How We Think about Leadership

Over recent months I have been designing and sharing in a research project to identify what are the perceived gaps in leadership across Thailand as it prepares to join the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015.

AEC will be a single regional common market of 10 nations and over 600 million people. The envisaged free flow of goods, services, investment capital and skilled labor will impact on every dimension of the Thai nation. Asking questions about leadership in its most holistic (systemic) sense before the launch of AEC is considered to be very important.

This project has from the start been built using systemic principles and practices. This issue of leadership is complex, it is a phenomenon that is experienced by all and it ideally embodies the characteristics of systems such as purposefulness, bounded, emergent, cohesive and internally hierarchical. Leadership is both personal and social and because it is seen as a sensitive barometer of social behavior it is easier to talk about it anonymously, but essential every contribution is available to all that is transparent. All these principles have been incorporated in the project design as it has swept in experiences and insights about existing leadership from all sectors and levels of Thai society.

A significant insight in this research, and what has now become a catch cry, is the realization how informed people, who are being led, have about the concept of leadership. Conversation Maps and stories on various aspects of leadership show so many of the emergent themes with comments in the context of “I wish my leader had . . .”; “Why don’t leaders . . .”; “We would have achieved much more if . . . “; “The greatest achievement was when we had a leader who . . . “!

That is, the wisdom coming from supporters and followers who nominated leaders reflecting on their prowess, indicated where these leaders were most successful. Most texts on how to be a leader focus on what ‘expert’ leaders say, that is a kind of elitist perspective where this research in sweeping in everyone and giving equal voice to all members of the crowd seems to unearthed another perspective all together.

Hundreds of Thais have participated; those with experience of being leaders sharing insights about their strengths and weaknesses, while those (the majority) have experienced being led have shared their insights about what they received and what they needed from their leaders. The study was not a forum for labeled leaders to tell ‘how’ it was done; rather it was a study where the learning from being led was central. The research project examined leadership as an outcome that facilitates the movement of a group towards a new goal they cherish, not leadership as it may be embedded in a single person.

From a systemic perspective leadership is an emergent quality of a group that arises because of the pattern of insights and relationships generated by all the participants of the group.

From the rich picture of all the contributions five‘ gap’ factors about leadership in Thailand strongly emerged. These five were considered to be especially significant with respect to AEC and other national aspirations over the next ten years. These five factors are shown in the graphic below.

Explanation of these five emergent themes will be extrapolated in future blogs, for while they come from research in Thailand they may suggest directions for reflection and study elsewhere.

Bruce McKenzie is the Associate Director of the Center for Systemic Leadership. He holds a degree from the University of Melbourne, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Urban and Regional Planning, and a Masters Degree in Systemic Development from the University of Western Sydney. He is also an accredited “Cognitive Edge” practitioner. He has been involved in building Graduate programs in business and systemics at Akershus University College in Norway, University of Liverpool’s School of Management and Open University in the UK as well as Dominican University of California’s GreenMBA,  Macquarie’s Graduate School of Management (Executive Leadership Program) and Australian Catholic University’s Centre for Executive and Professional Education.

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