Wednesday, August 15, 2007


15 Aug 2007, New Paper

IF these eyes intrigue or scare you, you're not alone. You have much of humanity for company.

Millions have looked into these eyes, in times of revolution and war, and trembled like little sheep.

Never mind if it was out of awe or fear. They followed, to victory or to doom.

Just what makes a leader? Sure, a nice suit helps.

But it's also about the eyes. Yes, the windows to the soul.

Leaders have a certain fire in their eyes, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said last week, when asked about finding Singapore's next generation of leaders at the Pioneers of Singapore: Inside Stories seminar.

He used the analogy of the sheepdog and talked about its ability to scare sheep into obedience by staring at them.

He said: 'I went to a sheepdog exhibition in Australia and the chap with the whistle, he had three sheepdogs and he could get a whole flock of sheep corralled, brought down, put into the pen.

'So we asked him, 'How do you train the dog?' He said, 'We have a way of doing this, but you must first decide whether that dog can do this job.'

'I said, 'How do you do it?'

'He said, 'Look at his eyes, look at his pedigree. If the dog hasn't got the eyes that will look into a sheep and scare the sheep into doing this, don't try.'

But what is this so-called 'fire in the eyes'?

Is it a myth or a real way to spot leadership?

The laymen would call it passion, gravitas, the X-factor - 'that elusive spark'.

The psychologist, more helpfully perhaps, will tell you it all boils down to the pupils.

'Your pupils contract when you are angry. They dilate, or get bigger, when you are excited,' said Dr Elizabeth Nair, 57.

'People follow, based on fear or attraction.'

Americans, coming from the land of free-world legends like Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy, would know a thing or two about identifying leaders.

'But we don't talk about the fire in the eyes. We call it the fire in the belly,' said Professor John Harrison, a political analyst from Nanyang Technological University.

Wherever the fire is, it's about spreading it.

'Having a vision is not enough. You need the eyes to communicate the idea,' said Prof Harrison.

'Not everyone might understand what a leader is saying. But if they can feel your passion, they're with you.'


Looking someone in the eye tells him you are 'confident and unafraid', said Dr Nair.

It's why you do that at job interviews and first dates.

It's also, Dr Nair pointed out, 'why gangsters get into fights'.

But looks, as they like to say, aren't everything.

'In the course of human interaction, the gaze must be strategically timed,' said Dr Nair.

The look must be given at the 'critical junctures' when the listener's mind hangs in the balance.

You either have it or you don't.

'You can't fake it,' said Mr Martin Cropper, 44, the chief executive officer of No Limits, an organisation that teaches corporate leadership.

But what about an ex-actor-turned-president like Ronald Reagan? Or California's Arnie the Governator?

Could the look be rehearsed or acted?

'There's always a first moment when you can tell if the fire in your eyes is real or not,' said Mr Cropper.

Eyes, said Dr Nair, are the 'body's lie detector machine'.

'People read the eyes, not the smile,' she said.

What does that say, then, about leaders who often hide behind sunglasses, like North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi?

'Maybe they have something to hide,' said Professor Harrison.

But it's not just about the eyes.

Former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid is almost blind. So was Shoko Asahara, the leader of Japanese cult group Aum Shinrikyo responsible for the Sarin gas attack that killed 12 people in Tokyo in 1995.

It's about what Mr Cropper would say, in sleek corporate lingo, 'congruent communication'.

'Everything - your eyes, your voice, your actions - must be aligned with what you are saying,' he said.

After all, a sheepdog doesn't just stare.

It barks and bites, too.

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