Re-Examining leadership

What leadership lessons can we learn from Thailand’s floods in 2011? The country as a whole has learned some very expensive lessons, to be sure. But evaluating how the Thai government exercised its leadership during the crisis might help us all gain some wisdom and make us better prepared for any kind of catastrophe in the future.

Four aspects of leadership need to be examined:

1. How do we define leadership?

2. How do we define a problem/crisis?

3. How do leaders exercise judgement?

4. How do key institutions align?

Let’s take a closer look at each aspect, starting with how we define leadership. In Leadership Without Easy Answers, author Ronald Heifetz compares two definitions of leadership: “influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision.” versus “influencing the community to face its problems.”

Mr Heifetz elaborates: “In the first instance, influence is the mark of leadership; a leader gets people to accept his vision, and communities address problems by looking to him. If something goes wrong, the fault lies with the leader.

“In the second, progress on problems is the measure of leadership; leaders mobilise people to face problems, and communities make progress on problems because leaders challenge and help them do so. If something goes wrong, the fault lies with both leaders and the community.”

Which definition of leadership should we apply in Thailand the first or the second?

Let’s move on to the second aspect: defining a problem or crisis.

In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, authors Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky differentiate technical problems from adaptive problems:

“Technical problems may be very complex and critically important, they have known solutions that can be implemented using current knowhow. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organisation’s structures, procedures, and ways of doing things.

“Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilise discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive a new.

“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.”

How should we define the 2011 flood crisis: adaptive problem or technical problem?

In considering the third aspect, we turn to the book Judgment, by Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis. They write:

“1. Judgement is the core, the nucleus, of leadership. With good judgement, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters. Take any leader, a US president, a Fortune 500 CEO, a big-league coach, wartime general, you name it. Chances are you remember them from their best judgement call.

“2. In decision making, the only thing that counts is winning or losing: the results. Nothing else. Enthusiasm, good intentions, and hard work may help, but without good results, they don’t count.”

The authors identify three critical domains in which most of the most important calls are found: judgements about people, about strategy, and about a crisis.

How did Thai leaders exercise judgements in these three critical domains during the flood crisis: Good or Bad?

Another complication affecting leadership judgement is the integrity of information, on which leadership judgements rely heavily. In Thailand, there is a lot of data but very little meaningful information. On several occasions the official data have been shown to be out of date, inaccurate and incomplete.

The final aspect concerns the alignment of key institutions with overall goals.

In Revolutionary Wealth futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler explain the clash of speed. They coined the phrase “de-synchronisation effect” do describe the differing rates at which key US institutions change. The authors use a series of figurative cars on a freeway to make their point. Some move much faster than others.

Businesses/companies: 100 mph

NGOs/civil society: 90 mph

American family: 60 mph

Government bureaucracies/regulatory agencies: 25 mph

US school system: 10 mph

US political institutions: 3 mph

The law: 1 mph.

How do these figures compare to Thailand? How do the institutions in Thailand align?

In conclusion, here are some critical questions we should ask about what Thailand may need in a future crisis.

  • Do we need a hero or a learner to lead us?
  • What kind of crisis are we facing: technical or adaptive? If it’s the latter, how will followers behave: wait for the order or learn to solve problems with the leader?
  • How will leaders exercise judgement in people, strategy and the crisis?
  • How do we work around the “de-synchronisation effect”?