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Speeches

Speech by URA Chairman, Mr Barry Cheung, to participants of Summer Programme of the University of Hong Kong

Thank you Dr Wong and Professor Chin for your kind opening remarks, and good afternoon everyone.

I am pleased to have been invited to speak to you today on leadership. As you may be aware, I was the chairman of the campaign to elect Hong Kong's new leader, and perhaps it was this that prompted the invitation.

Groucho Marx said that "only one man in a thousand is a leader of men -- the other 999 follow women". Well, I'll leave you in the audience to make your own judgment about this - a judgment that may change as you get older and wiser and married. I'll also leave you to decide whether it is a reversible equation, now that gender equality is the rule, at least at the University of Hong Kong.

More seriously, leadership in today's world is a very important topic. Humanity faces some enormous challenges, not just those of the never-ending financial crisis, but of environmental sustainability, growing inequality and persistent poverty. All countries and regions around the world are feeling these pressures, and whatever the social and political system, they will only be solved through the exercise of forceful and just leadership.

But what makes a good leader?

I think president Eisenhower captured the essence rather well when he said: "Leadership is the art of getting everybody to do something they want done but do not know where to start."

Now this might be interpreted as a call to trick people into doing things that are against their interests. But I don't think this is at all what the phrase means. Rather, it is what the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli had in mind when he said "I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?"

I would say that the foremost quality of any leader is that he must feel very deeply that he is the will of the people, and is in office to carry out the people's wishes.

This is no easy task. All societies are plural by nature, and consist of individuals and social groups with different needs, aspirations and views of what is right and wrong. Reconciling these in a way that produces a coherent and effective public policy means firstly, taking time to understand them. Too often, given the large and complex nature of our societies today, our leaders, even if well-intentioned, are somewhat divorced from everyday reality, and lack a real appreciation of the challenges that ordinary people face in their lives.

I feel I am lucky in this sense, because my own background is rather ordinary and in my work with the Urban Renewal Authority, I am confronted week-in week-out with the problems of ordinary people and poor people in our society.

I think the second important quality that a successful leader must have is a commitment to building a society that is based on merit. Clearly, there are regimes that violate this rule, but I think history proves that societies that flourish over time are those that make the fullest possible use of the talent of their people, relative to other societies around them.

Such societies are necessarily characterized by high degrees of social mobility. When this meritocratic principle is undermined, the social contract is broken. The society becomes corrupt, ossified and begins to decay.

There are, unfortunately, many examples in the Western world today of countries that once offered high degrees of social mobility where children are increasingly unable to move upwards, however talented they are, because they lack access to educational and other opportunities.

Again, I see this in my work with the URA. I have visited many kids in our urban slums - many no less bright or ambitious than anyone in this room - who face real difficulty in studying, because the cramped, noisy and unhygienic flats in which they live make it almost impossible to do their homework.

So what does it take to ensure that government is in the interests of the governed, and that government is facilitating rather than impeding the development of society along meritocratic lines?

Well of course there are very many aspects to this. Clearly, in education policy, it means ensuring that basic education is available to all and that all children who have the capability should move on to an appropriate level of higher education. It means access to a basic level of medical care, of nutrition and of housing.  There are many ways of achieving these goals.

But to make any of the necessary changes towards these goals requires a close understanding of the workings of Government, business and the media -- something, which, believe me, takes not just experience but is a real test of all your critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Yet even this will not be enough. Understanding a problem and devising a solution are enough in the classroom, but not in life. Because there are always vested interests in society, and they are by nature very powerful. So one of the most important qualities for any leader is courage.

No leader will succeed if he or she does not have the courage of his or her convictions. If you want to do the right thing - which is what the management guru Peter Drucker saw as the essence of leadership - you have to find out what is the right thing and believe it is the right thing. This is the only way you will have sufficient power of persuasion to get people to do things because they also think they are the right things to do.

So in summary, leadership involves four key qualities, and I believe they hold true in all walks of life, not just politics. Firstly, a genuine desire to lead in the interests of the community you represent; secondly, a deep understanding of the needs of the people who you have been chosen to lead; thirdly, a sound handle on how the world works; and finally, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

It is no easy task, but it can be done if there is a will to do it.

As John F Kennedy once said "Things do not happen. Things are made to happen."

I hope that one day, some of you in this room, will also make things happen.

Thank you.

(ENDS)