If you were asked to name one of the greatest leaders in Asian history, who would you name? Some readers might name Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father and first prime minister of Singapore. His achievement of having developed a tiny fisher’s village at the end of the Malay Peninsula into one of the most advanced countries in Asia, is well-known and his strong leadership style is respected by many Asian people.
His leadership was supported by his strong vision, one of which was “Multiracialism”. As Singapore has many different ethnic groups, such as Chinese, Malay, and Indian, he was deeply devoted to harmonizing them in order to govern the nation smoothly. Another vision was “Meritocracy”. Since Singapore has little natural resources, his top priority was to develop people’s abilities and to utilize human resources for the competitiveness of the nation. Mr. Lee Kuan Yew repeatedly and committedly spoke about these visions, and made them into reality in the long run.
The beginning of any leadership and indeed, the most important skill, is visioning; to set a clear and attractive vision. A vision is the story of the future that is spoken by a leader, so as to lead his or her people to the same destination. This ability of visioning is becoming more important, especially in diversified organizations. Let me give one example. According to G. Hofstede, his global cultural research has shown that Japanese people pursue long-term success, which Thai people prefer rather than short-term success. A leader’s job is to combine those different needs and motivation of diverse people, to set the common goal and direction, and to communicate it in an attractive way, which I call visioning.
This visioning skill is not only required from top executives of a company or politicians, but also from everyone in the organization. If an employee says, “let’s try to be more punctual in our team”, it’s also one form of visioning. There is a term called “shared leadership” which means that many people in an organization show individual leadership and influence each other. Since Asian organizations tend to prefer a family atmosphere, a shared leadership style would fit the culture more than a strong top-down leadership style. In other words, everyone is expected to be a leader in an Asian organization.
So, how can we as leaders, become more effective at visioning? Here are two recommended techniques. One is to use storytelling skills. Storytelling is a narrative approach. You might have experienced in your childhood, your father or mother telling a fairy tale at your bedside, or you might be the one who is reading those stories to your children. Like many tales which start with “Once upon a time…” an effective story is spoken with a time sequence, in a describing way, of a certain situation and with vivid images. If a story is told effectively, a listener can envision the scenes in his or her mind, as human beings has an ability to transform vocal information into visual information.
Even in the case when we are using different languages, visual information becomes universal, just like a hit movie is liked by people all over the world. The HBR article, Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling by Mr. Paul J. Zak (Harvard Business Review, October 28th 2014) scientifically explains the power of good storytelling. For example, if you listen to a character-driven story, a neurochemical called oxytocin is produced in your brain. Oxytocin enhances our sense of empathy, an ability to experience others’ emotions, which results in creating a more cooperative attitude in us.
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew once shared his vision by saying that he could see many high story buildings in Singapore, in an era when there were no tall buildings yet in the country. This is an approach that enables listeners to visualize. One factory manager who I once worked with in Thailand, spoke to factory workers in his team, “Please envision that in one month, our factory will be clean and beautiful after having made a big cleaning-up effort with all of your fellow factory workers.” This way of communication enabled the employees to visualize on what they would embark and its desired results.
Another techniques is using the term, “we”. As I introduced the concept of “we are Asian” in my previous article, if we are able to define different groups as one, it creates the power to unite people. The key is to tap into each person’s common interest. For instance, our company often provides cross-cultural collaboration workshop for leaders in multicultural organizations in South East Asia. For those projects, we recommend a means of overcoming cultural gaps by setting a common goal. For example, if they are a food manufacturer, they can be “we” under the common goal of making the end user and their families happier. As another example, last month I provided a workshop for a certain motorcycle manufacturer with staff of various nationalities. Although their ways of thinking and working styles were quite different, they could be united under a common dream; to fascinate and excite bike riders with its creative products. This sounds quite natural, but we tend to forget those big goals, and start to argue over minor differences. A leaders’ job is to share the big picture and to tell a story about the common goals.
Visioning is not an easy and instant skill, but it is crucial for being an effective leader. My personal recommendation to all readers, is to practice visioning step by step, in a small team around you. Writing a story about your vision is another recommended way since you can crystalize your vision. You can be more confident if you get used to writing a story of your own vision, which is the same as what I am trying to do through writing this blog!