Arriving in Singapore ahead of the 4 day Westpac and Common Purpose Leadership Development Programme, I was incredibly sceptical of what I was about to embark upon.

Aren’t leaders simply born to lead? Wasn’t it the case that you simply had it, or you didn’t?

Nelson Mandela’s actions and mesmerising ability to lead, effected change which continues to ripple through society. I didn’t know much about formal leadership programs, but I did know that kind of ability wasn’t something one could simply replicate.

4 days of stories, reflections, and coming to terms with uncomfortable and at times painful realities, shifted the way I see leadership, and my overall place in the world. From our first introductory session on cultural intelligence, 37 bright-eyed Asian exchange scholars began to understand what it is that brings us all together, and what makes us all leaders in our own right – our passions, although varied, and our shared humanity.

Do you leave food on your plate as a sign of respect to your generous host? Or do you finish what you have been served to symbolise that you enjoyed their offerings? 

As an Australian with Sri Lankan heritage, I’ve never quite been Australian enough, or Sri Lankan enough, to identify completely with either nationality – I finally realised I was not alone. Sharing stories of embarrassments, moments of uncertainty and moments of clarity made me realise how important it is to make a conscious effort to understand the idiosyncrasies of other cultures, and varying understandings that have stemmed from differing contexts. Not understanding one another, and not actually trying to, continues to tear our societies apart. In a world plagued by genocide, racism and ongoing abuses of power, culturally intelligent leadership is not just useful, it is vital.

I’ve always learnt so much from the individuals around me, and the leadership program allowed us to immerse ourselves in companies and organisations that were pioneering new technologies, enacting change and making a difference across sectors in Singapore.

I never thought that integral inward reflection would occur on the grounds of an ornamental fish farm with thousands of guppies staring back at me, but I suppose that’s exactly how leadership works - we learn from the most unexpected of places, and people. The Quian Hu fish farm is a story of family, dedication and not being afraid of failure. At a time where most people would walk away and succumb to the failure of a small business, the Yap brothers believed in their vision, believed in themselves, and believed in the power of hard work, and today their business exports to over 80 countries in the world. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me since – in many ways, leading is remembering what it is you want to change and achieve, and not being afraid to fail along the way.

As a visual learner who has always loved being able to be creative in any way I can, meeting with individuals from Tableau was an exciting lesson in using technology to not only benefit corporations, but to assist societies, and individuals on the ground. As a leading data visualisation company, Tableau provides its software for free to students, charities and NGOs working to make the world a better place – something we can do by making the most of data. From the sales of t-shirts, to ensuring intensive care patients have the assistance they need, sharing what we know to assist others, even within the bounds of the corporate world, creates a foundation of positive leadership.

Our personal understandings of truth and reality that we hold so close to our hearts, can be deeply destructive to our ability to see the world in different lights, our ability to lead, and to ensure better outcomes for a collective. Perhaps my biggest take away was understanding that leading is about caring. Sometimes, that simply means standing back and listening to what is happening around you.

In just 4 days, we made the conscious effort to ‘try on different leadership shoes’, we learnt from each other, we helped each other face some of our biggest fears and amongst all the craziness, we grew closer together – and I couldn’t have been more wrong about how powerful a leadership program can be.

No leader can be the same, and not all leaders make the right decisions, but working on cultural intelligence is an integral place to start, and I feel incredibly privileged to have gone through such a challenging and eye-opening experience with such an amazing cohort of scholars.

I know now that I am a leader in my own right.

“I have always believed that on important issues, the leaders must lead. Where the leaders fail to lead, and people are really concerned about it, the people will take the lead and make the leaders follow.”

Kofi Annan


Asian Exchange Scholarship Leadership Development Programme Reflection