Opinion: In Search of the New Public Leader

What can a Portuguese prince from the Age of Exploration teach us about the search for leadership in an Age of Uncertainty?


While thinking about the exploratory capacity of government, I could not help but recall an extraordinary example of foresighted leadership from centuries ago. At a recent business event in Lisbon, I became familiar with the story of Prince Henry, born in 1394 as the third son of King John I of Portugal. At the age of 24, realising that his country had no coast along the Mediterranean Sea, Prince Henry devoted his passion towards worldwide exploration. This visionary man founded his institute in Sagres on the south-western-most point of Portugal, Cape Saint Vincent—a place ancient geographers referred to as the western edge of the earth. The institute, best described as a fifteenth century research and development facility, included libraries, an astronomical observatory, ship-building facilities, a chapel, and housing for staff.

The institute was designed to teach navigational techniques to Portuguese sailors, to collect and disseminate geographical information about the world, to invent and improve navigational and seafaring equipment, to sponsor expeditions, and to spread Christianity around the world. In order to fulfil his dream, Prince Henry brought together some of the leading geographers, cartographers, astronomers, and mathematicians from across Europe and the Arab world. He invested heavily in them. Likewise, he also brought into the country some of the best sailors, many of whom he found in Italy.

The institute's primary goal was to explore the western coast of Africa in order to locate a route to Asia. One of its innovations included a new type of ship, called a caravel, faster and much more manoeuvrable than prior types of boats and quite functional despite its small size (two of Christopher Columbus' ships, the Niña and the Pinta, were caravels).


Although Prince Henry never sailed on any of these expeditions and rarely left Portugal, he became known as "Prince Henry the Navigator". The successful expeditions he sponsored were key to many discoveries in Portugal, which, as a result, became an extremely powerful nation, with an extraordinary impact on the rest of the world. Although some people believe that Portugal's discoveries happened by chance, as Peter Drucker has put it, "nothing good happens by accident".1

The key to these extraordinary feats of exploration was Prince Henry's investment in talent, which represented not only an enormous financial commitment but also a remarkable degree of openness in bringing on board key scientists from the Arab world, given the conflict between Christians and Muslims at the time.

Like Henry the Navigator, Singapore has created an economic miracle by investing in talent. Its leaders, realising that the only way for Singapore to grow without natural resources or scale was to invest in talent, systematically attracted the best people, both to key political appointments and its civil service, and have been doing so for well over four decades. As a result, Singapore's gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has multiplied by a factor of eight in real terms (constant dollars) since 1965, while GDP per capita in the US, the UK and several other highly developed nations has multiplied by a factor of less than three.2

Evidence suggests that an unprecedented war for talent will take place in Asia for at least the next two decades.

Singapore's economic achievements can be credited to the integrity of its leaders and their long-term vision, its ability to reinvent itself, and its global outlook. As Neo Boon Siong has described, Singapore's unique form of "dynamic governance", based on the principles of incorruptibility, meritocracy, markets, pragmatism, and multi-racialism, has given it an extraordinary capacity to think ahead, to think again, and to think across.3 A continual flow of able, honest people has allowed Singapore to become one of the world's most competitive nations.


Like Portugal at the time of Henry the Navigator, the world (and Singapore along with it) is once again entering an era of unchartered waters, with many major challenges ahead.

While Singapore's traditional form of "dynamic governance" will be even more essential in an environment of greater uncertainty, the flow of outstanding talent into its public sector will be much harder to sustain.

The traditional source of talent for public leaders—under the scholarship system—will no longer be as reliable as in the past. Ironically, Singapore's success at wealth creation has made its people so affluent that scholarships no longer represent the unique opportunities they once were. Talented individuals are now much more able to afford a good education overseas, while maintaining the freedom to work either for the public or the private sector.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that an unprecedented war for talent will take place in Asia for at least the next two decades.4 The public sector in Singapore will increasingly be competing for talent with the private sector both in its home country and abroad. Indirectly, other governments in the world will also be competing for some of the best talent in the private sector, generating in turn an additional demand over the potential leaders that the Singapore public sector will need.


