What's the bigger picture?

June was a juxtaposition of learning experiences in the six countries traveled - Philippines, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, and Mongolia.

We visited with a variety of businesses, each mostly with leadership ties to one family. We heard from each leader’s perspective how their business was contributing to the greater good and spurring the economy in multiple ways. Yet it seems the potential each of the companies holds for making significant social impact in their community/country in which they live is pretty small compared with stated profits. Furthermore, each company talks about growing (and earning) more and more. These aspirations are respectable and continues a momentum of excitement and strategic visioning. Yet, when is it ok to be satisfied with enough? What is the ethical (or moral) balance between earning profits and helping within a community / country? 

We also met with a variety of political leaders in each of these countries. We heard about the successes of the systems, and the great challenges that each faced. Individuals were working hard to achieve success for the betterment of its citizens, yet this vision was often balanced with the underlying reality of corruption - among people, and throughout the political systems. What is the ethical responsibility of elected officials to work for the greater good without and expectation of personal gain? And furthermore, who will ensure that this standard is upheld and respected, without fear of retribution?

We also met with numerous non-profits and NGO’s. The physical office environments of these organizations gave a glimpse into the stark contrast of how they seem to be valued when compared with the greater economic engines of for-profit companies. Yet the on-the-ground work each were doing pulled at our hearts. These individuals had dedicated themselves to advancing human rights, regardless of whether it helped hundreds of people or only one at a time. Most inspiring of all was the idea that systemic change was possible and achievable, namely through educating individuals and fundamentally changing mindsets. The work wasn’t putting a bandaid over the problem. Rather, the work appeared to be changing habits of those less privileged, giving each an opportunity to learn, change mindsets, and understand that the future is a choice to be made. How can the greater population take an interest to advocate for basic human rights, or help these organizations to make a greater impact in the world?

For the teaching fellowship, our first stop (Vietnam) was cancelled. [The organizer had a stroke, though we’ve been told she’s recovering.] Instead, we had a two-day workshop put together at one of the top all-boys high schools outside of Seoul, South Korea.  This was the hardest teaching I’ve embarked on …. ever. I am beginning to understand some of the history in this country, in that South Korea believed they had no physical resources to sell. Instead, to be competitive, the country invested in their human capital, specifically through rigorous educational standards. Yet at what cost? The boys in this school study all day long, sleeping less than 5 hours a night. They visit home roughly 10 days a year, and are studying intensively the other 355 days. The boys were falling asleep throughout every single session of our time in the school, and some of the teachers tried to encourage their alertness by handing out candies. During our panel discussion in the auditorium, where the boys were seated on straight-backed wooden benches, one boy fell sideways directly into the aisle - he had fallen asleep and couldn’t keep himself upright anymore! The boys were highly intelligent, yet were reluctant to ask many questions (they are used to memorizing the correct answers, not always thinking creatively). Those that did ask questions mostly asked for us to share different models for educational systems and learning. Additionally, those who spoke expressed their dissatisfaction and weariness from this type of continuous mental rigor. 

As I consider these experiences and prepare for the next two months as a “fellow of leadership communications”, I question what leadership means. Everyone who we’ve encountered has an idea of leadership - a definition either than they are enacting, that they want to achieve, or that they want to learn. Everyone has a different vision of success, and of what solving the world’s challenges means to them. But to what end will this truly matter or be effective, especially when when I would consider fundamentals (like moral and ethical responsibilities of actions) are at odds? Yes, this world - and the people within it - are a delicate ecosystem. We each need to have our own passions, our own desires, and the work that motivates us forward. Yet consider even the US - being away from the States, it's fascinating the headlines that are shared. Personal verbal sparring between Presidential political candidates and states that refuse to accept the Supreme Court's ruling to legalize gay marriage, among others. How, why, and when to personal beliefs transition into "facts" that are upheld as non-negotiable? Despite our individual differences, passions, and motivations, how can we develop better listening skills, empathy, and understanding for overcoming these differences and working together? Is this not at the core of “leadership” development?