be released to anyone except with the Minister’s written permission”, did the MHA come out and declare that there will be a “full account”.)

So where is our full account, “independent” Committee of Inquiry?

Or maybe I should be asking MHA: Why have you not released the COI’s full account to the public yet? Does the Government think that Singaporeans are all saying “what to do? He’s escaped” and are moving on with their lives?

Singaporeans are waiting…

Personally, I’m equally interested to find out the outcome of the separate CID investigation which is looking into whether there was any criminal wrongdoing, and “if any person is found to have abetted the escape”. I had asked on the second day after the escape whether this was an inside job and I still maintain that this is the most likely scenario.