Looking ahead, I see five priorities in enhancing Singapore's capacity to find and develop the next wave of public leadership:

1. Adjust the screening process

Singapore has been uniquely disciplined and effective at bringing in top talent to its public sector. However, I believe that Singapore's screening process is still too biased towards academic criteria and indirectly IQ, while not giving enough weight to emotional intelligencebased competencies related to our ability to manage ourselves, and our relationships with others. The problem with the screening process involves two types of errors. First, there is the risk of hiring the wrong managers who, despite their academic brilliance, do not demonstrate the required leadership abilities. This "type I" error, hiring or promoting the wrong candidate, is obviously to be avoided. However in today's world, where talent is becoming increasingly scarce, the "type II" error should also be avoided, which is the probability of rejecting the right candidate for the wrong reasons. I believe that, by adjusting the screening process, Singapore will not only be able to avoid hiring or appointing the wrong candidates, but also able to attract a larger number of highly effective (and in some cases even more capable) public leaders.

2. Source more openly

As in the case of Henry the Navigator, Singapore should realise that some of its best potential public leaders may not necessarily come from internal promotion, but might also be brought in from outside. Sources may include the private sector within Singapore, repatriated Singaporeans and, eventually for some roles, perhaps even foreign nationals. This practice will not only allow for better appointments (since research clearly shows that considering a wide pool of internal and external candidates significantly increases the chances of successful selection), but may even become a necessity if, as I believe, the traditional scholarship process becomes an insufficient or much less reliable source of talent.

3. Avoid becoming mechanical

Singapore has led the way in implementing advanced and disciplined people management systems, including the early measurement of potential. At the same time, as Singapore maintains its discipline in these processes and constantly updates them, care should also be taken to avoid the risk of becoming too mechanical in implementation. Singapore has benefited from two generations of dynamic leadership who have demonstrated high levels of purpose and passion. It should now avoid falling into the same trap as some organisations, which fill themselves with brilliant people who carry impressive double degrees yet lack the soul and passion of the foundational leaders. No Human Resource process will work if those at the top lack the highest motivation for making great people decisions. Vision, courage, determination and passion are more important for building human capital than the most clinical, advanced model of best practice.

4. Make better appointments

While Singapore is a prime example of what capable leadership can achieve, I believe that the public sector may be better at developing people in their initial career steps than at making great appointments at more senior levels, taking into account the specific challenges of each job and the required fit in terms of competence. Whenever we make an appointment, we need to make a trade-off between the immediate performance needs (for which a very significant degree of competence for the specific job is paramount) and the development of the individual (in which case the challenge becomes more important, which implies that there will be a competency gap). Investing too much in the development of individuals at the expense of not making the right appointments in terms of competence has a large opportunity cost, especially at senior levels.

5. Educate senior leaders for making great people decisions

Finally, Singapore should also lead the way when it comes to educating their senior leaders for making great people decisions. Great people decisions do not just happen by chance, but by following a proven process to decide when a people change is needed, what to look for in a candidate, where and how to find the best candidates (inside and out), how to assess them, how to attract them, and how to integrate them into the new job. My evidence indicates that most senior leaders in Singapore have not been trained in this key discipline. This is not a problem unique to Singapore, but a telling blind spot in educational systems all over the world, and in most organisations both public and private. When 70% of the value of a typical large organisation comes from intangibles, and knowledge and talent are the most important assets in today's economy, the ability to make great people decisions becomes the key for career success, organisational value, and for building a powerful nation. In spite of what most people think, making great appointments is not an art, the result of an intuition or a gut feeling. Making great people decisions is a craft and a discipline that can be learned and should be learned by the new public leaders in Singapore.


Claudio Fernández-Aráoz is the author of Great People Decisions (NJ: Wiley 2007). A Senior Adviser of the executive search firm Egon Zehnder International, he was a member of its Global Executive Committee for over ten years, as well as the leader of its Management Appraisal practice, Professional Development, and the development of the firm's Intellectual Capital. An advisor to several progressive governments, he is a frequent keynote speaker at major business gatherings globally.


  1. Cited in Blanchard, K. et al., The One Minute Entrepreneur: The Secret to Creating and Sustaining a Successful Business (New York: Doubleday, 2008).
  2. Fernández-Aráoz, Claudio, "Obama's First Priority: Hiring the Right People", BusinessWeek online, 7 November 2008.
  3. Neo, B. S. and Chen, G. Dynamic Governance: Embedding Culture, Capabilities and Change in Singapore (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2007): 13.
  4. Black, J. Stewart, "Waging and Winning the War for Talent in Asia", in Leadership in Asia: Challenges and Opportunities (Singapore: McGraw-Hill, 2010).

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