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Solving Asia’s Tough Problems

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Solving Asia’s Tough Problems

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by John Lim

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I recently convened a program that gathered delegates from China, Japan, and Korea named the “Trilateral Leadership Summit.” Held in Sendai, Japan on August 13-17, 2015, the program, organized by the Asia Leadership Institute, aimed to help delegates learn the complexities of the trilateral relationship and develop collaborative solutions to promote cooperation among the three nations.

One of the critical factors for success was that the program needed to acculturate participants away from a learning orientation that consisted of mere content mastery and information transfer. Instead, it needed to be a platform that could help delegates think independently and collaboratively to create solutions.

Using the Harvard Kennedy School framework of ‘Adaptive Leadership’ and the ‘Design Thinking’ problem-solving approach popularized by institutions like the Stanford Design School and such firms as IDEO – the program was a testing ground of the relevance of emerging models of leadership and innovation training in an Asian context.

 

Harvard Kennedy School’s ‘Adaptive Leadership’

Developed in the 1980’s by Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School, a key tenet of the Adaptive Leadership framework is that leadership is not the same as management or authority.  In some cases, making progress could actually be easier with a lower level of authority. Individuals with high levels of authority are often constrained by the demands of their own constituents. In the case of relations between China, Japan, and Korea, solutions to improving relations remain hard-pressed to come by from its political leaders. In Japan, conservative factions constrain Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from making progress on this problem. Although these factions share most of the blame in causing the problem, factions in China and Korea also impede cooperation. To make progress, those in positions of high authority would have to disappoint the expectations of those who actually authorized them in the first place. Exercising leadership would require them to go beyond their scope of authority. Solutions will necessarily have to also come from business, civil society, and in our program, students themselves.

When I led a discussion with a group of Chinese students analyzing the distinction between leadership and authority, I realized that the measures in which they evaluated “good leadership” in their country, was less on charisma or high-ranking authority and more on the ability of the leader to be forthright about a problem and in helping stakeholders play a part in advancing the solution. Indeed, China is at an inflection point in which its population needs to play a more active part in tackling its major challenges such as government corruption, environmental degradation, and social decay through hyper-consumerism.

 

Stanford’s Design Thinking Framework

The Design Thinking workshop posed this problem to student delegates: “Today, ties between China, Japan, and Korea continue to strengthen. However, there are a number of issues that impede progress of cooperation. How might we strengthen ties between China, Japan, and Korea to facilitate strong economic, political, and cultural integration for further cooperative growth throughout Asia?”

Student delegates from each of the three countries engaged in interview sessions, with the aim of deeply understanding the other countries’ perspectives on what obstructs cooperation. From that common database, they developed creative prototypes: a think tank funded by private donors and forward-thinking companies (from all three countries) that provides news and analysis that supports the obvious economic, business, and societal case for promoting cooperation; a Friendship Day celebrated by trilateral youth associations that are engaged in politics, diplomacy, and international exchange – which would partake in cultural activities as well as honor comfort women and victims of the war from each side; a standardized textbook written in three languages without government interference, that would clearly present the differences between the three perspectives but would aim to develop a nuanced view of why they are different; lastly, a museum that would be jointly developed by forward-thinking academics that would enable visitors to experience the lives of regular individuals from each of the three countries during the War.

 

A New Level of Thinking

Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” For the world’s most intractable problems, there are no quick fixes because the solutions simply do not yet exist. In the larger scheme of things, each of these nations will not prosper to its full potential without a warm peace that enables them to collaborate on the challenges that face their country, their region, and the world. But our program shows that through enabling diverse people to come together to exchange ideas, widen their perspectives, and take leadership initiatives – new thinking and creative solutions are possible.

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