Leadership Lessons from Abroad

Leadership Lessons from Abroad

As I boarded the first of three flights from Atlanta to Bangkok my only thought was how I was going to best serve my client.  Traveling internationally had become routine.  Little did I know that the teacher would become the student and I would be served up lessons I could never have seen coming.

Twenty four hours of flying later, blurry-eyed from lack of sleep I checked into my Bangkok hotel, hailed a cab and high-tailed it down to the Grand Palace for my only opportunity of site seeing on this trip. I had seen other Palaces, like Versailles, provide a testament of power and wealth. But this place, with its temple, gold roofs, and statues of Buddha was more a reminder that inner peace and outer peace are mirrors to one another.  The place made you want to sit, observe and take a deep breath.  Lesson one: A leader cannot bring peace and harmony to his or her team until they cultivate that within. I pondered that during my cab ride how many companies would be better run, how many customers and communities better served if leaders mastered themselves before leading others.

A week later I had missed my flight to Hong Kong. Stuck in the airport, I called my travel agent back in the States.  Julia had found me another flight that was to leave in seven hours. She stayed up well past 1:00 am her time in order to be assured I made it safely on my new flight. Upon my return, I sent her a Bonzai tree with the note: “You made a bad experience exceptional.”  Lesson two: Leaders who take great pleasure in serving others leave a lasting impression.  We want to follow those who help others.  Setting a direction, making the tough calls, coordinating the work of others is an important part of leadership. But an authentic leader is all about service.

A few days later, in Hong Kong, I walked down to the Admiralty protest site at the exact moment they were televising on huge screens results of the first talks between the protest leaders and the government. Several thousand people quietly sat watching the news reports.  Tents in perfect rows lined the streets.  Artwork and food and water stations turned a four-lane road into a neighborhood of sorts.  Hong Kong was the spark of China’s economic boom when the British gave it back to China. Now economic self-determination was giving birth to a desire for political self-determination.  Lesson three:  A core need for all of us is autonomy.  We’re willing to follow others, engage in debate, and even sacrifice for the good of others. But we must have a say in how and what we do.  Great leaders never forget to engage those in decisions that affect how and what they do.

On the flight home I reflected:  Learning how to lead others starts by leading oneself, service is the ultimate goal behind leading and people are more apt to follow you if you give them autonomy over how they do their work.