Insights and Analysis

10 Perspectives on What Leaders from Developing Nations Can Teach the West About Leadership

June 14, 2017

By Jeffrey D. Yergler

In April, I was fortunate to spend nine days in Seoul with a group of 12 Development Fellows representing 12 Asian nations including Mongolia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. Sponsored by The Asia Foundation, the Development Fellows program gathered together an incredibly talented, visionary, and insightful cohort of national social reformers and social entrepreneurs who are each committed to the development of democratic values within their countries.

2017 Asia Foundation Development Fellows participated in a Leadership Training Program held in Korea with the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management.

I was reminded at multiple points throughout this training of the critical value of leadership – how it is understood and practiced—across cultures. When one steps out of one’s own local (in my case, Western) context and steps into a cross-cultural and multinational (in my case, Asian) context, there are powerful experiences of insight and perspective-taking and building that are unique to that setting. While I have worked with leaders within and beyond higher education for many years, the leadership perspectives shared by this group of Development Fellows was powerful and formative for a variety of reasons.

Leadership Perspective 1: Humility

As talented as this group is, there was a clear sense that their primary concerns were not about themselves or their development agendas but rather about others, those they worked with and those with whom they served. There was a unique and refreshing humility with each Fellow that was a powerful reminder of the core of leadership: empowering and serving others. The Servant Leadership approach would best describe the perspective and approach of these women and men. While each Development Fellow had an impressive string of accomplishments and recognitions, you would never know it because their attention, fascination, and focus were about others.

Leadership Perspective 2: Get Your Hands Dirty

These leaders advance their mission by working in the trenches within their communities. They are involved, connected, participating, collaborating, and deeply integrated in the work of their organization. There is no hierarchy and there are no barriers that remove these leaders from the gritty, tough, risky, and sometimes dangerous issues they deal with on a daily basis. Within their organizations these leaders will delegate and empower others, and they consistently roll up their sleeves and work alongside others to execute the mission.

2017 Asia Foundation Development Fellows at the Korea Development Institute.

Leadership Perspective 3: Courage and Risk-Taking

In many respects, these Development Fellows must address the challenges and, yes, the dangerous aspects of their work on a daily basis. There is no concern for self-preservation and there is a full awareness of the challenges and issues they must daily address resulting either from those groups who oppose their work or, even more seriously, individuals or groups who would like to see their work fail and destroyed. The often precarious situations many of these leaders place themselves in are incredibly inspiring.

Leadership Perspective 4: Taking the Long View

Commitment and patience is a hallmark of these development leaders. The work they do is not a pathway to a much larger and more grandiose position. These leaders take the long view, person-by-person, brick-by-brick, initiative-by-initiative, and project-by-project. The goals reached and the gains accomplished with each activity fuel their commitment to do more of the same. Their work is not a stepping stone to something more important, it is the something more important.

Leadership Perspective 5: Professional Development and Talent Management

Leaders from developing countries are hungry for professional development as it relates to leadership and talent development. Depending on the organizations they lead and the number of teams they oversee, these leaders have not often had the benefit of focused learning around leading and leadership and talent management. While some have been exposed to quality examples of leaders and managers through their ongoing education, many are looking for sustainable processes and tools that will help support their own leadership learning and the cultivation and development of those who serve in their organizations.

Leadership Perspective 6: Collaboration and Partnerships

I have learned over the years that collaboration and partnerships can be essential to personal and professional development and growth. For leaders in developing countries, collaboration and partnership are essential, not optional, to their impact in their communities. Openness to learning and exploring with others regarding what it means to lead, manage, learn from failures, address obstructions, or make vital connections are essential lifelines to one’s own success and positive impact. This collaboration and the resulting partnerships are necessarily global, meaning that leadership and organizational learning always take place within a local and global context, and never one to the exclusion of the other.

Leadership Perspective 7: Kindness and Generosity

Development leaders understand the importance of kindness, consideration, and generosity. From my perspective, these behaviors are often a result of gratitude. These are behaviors that are not commonly on display with leaders in the West. What I often see instead are leaders who are presumptuous, distant, intolerant, self-absorbed, and miserly with their time and the sharing of their expertise. The gratitude I see with the development leaders seems to be based on the fact that nothing is taken for granted and that opportunities to grow, develop, interact, and learn are valuable moments never to be squandered or ignored but rather valued and prized.

Leadership Perspective 8: It’s About the Story

While information is valued, it is always information embedded within a story that carries the most power and impact. The way I was taught and how I learned to display competence and professionalism was through providing information and data and by demonstrating knowledge and expertise. While important, seldom was all this embedded and told through story. While possessing a portfolio of broad experience and higher education, the competence, knowledge, and experience of development leaders is demonstrated best in the way they weave their knowledge and experience through narratives that provide multiple perspectives and insights.

Leadership Perspective 9: Fidelity and Loyalty to those Served by the Mission

With development leaders, there is a fierce commitment and resolve to the mission, and especially those who are impacted through the mission. There is never a disconnect between the work of the leader and those who are the beneficiaries of the mission. Their time, resources, energy, and resolve are consistently directed toward their work. The prominence and visibility of this linkage is consistent. The determined commitment and unsullied loyalty of the development leaders toward their purpose as expressed through their organizations are compelling and powerful.

Leadership Perspective 10: Resilience and Hope

Because leading in a developing nation is often difficult and fraught with challenges, points of resistance, and setbacks, development leaders must be resilient human beings. In some cases, these leaders place themselves in potentially dangerous and life-threatening situations in order to advocate and advance concerns for justice, equality, access, freedom, fairness, or transparency. Yet, it’s not resilience alone that emerges; there is also an indomitable sense of hope that, despite the time and demands required, despite the resistance, risks, and potential danger, their purpose and the mission must move forward.

Jeffrey D. Yergler is assistant professor of management and Chair of the Undergraduate Management Department at Golden Gate University. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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