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Seek First to Understand

We always hear about the “two sides of the story.” In the name of fairness and justice, we all want to make sound assessments and value judgments. But more often than not, a sort of cognitive dissonance prevents us from fully seeing and appreciating often conflicting perspectives. Being able to listen and engage with various stakeholders, who sometimes seem at odds with each other, is becoming an increasingly indispensable leadership skill.  

In the book Leaders in Development: Enhancing Your Leadership Effectiveness in a Changing World, published by Acumen Publishing, Dr. Hendry Ng shares his own reflections on why a leader’s “civility” is more than a nicety geared towards political survival. It is the remarkable ability to suspend one’s judgment and consider that every person, group, or party deserves to be heard. Notably, he cited how Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is facing the plight of the Rohingyas of Myanmar. Some media reports have painted Myanmar’s State Counsellor as uncharacteristically silent on the issue, drawing flak from critics. According to Dr. Ng, such play-it-safe calculation could be seen as “somewhat Machiavellian.” In an interview with an Indian news channel in November 2012, she explained her silence. She said had not spoken in defense of Rohingya Muslims because “she wanted to promote reconciliation between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.” Moral quandaries come with the territory of leadership. Dealing with complex conflicts and gray areas is a challenge leaders can expect to encounter on a daily basis. And having the sensitivity and savviness to engage with and listen to different groups and players is prized political strategy that can win one unlikely allies. 

Citing discussions from a five-day program on “Personal Leadership: Ethics, Power, and Decision Making,” organized by the Center for Asia Leadership, Dr. Ng shows the contrast between Machiavelli’s and Descartes’ modes of political maneuvering. Dr. Ng is Director for the Victoria University Postgraduate Programmes at Sunway College, Malaysia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia; a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree from Maastricht School of Management, Netherlands; and a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) degree from Charles Sturt University, Australia. Starting his career in software engineering in 1983, Dr. Ng joined the academe in 1991. The following is an excerpt of Dr. Ng’s essay.

What I Learned

During the five-day program, Professor Mathias Risse and Professor Kenneth Winston of the Harvard Kennedy School were the key facilitators of ten plenary sessions. Case studies on “Personal Leadership: Ethics, Power, and Decision Making” were used throughout the sessions. These cases offer narratives of how their protagonists’ personal moral values collide with their professional codes of ethics, causing conflicts between them and the normative environments of their communities.

Both professors reminded us that we do not live in a vacuum but in milieus that dictate us what to value, and what actions and decisions are appropriate. They adeptly guided our discussions on why people behave the way they do, and eventually I became thoroughly annoyed by people’s subservience to societal norms.

Often, outsiders are the ones to challenge the status quo. In the case of “The Woman in the Corridor,” the outsider is Anne, the UN-hired Chief Technical Officer at a training institute for Cambodian journalists. But a local person may also become an activist, as seen in the case of “Hero or Traitor: Edward Snowden and NSA Spying Program.” In the case of “The Prison Master’s Dilemma,” the protagonist is captivated by egalitarian practices while studying abroad in western Europe and consequently attempts to introduce changes to his workplace, the prison. Some people prefer to overcome challenging issues in a subtle manner, as in the case of “The Tax Collector,” while others prefer to work within the system, as in the case of “Aung San Suu Kyi, Seizing the Moment: Soaring Hopes and Tough Constraints in Myanmar’s Unfolding Democracy.” In the case of “Relying on Hard and Soft Sells, India pushes Sterilization,” different people promote different methods for solving a national issue of overpopulation. While some confront problems head-on, others prefer to leave their environment to evade further conflicts, as in the cases of “The Tax Collector” and “A Gift of Life”—though, as Professor Winston pointed out, the decision of Dr. Henry to quit his job assignment in “A Gift of Life” was not an act of civility.

Sensing that some participants would arrive at a quandary, Professor Risse introduced another entity—“others,” those people distinct from ourselves and the people around us. These “others” often provide the alternative yet noteworthy views, which are helpful in unraveling ethical issues. In the workshop, he included René Descartes and Niccolo Machiavelli.

Descartes defines knowledge in terms of doubt, because he understands doubt as the contrast of certainty. Doubt and certainly are inversely related—when certainty increases, doubt decreases, and vice versa. Knowledge, in Descartes’ definition, is based in complete certainty, without any traces of doubt. He states further that true civility is the hard work of staying present even among those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. Politically, it means negotiating interpersonal power so that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody’s is ignored. Descartes refers to this as an indubitability, or inability to undermine one’s knowledge is a conviction based on a reason so strong that it can never be shaken by any stronger reason.

Machiavellianism today is often used as an unflattering term to characterize unscrupulous people. Machiavelli believed that public and private morality should be understood as two different things in order for a ruler to rule effectively. In The Prince, he suggests that the social benefits of stability and security can be achieved in the face of moral corruption. For that reason, a ruler must not be overly concerned with reputation and must be willing to act immorally when it will serve his ends to do so.

Both Descartes and Machiavelli offer ways of tackling the exigencies of making ethical decisions. Machiavelli condones the strategic exercise of brute force and deceit, including “categorically killing,” a competition to head off any chance of a challenge. More abstractly, Descartes exhorts us, when in doubt, to seek certainty through knowledge. So, I pondered upon Aung San Suu Kyi’s deafening silence on the plight of the Rohingyas in Burma that could be seen as somewhat Machiavellian. However, the Cartesian (of Descartes) view has urged me to seek an explanation for her inaction. In her interview by an Indian news channel in Nov 2012, she explained that she had not spoken on behalf of Rohingya Muslims because she wanted to promote reconciliation between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. Despite NLP’s victory in the national elections in 2015, the military still retains 25 percent of the seats in parliament and controls several key ministries under a constitution that bars Suu Kyi from becoming president. I think she knows civility is necessary for conviction. Her present concerns are apparently straightforward—reconciling the Burmese and the restive minorities, and providing reassurances to the prowling military.

By Dr. Hendry Ng