On Leadership by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

I have looked up to Aung San Suu Kyi for her nonviolent approach to change for many years. In her speech at Singapore Management University, she shares the mindset of a leader. Although she doesn’t use the term “servant leadership”, what she says is very much the essence of servant leadership to me. I have, made in  bold, specific lines that capture servant leadership.


Here are excerpts of her speech, which can be watched on youtube.

Leadership must begin with commitment; with conviction.

This, in the end, is what I think leadership is about. You should be able to fulfil the need of the people who are willing to be led by you. They are willing to be led by you because you fulfil their need for hope, their need to believe in themselves. If you cannot make those people you are trying to lead believe in themselves, you cannot really be a leader. So to make people believe in themselves, you’ve got to respect them. You’ve got to truly value them.


That is what leadership is about…making it possible for people to work together…


…What we are talking about are leaders, not commanders. Leaders lead. Commanders command. And they expect their commands to be obeyed, whether or not they are reasonable. Now leadership means convincing those whom you aspire to lead that the way you have chosen is the right one. It has to be a choice. They have to choose to follow you. That is what leadership is about. With a commander, there’s no choice. You either follow or else.

…Leadership entails vision. Otherwise where are you leading people to? If you don’t know where you want to go to, you have no right to ask people to go along with you. So that is what vision is; knowing where it is you want to go and and to be able to explain this to those whom you aspire to lead. Why you want to go where you want to get to in a particular way. It’s not just getting to a goal but how you get to a goal that is decisive; that is important. And you got to decide: Are you going to take more time to make sure that the way is smoother or do you want to put an emphasis on speedy achievement?  And why? You have to balance…

…Stewardship is a kind of leadership we should aspire to in a democracy; not commanders but stewards who know that they have given the responsibility for a particular society; for a particular people; for a particular nation for a set period of time…It’s stewardship to guide this people, society, the nation during the time you have been given in the best possible way; in the most civilised way possible in the broad sense of the word, “civilisation”; to make that society more civilised; more human; to retain the values that are best for human society.

…Everywhere I go nowadays, people talk about economics all the time and this is important of course because we are physical beings and we need to be physically well-off. So our material situation is very important. But I would like to say, also, that we have to think of our spiritual situation. Now of course people think talk of EQ (emotional quotient) as well as IQ but I think we also have to think about the spiritual (SQ), which is not quite the same as emotional. I think the spiritual is reaching out to somewhere higher than you’ve been. And I think this is what leadership is about; reaching out to somewhere higher…reaching out together and reaching out as a responsibility; as a steward and not as somebody who will decide what the destiny of people who follow them are going to be.

We all decide our destiny together. We decide, as a nation; as a society where we wish to go to. But sometimes because there are so many of us, we can’t come to a single decision. And then it is up to those who aspire to be leaders to unite all the diversity that exists in any healthy, normal society into a unity of purpose; a unit of purpose that will get us to a place that is better and higher than where we have been before.

So that, simply, to me, is the mindset of leadership; the determination to serve, not to lead. And it’s a determination and commitment to serve that decides who is a real leader, not the desire to be a leader itself.                  


I deeply appreciate that she speaks of the spiritual. It is the piece we need to connect to more, and urgently.

If you’re interested to bring servant leadership to your institution, please contact me at vadivu[at]joyworks.sg.