​By Assoc Prof William Hwang
Director, SingHealth Transplant
Head, Department of Haematology, SGH

When we were very little we learned that 1+1=2. But in leadership, I found that normal mathematics does not always apply.

Let me explain. I once had a student on a research attachment who suggested we engage her fellow student to get more work done.   So we did.   Productivity dropped to half!   Once those two girls got together, they just could not stop chatting. So is 1+1 = 2? In this case it became 0.5, or even -1!  

We also learned that 1 ÷ 1 = 1. However, I have found that sometimes 1-on-1 = infinity.

It is not big meetings or big speeches that make all the difference. Rather, the time we spend with people one on one can achieve so much more.   If it cannot be resolved one on one, it usually cannot be resolved at big meetings.   On the other hand, there are also times when I have to let disagreements surface during meetings so that everyone knows how everyone feels about a situation. 

"I must never create an environment where my colleagues would be afraid to tell me when I was wrong." 

The mathematics involved in leadership is very complex indeed.   But life is not mathematics and we can’t treat leadership like a problem to be solved.   I learned from someone, “Don’t try to solve every problem. Some problems are better managed than solved”.

When I was President of the World Marrow Donor Association there were the occasional disagreements that reached across continents.   We decided that instead of trying to solve every problem, we would get everyone to focus on common goals while we continued to quietly manage the issues that arose.   It worked out very well in the end.

Another reason to not rush in to solve every problem is because there are always two sides to any argument. 

“Don’t try to solve every problem. Some problems are better managed than solved.”

I was part of my school’s debating team.   When we prepared for our debates, we prepared arguments then we flipped over and prepared rebuttals to all our arguments.   Then we prepared rebuttals to all these rebuttals.  Then we prepared rebuttals to these rebuttals of our rebuttals.

What I learned from that is that when you put your mind to it, you can always find a counter argument to almost any point raised.   So before rushing to solve any problem, I try to remember that there are always two sides to any argument.

Finally, when I was in Sweden, I visited a museum where there was on display a large ship that was built in the 17th Century.   The ship, which was called the Vasa, was large, beautiful and magnificent and built according to the specifications of the king.   But it sank.   In fact, when it was built, many people knew it would sink. But no one told the king – because no one dared to. They would sooner let the ship sink than to tell him he was wrong.

This was a serious reminder to me as a leader – I must never create an environment where my colleagues would be afraid to tell me when I was wrong.   Or else I could be building a ship that would sink.

Prof William Hwang has served as a leader in numerous organisations, including the Singapore Cord Blood Bank, World Marrow Donor Association, Asia Pacific Blood and Marrow Transplant Group and Centre for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research.